It must be tough discovering that an issue you have invested money, column inches or even a career in is no more than a delusion. In the face of such a realisation, some accept their mistakes, while others react with denial. Some choose to keep shtum in order to avoid embarrassment, while others pretend to have known all along that it was a non-issue.
All these reactions have manifested themselves in the week since the UK Guardian revealed that a major inquiry into sex trafficking has failed to find a single person in the UK who has forced anybody into prostitution against their will, ‘in spite of hundreds of raids on sex workers in a six-month campaign by government departments, specialist agencies and every police force in the country’ (1).
The Guardian got hold of an internal police analysis of the six-month campaign, Operation Pentameter Two. It showed that after extensive intelligence-gathering and raids on 822 brothels, flats and massage parlours across Britain, only 96 people were arrested for trafficking, and out of these only 15 men and women were convicted. For 10 of them, police found no evidence of their having coerced prostitutes. In the end, only five men were found to be genuine traffickers – that is, they had imported women and forced them into prostitution – but they had been detected before the Pentameter investigation started (2).
In other words, Pentameter, an operation heralded as ‘the largest ever police crackdown on human trafficking’, was a waste of time. How did the discussion about trafficking become so dislocated from facts and evidence? This is the story of a modern-day scare, in which liberal broadsheets, feminist campaigners and New Labour politicians pretty much invented a ‘trafficking epidemic’ in order to justify their roles in the world and to clamp down on immigration in a new, PC way.
Seeing victims everywhere
Two weeks before the Guardian’s revelations, the Metropolitan Police had announced that it was considering disbanding its specialist human trafficking team, though it claimed that this was due to a lack of funding rather than a gaping hole in trafficking statistics. The proposed disbandment was criticised by several major charities, including Amnesty International, the NSPCC and the Poppy Project, which is funded by the Office for Criminal Justice Reform to support women who have been trafficked into prostitution (3).
Mary Honeyball MEP launched a petition to stop the Met from closing its trafficking unit, a decision she defended even after last week’s revelations of the shambolic Pentameter operation (4). ‘To demote the issue of human trafficking, when it is recognised by Interpol as the third largest crime after drugs and arms trafficking, shows not only contempt for the victims of this horrific crime but also for the members of this police unit who are internationally regarded as an example of good practice’, she said (5). For abolitionists intent on criminalising the sex industry and saving women from falling into disrepute, there need not be any perpetrators in order for there to be victims.
In a letter to the Guardian, Fiona Mactaggart, the Labour MP who earlier this year claimed that 80 per cent of prostitutes are victims of sex trafficking (6), said: ‘I have always been of the view that anyone coerced into selling their body experiences unacceptable abuse of their human rights’ (7).
Just like her fellow state feminists Jacqui Smith (who as home secretary sought to penalise men who visit prostitutes) and minister for women and equality Harriet Harman (who has described sex trafficking as a ‘modern-day slave trade’), Mactaggart sees any woman working in the sex industry as, by definition, exploited and abused (8). For these caring feminists, any woman who claims to have chosen to enter the sex industry, or who regards sex work as preferable to other work, is simply deluded or in the pay of some pimp. So Rahila Gupta of Southall Black Sisters argued that the Guardian’s assessment of the police’s Pentameter analysis was flawed because it ‘suggests that prostitution is generally a voluntary activity’ (9).
This is the starting point to the trafficking scare: the idea that women who work in the sex industry cannot think for themselves; that they are victims even if they do not consider themselves as such.
Self-styled ‘abolitionists’ and anti-trafficking activists tend to claim that only a small minority of privileged, Western sex workers are against the criminalisation of sex work. Yet, as I have reported previously on spiked, around the world thousands of sex workers – rich and poor, young and old, from the developed and developing world – have organised to campaign for their working rights (10). I have met sex workers and sex workers’ rights activists from the UK, Europe, the US, Latin America and South East Asia who, while acknowledging that there is nothing romantic about sex work and that exploitation and abuse does occur, also vehemently assert their agency and refuse to be tagged as victims by definition.
For abolitionists, however, it is inconceivable that some women choose to sell sex because they enjoy it or because they prefer it to the less lucrative job alternatives available to them. It is strange that self-proclaimed feminists should regard millions of women around the world as morally compromised, as hapless victims without agency.
The ‘lack of credible data’
As for the debate on trafficking, Gupta acknowledges that it is ‘bedevilled by the lack of credible data’ just like ‘other subterranean issues’, such as domestic violence or rape, where ‘numbers are unknowable’. Yet for all that, Gupta is certain that trafficking is a widespread problem – it’s just that it’s difficult to prove it (11).
Similarly, the New Labour MP Dennis MacShane, who has campaigned against the ‘sex slave trade’, agrees that a lack of proof around forced prostitution does not invalidate campaigns against it. Criticised in the Guardian and in a BBC Newsnight report last week for once claiming in a Commons debate that 25,000 women had been trafficked into Britain – a ‘fact’ he had grabbed from a Daily Mirror headline – MacShane now acknowledges that ‘I honestly don’t know how many girls are trafficked into Britain’. But curiously, having relied on a shocking figure to lend credibility to his campaign, MacShane also dismissed the new revelations around trafficking as ‘a futile war of statistics’ (12).
It is disingenuous for anti-trafficking activists and sex-industry abolitionists to dismiss the lack of real evidence around trafficking as irrelevant when they themselves have relied so heavily on figures to lend weight to their moralistic and emotive campaigns. The second component of the trafficking panic has been imaginary statistics; the great ‘slavery scare’ is underpinned by claims that human trafficking is a multi-billion dollar industry affecting millions of men, women and children around the world (13).
Although trafficking refers to the illegal transportation of people for the purposes of exploitation in a wide range of industries, it is primarily when migrants enter the sex industry that they tend to become objects of concern for anti-trafficking campaigners. As Dr Nick Mai, a senior research fellow in Migrations and Immigrations at London Metropolitan University, pointed out at an event this summer marking the publication of his research into migrant sex workers in the UK, some migrants choose to work in the sex industry in order to avoid exploitation in other industries, where there is frequently low pay and long working hours.
Despite the fact that migrants can earn significantly more in the sex industry than they would as domestic workers or seasonal agricultural workers, migrant sex workers are regarded as the most exploited and abused just because they are selling sex or erotic services. Ultimately, ‘trafficking’ has become a powerful and emotive tool for prostitution abolitionists to win wider public support for their efforts to clamp down on the sex industry as a whole.
Now, in the face of stark evidence that police, policymakers and various non-governmental organisations have failed to lock up a single person in the UK for enforced prostitution, abolitionists simply point out, in Rumsfeldian fashion, that there are a great deal of ‘hidden victims’ in whose name rescue operations must continue.
A broadsheet panic about immigrants
Much of the debate around the sex industry is infused with a sense of panic; women working in the sex industry are regarded as a threat to the moral fabric. Last week, in revealing the failure of Pentameter to find a single sex trafficker in the UK, the Guardian’s Nick Davies outlined ‘the anatomy of a moral panic’ around prostitution and trafficking. He criticised the ‘tide of misinformation’ around the subject of sex trafficking in the UK and said alarmist stories in the media have been treated as reliable sources by politicians, informing misguided policymaking (14).
Looking at headlines of stories about trafficking and migrant sex workers from the past five years, it seems Davies has a point. Here are some examples:
‘Migrant women forced into cheap sex trade’; ‘We must help end the sex slave trade’; ‘Sex slaves to be offered “safe houses”’; ‘Lap-dancing clubs are not cafés. They are the sex industry on the high street’; ‘Trafficked, prostituted, raped: the kite who flew away’; ‘Fifth of Britons unknowingly aid child trafficking, according to survey’; ‘Nightmare world of suburban sex slaves’; ‘Raped, beaten and helpless: UK’s sex slaves’; ‘The teenagers traded for slave labour and sex’.
Where did all these headlines appear? They are all from Nick Davies’s own newspaper, the Guardian, except for one that appeared in the Guardian’s sister publication, the Observer. The Guardian has described human trafficking as a ‘trade in misery and abuse’ and according to the article about teenage slaves, published in 2003, Britain has become ‘an easy target for child trafficking gangs’ where hundreds of children are forced into domestic servitude or sexual exploitation, ‘trapped in rooms with no papers, no identity, where they are nothing but a commodity traded for slave labour or tawdry sex, and living under the fear of voodoo’. Voodoo? Even tabloid attacks on migrants haven’t gone so far as to claim that black magic is used in immigrant circles to enslave women. This is the third key aspect of the trafficking scare – it was lent authority, given its impact, by unquestioning journalism in authoritative broadsheet newspapers.
Unsubstantiated figures, borderline racist claims and unquestioning ‘churnalism’, a phrase coined by Davies himself, is not the preserve of the Guardian, of course. Other broadsheets have helped stir up a moral panic around trafficking and sex work by reporting fantastical tales or extrapolating from individual testimonies of horrific abuse the occurrence of systematic enslavement, rape and abuse of women and children at the hands of foreign thugs. Independent columnist Johann Hari, for instance, has claimed that the developed world is beset by an ‘epidemic of human trafficking (in effect, sex slavery)’. Hari says that ‘usually, they [sex workers] are tricked into coming here with promises of jobs as nannies or secretaries, and then trapped into lives of unspeakable degradation’ (15).