Sex Work and Human Trafficking

I’ve touched on the issue of human trafficking and it’s association with prostitution briefly in my first few posts, but I think that before I finish my five posts with an analysis of Worcester sexual exploitation, it’s important to give some more international context. The implications of human trafficking debates and preventative policy is heavily intertwined with border security policy and has major impacts on the treatment of migrants to western states. The issue of human trafficking is an interesting one; I don’t know of any positions that are for trafficking, but there are definitely conflicting ideologies and approaches to tackling the problem. I’m going to structure this post by laying out the bases of the two main schools of thought; prostitution abolitionists and pro-regulation/legalization of sex work, and present how I see the pros and cons of each. I’m planning to analyze abolitionist arguments more heavily because they are the dominant international perception of the sex industry. I can honestly say that I have no complete allegiance to either side, and that I agree and disagree with stances from both. It’s also important to note that I don’t think that there is one working model for all cases. I think that differing political, economic and social contexts can dictate weather abolishing prostitution or regulating it would be appropriate.

 

Prostitution Abolition

An abolitionist stance on prostitution believes that prostitution is a violation of human rights by definition, and is a patriarchal tool of oppression. International discourse has historically been shaped by this stance, and a UN Report sources commercial sexual exploitation as a root source of gender inequality and preventing the “full advancement of women” (Commission on the Status of Women). While I don’t think that this quite fits for a conclusive international mandate, I definitely recognize the gendered dynamic that the sex industry often serves. I also believe that within the current gendered world we live in, simply legalizing prostitution will not ensure the safety or autonomy of people who sell sex and has resulted in increases of human trafficking in the past. Legalizing prostitution has led to 200-400% increases in street prostitution, twice as many johns on the street, increases in organized crime and no reduction in violence against prostituted people (WAASE Public Forum). Countries that have legalized prostitution have also often experienced spikes in human trafficking across their borders. For example, the Netherlands have been attempting to combat this issue by trying to introduce policy that would require sex workers to register in order to work legally (Netherland Info Service, 2013). I can’t say that I completely agree with that approach, and I could see issues arising from abuses of listing sex workers and increased stigma as a result. I think that a more effective model might be to create self-regulating boards of sex workers who have social connections and access to networks that law enforcement and other agencies do not. People actively engaged in sex work have the local knowledge and social capital to know when a new sex worker has been trafficked, and are more effective at resolving the issue without involving law enforcement (Bandyopadhyay). The ‘raid and rescue’ model that is often followed by law enforcement when attempting to ‘rescue’ people who have been trafficked and sexually exploited has often resulted in worse conditions for the victims of trafficking.

One of my main concerns with the abolitionist perspective is the treatment of migrant populations as a result of being ‘rescued’. Many people consciously left their home country and allowed themselves to be trafficked and were then sexually exploited against their will. The deportation of these people does not guarantee their safety from sexual exploitation, since there are not often trauma services provided to them after their ‘rescue’, and it puts them back in the same place that they left in the first place (Bandyopadhyay). This model also creates a lot of international stigma and racial/moral panics by leaning on the ‘white slavery’ narrative. Southern countries are then typically targeted as “source countries” for trafficking (Kempadoo). The role that demand for trafficking is easily ignored in favor of pointing to the supply of trafficking victims. The abolitionist stance can lend itself to the western tendency of middle-class feminist reformists ‘saving’ their ‘fallen sisters’ (Ho).

 

Pro-Legalization/Regulation

Pro-regulation standpoints operate under the ideology of validating sex work as a form of labor and guaranteeing protection and positive working environments for sex workers through decriminalization and regulation of the sex work industry. In my idealized feminist world, I would unequivocally see this as the appropriate model. However, I have to question what defines a choice. Economic conditions and societal norms, among other things, are undeniable influences and factors of choice, but I also don’t want to invalidate the decisions people make by picking apart and invalidating the reasons why someone made a choice.

A major issue that pro-regulation positions take with abolition is the danger of criminalization of people selling sex. Combined with the white slavery narrative, criminalization often results in the demonization of people of color, particularly in urban contexts (Bernstein). Pro-regulation positions work to end the stigma and violence around sex work by giving autonomy and agency to sex workers. They also problematize the collusion of human trafficking with forced prostitution that many anti-trafficking agendas adhere to. Pro-regulation positions believe that by regulating and legitimizing sex work, as a profession will eliminate the unknown and uncounted factors that create space for human trafficking.

My Position

Deciphering an effective model for reducing human trafficking in the context of prostitution is very difficult because there is little reliable empirical research done on the conclusive conditions of sex workers internationally. Conducting such research will be incredibly difficult, partly because each context, or ‘case’ of prostitution is so different and completely dictated by the specific circumstances. Selling sex, other than within brothels, is often conducted in isolation from other sex workers, which makes it very difficult to create space for the organization of all sex workers. There is also the issue of who is included as someone who sells sex; many people don’t identify their own commodification of sex as a label and have no desire to organize with people they don’t identify with.

In regards to my proposal to attacking human trafficking, I believe that the first step should be to reject the current relationship between the state and the migrant. Governments and economic policy creates the demand for cheapened labor, which therefore demands human trafficking. Government policy sees migrants as a threat to state border security, and creates the need for migrating people to rely on third party actors to gain entry and stability in a new country. This opens the door for trafficking and exploitation, and closes the door for trafficked victims to expect assistance from a government that doesn’t guarantee them that right. The sex industry does have an undeniable tie to human trafficking, and I believe the Nordic model is the best existing approach to protecting sex workers and attempting to reduce influxes of trafficked and prostituted victims. I haven’t done much research into the trafficking rates resulting from this model, but I think the decriminalization of selling sex combined with the criminalization of buying sex is a positive way to target the demand for sex work, and therefore trafficked prostitution.

Citations:

Bandyopadhyay, Nandinee. Streetwalkers Show the Way: Reframing the Global Debate on Trafficking from Sex Workers’ Perspectives. Working paper no. 309. N.p.: Institute of Development Studies at the U of Sussex Brighton, 2008. Web.

Bernstein, Elizabeth. “Militarized Humanitarianism Meets Carceral Feminism: The Politics of Sex, Rights, and Freedom in Contemporary Antitrafficking Campaigns.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 36.1 (2010): 45-71. JSTOR [JSTOR]. Web.

Davies, Nick. “Prostitution and Trafficking – the Anatomy of a Moral Panic.” The Guardian 19 Oct. 2009: n. pag. Print.

Ho, Josephine. “From Anti-trafficking to Social Discipline.” Trafficking and Prostitution Reconsidered: New Perspectives on Migration, Sex Work, and Human Rights. By Jyoti Sanghera, Bandana Pattanaik, and Kamala Kempadoo. Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2005. 84-104. Print.

Kempadoo, Kamala.2005.“From Moral Panic to Global Justice: Changing Perspectives on Trafficking.”In Trafficking and Prostitution Reconsidered: New Perspectives on Migration, Sex Work, and Human Rights.Kamala Kempadoo, ed.Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, pp. vii-xxxiv.

NIS News Bulletin. “Prostitution Bill Battered in Upper House.” NIS (Netherlands Info Service) News Bulletin [The Hague] 7 Oct. 2013: n. pag. Print.

United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. Economic and Social Council. Rep. no. E/CN.6/2008/NGO/25. Vol. 55 Session. N.p.: United Nations, n.d. Print.

Sex Work in Latin America

This week, I’ll be moving away from a focus on global views of sex work and sexual exploitation and looking at the mainstreaming and status of sex workers in Latin America. Learning about movements of sex workers to legitimize their profession in the eyes of the law and make movements to unionize is one of the things that got me so interested in the sex industry. I want to begin by clarifying that in the case of this blog post, I’m going to be focusing on autonomous sex workers, not sexually exploited people. I’ll also be comparing arguments about the legalization and mainstreaming of sex work in international contexts.

I’m going to be looking at the influence of mainstreaming, or lack thereof, on sex work in El Salvador, Costa Rica. I also want to bring back the influence of capitalism and neoliberalism and it’s relationship to the sex industry that I focused on last week. The mainstreaming of selling sex is innately tied to the capitalist ability of larger institutional profit from sex work. This post is going to be looking at some of the positive outcomes of regulating the commodification of sex, but I want readers to keep in mind the possibilities for the deepening of socio-economic divides and further marginalization of people who sell sex that have little socio-economic capital.

A good place to start is with the idea that selling sex can be a lucratively attractive industry for low-income folks. Prostitution in the non-westernized contexts is often characterized as purely a mode of survival, and not as an opportunity for advancement. It’s also looked at as a direct result of colonial power structures and domination, and in the context of a tourist-local relationship. This common international view of selling sex negates the autonomy and economic empowerment possible in some contexts. Selling sex requires no physical capital to begin, and although it’s highly stigmatized in most areas of the world, it generates a higher money to labor ratio than many other forms of work available to socio-economically disadvantaged communities (Rivers-Moore). I want to reiterate that empowerment is not the outcome for a large percentage of prostituted people; the article that I’m drawing a lot of this information from looks at the idealized model of exclusively female sex work in Costa Rica, and doesn’t address the hierarchal power dynamics that often come into play between sex workers and pimps/other third party influences once someone is engaged in selling sex.

An article by The Guardian questions Amnesty International’s definition of ‘sex work’ as a consensual choice, and their claim that conditions of past abuse, exploitation and coercion by economic forces don’t necessarily “render individuals from exercising personal agency” (Amnesty International). While I think that The Guardian’s working definition of ‘sex work’ is a conflation of all forms of selling sex, including trafficked and exploited prostitution, their points about compiling factors that call into question what can be defined as ‘choice’ is important when discussing the legalization and marginalization of sex work. This impact of past trauma and societal factors that are often heavily influential on the decision to sell sex is also an important influence on defining sex work v. sexual exploitation. Another key piece to keep in mind when thinking about mainstreaming is the relationship between the demand for commodified sex driving the demand for sex trafficking (The Guardian).

Although it’s not the only factor, mainstreamed sex work in Latin America is closely tied to the demand from tourism. A common model of approaching sex work in Latin America is to neither criminalize nor regulate it, which again provides space for both agency and marginalization/abuse. In the case of El Salvador, the national government doesn’t prohibit or punish sex work, but the local municipalities do. Much of the legislation around prostitution is focused on criminalizing the exploitation of minors, and leaves the regulation of adult sex workers up to the municipalities (Código Penal- Parte 8). A non-governmental organization of almost 3,000 El Salvadorian sex workers called the Women’s Movement Orchids of the Sea (Movimiento de Mujeres Orquídeas del Mar) makes these laws one of their targets to ensure the rights and protections of sex workers (Latin-American Press).

“It is curious that the ordinances [secondary laws] recognize us, but they recognize us only to discriminate against us and to take money from us,”        – Haydeé Laínez, a member of the coalition comments about the prevalence of police forces to blackmail and force sex workers to perform sexual acts rather than fines or arrests.

The recognition of sex work as a legitimate industry is impeded even within spheres that I would have typically thought would be in support of the self-empowerment that it could bring. Feminists who believe that selling sex is the ultimate form of compliance to patriarchy, or progressives who claim that ‘real men’ don’t buy sex (Latin-American Press) are opposing mainstreaming for the wrong reasons, in my mind. I think any opposition should be focused on the potential of bureaucratizing and policing the body, failing to address the important role of trafficking within the sex industry, or furthering divides between sex workers. The informal organization of sex workers in El Salvador is what I see to be the most potentially inclusive and powerful movement to mainstreaming sex work within the context of vilification by a government and unsupportive feminist and progressive groups.

 

 

Citations

Amnesty International. Circular No. 18. 2015 ICM Circular: Draft Policy on Sex Work. N.p., 7 July 2015. Web.

Andréu, Tomás. “Sex Workers Seek to Dignify Their Profession.” Latinamerican Press. Latinamerican Press, 21 Aug. 2015. Web.

Neuwirth, Jessica. “Amnesty International Says Prostitution Is a Human Right – but It’s Wrong.” The Guardian. The Guardian, 28 July 2015. Web

Rivers-Moore, Megan. “But the Kids Are Okay: Motherhood, Consumption and Sex Work in Neo-liberal Latin Americab.” The British Journal of Sociology 61.4 (2010): n. pag. Print.

Código Penal- Parte 8, Prostitution.procon.org § CAPITULO IV. DEL PROXENETISMO (2009). Print.

Development, Sex Work and Sexual Exploitation

Until a couple of years ago, I’ve had a very narrow view of how sex is sold. When I was fourteen, I read a book called Sold, by Patricia McCormick and I’ve been fascinated with the industry and all of its complexities and implications since. In the last year I’ve been working to localize my attention on sex work to the Main South neighborhood in Worcester, MA. Right now I’m an intern at a local women’s shelter called Abby’s House Worcester, and I’m looking at the connections between sexual exploitation and homelessness. Before further introducing the direction I want this blog to go in, I think it’s really important to give some working definitions that can help to break down the differences between the many different kinds of sex work. These are only the words that I’ve been told are the most respectful and accurate by advocates and sexually exploited women in Worcester, but I’m also aware that these are probably not the words that a lot of people find most comfortable.

Sex work– Describes a wide range of selling sex and sexuality, including pornography, prostitution, in some cases stripping etc. The term “sex work” usually implies choice and autonomy.

Prostitution– The industry and the act of selling sex. It’s important to note that prostitution is a term that many people who sell sex don’t identify with, and there are varying forms of selling sex- the ‘streetwalking’ archetype is not the only way that sexual acts are sold. Online communities of selling sex, ‘call girls’, people who exchange sex for material goods or only sell sex to certain people etc. all fall under my working definition of the term prostitution. Another important clarification is the difference between the terms ‘prostitution’, which describes the act and industry, and ‘prostitute’, which is increasingly being seen as a degrading term.

Prostituted people/sexually exploited people– Someone who is selling sex, but not by their own choice and are usually not easily able to get out of the life. There’s been a shift from using the term “prostitute”, which many see as degrading, to “prostituted person”, or “prostituted woman”.

The life– From what I can tell, using “the life” to describe involvement and the experiences of selling sex is a localized Worcester term.

Human trafficking– The illegal buying and selling of persons. It’s often associated with sexual slavery, but extends to many more forms of coercion and industries.

Pimps– Someone who controls sex workers and profits off of them, often both physically and emotionally.

Johns– Someone (usually a man) who buys sex.

Sting– A police sweep of a known area where sex is being sold that almost always targets arresting sex workers.

Learning more about the current situation of Worcester’s sexual exploitation has been really interesting- from what I’ve seen so far it’s very unique from other typical models of prostitution. Over the next four blog posts, I’m going begin by  looking at the industry of sex work more globally and then move locally to the Main South neighborhood of Worcester.

I want to compare case studies of sex work with sexual exploitation, and look at the demographic makeup of both groups. There have been recent movements among sex workers in Latin America to unionize and legitimize sex work, and I want to look at the complexities of those initiatives and the possibility of their applicability in other contexts. Within Latin America, I also want to look at the impact that human trafficking has on sex work.

International aid often comes with conditions, and there’s frequently a clear quid pro quo between cracking down sex work and receiving international aid. To give a bigger picture of the global discourse around selling sex, I’m going to be using some UN reports, and analyses of international policies. I also think it would be interesting to look into the societal relationships within countries that have legalized prostitution.

 

Most of the articles that I’ve been looking through on larger news sites write about sex work as a degradation of society, which is unfortunately a common perception of sex work and sex workers. There’s also a common erasure of sex workers who aren’t women, which I’m interested to look more into. I’m going to be using writings from news organizations such as Latinamerican Press, BBC, and some articles from my Sex and Development class. My following posts will hopefully help readers to get a better picture of sex work both globally, as well as in the neighborhood surround Clark University’s campus.