TW: reference to sexual assault, rape, violence ahead
I should probably say straight up that if you’re here and reading this article, I’m assuming you’re down with the notion that people should be able to do whatever they want with their own bodies, familiar with the notion of sex work as work, and at least in theory supportive of sex workers organising for their labour rights and decriminalisation.
You can 100% be on-board with these ideas, and also be opposed to trafficking. There is absolutely nothing about being pro-sex worker than makes you pro-trafficking (quite the opposite, in fact). If you are pro people doing things consensually with their own bodies for their own benefit, it follows that you can be correspondingly opposed to people being forced to do things with their bodies for someone else’s benefit, since it gets in the way of the consensual part, and the part where they benefit from the things they consent to doing. We could get into complex conversations about poverty and whether anyone really ‘consents’ to work within a capitalist system — and I am 100% down to talk about this — but it needs to be a conversation about work in its entirety, and not focused on sex work as an exceptional case. We’re not comparing the coercion that is capitalism to the coercion that is being held against your will and abused. There is a world of difference, and we need to respect that difference in order to respect survivors of abuse.
So, the video.
This clip is supposedly about trafficking. Which is funny, because when it says ‘sadly, they end up here’, what you’re looking at, viewer, is not in any way differentiated from what you’d see if you were just looking at a sex worker working. That’s a woman standing in a window in her place of work, engaged in marketing. She might be about to go on her tea break, or might have just emerged from an easy appointment with a regular, or might have a raging dose of thrush coming on and be hoping the next client just wants a handjob. We’ve all been there. It’s a day at work in a brothel. There’s nothing inherently sad about it. It’s work.
So “sadly” ending up “here” in the window of a brothel requires a bit of qualification. A person who wanted to be a dancer ending up a sex worker is not the same thing as a person deceived and then sexually abused for someone else’s gain. A clip like this really needs to work harder to address the absolutely massive difference between these two situations if the end goal is not to conflate voluntary migration for the purposes of work (all work, including sex work) with the crime of holding someone against their will and subjecting them to repeated sexual assault for financial gain.
It’s interesting to consider what the video wants us to do, or what the call to action is, apart from us feeling a general sense of pity for poor outwitted migrant women. I think the suggestion is that those chastened men watching the women as potential patrons are the ones with the power to ‘stop the traffic’, presumably by ‘ending demand’, as the familiar refrain goes. But there’s no pretence that there’s specific demand for trafficked or abused individuals here. Instead, the demand for sex work generally neatly stands in, and we see the construction (or repetition, at this stage) of the same narrative that demonises the purchasers of sexual services and leads us into Swedish Model territory as a solution to the sex industry, which, though we’ve forgotten by this point, wasn’t the problem in the first place. None of this makes sense if you have any kind of understanding of sex work, workers’ rights or the adult industry. It’s banning sex in an attempt to end rape.
The circumstances under which someone travels somewhere to do one job, but instead ends up doing another, are pretty important information for the viewer here. I’m not suggesting that the clip should have shown us any kind of gratuitous violence or sexual abuse for the purposes of differentiating trafficking and abuse from sex work, but I do think it shouldn’t show us sex work, if that’s not what it’s talking about. We might be looking at labour issues, economic issues or migration issues (clue: we’re actually looking at all three) but the clip makes no effort to look at these, and puts even less effort into separating ‘being held against your will and subjected to repeated sexual assault for someone else’s gain’ and ‘working as a sex worker because it’s a job and you migrated somewhere because you needed work’.
Let’s try a thought experiment. ‘Every year thousands of people are promised a job as a dancer, but sadly, they end up here.’ The curtain rises on someone working in a tailor’s shop. That doesn’t quite work the same way, does it? We don’t automatically assume that it would be sad to work in a tailor’s shop (because that would be a horrible and classist thing to assume) and we certainly wouldn’t represent the problem of some people suffering abuse in the textiles industry by showing images of someone just doing their job. Nor would it make much sense to witness the dawning realisation of a potential customer looking in the window who will never again have a pair of jeans adjusted now he knows that some people in tailoring shops were promised jobs as dancers.
The kind of abuse that the ‘Stop the Traffic’ campaign is interested in is not people being promised one job and ending up in another, and it’s a shame that the clip reduces the issue to that. The reason it works with sex work but wouldn’t if the punchline were ‘sadly they end up in PR,’ is because popular misconceptions about the general unpleasantness of sex work ensure that it doesn’t have to go into anything more specific. We don’t need to know more about the circumstances, we ‘know’ what it’s like to be a sex worker. We’ve seen Les Miserables. It’s not a good time. Nothing further needs to be indicated about the person’s circumstances: here they are, standing in a brothel window, a modern day Fantine. They have been laid low by ‘the traffick’, and we don’t need to differentiate a woman genuinely deceived into travelling to a different country, held against her will and abused from a woman from the same country who came to do whatever work she could get and ended up as a sex worker, with no particular strong feelings on the issue, and the potential to retire comfortably at a relatively young age.
In conflating the two, campaigns like these unfortunately create setbacks for sex worker rights activists and campaigns, and make it harder for sex workers who are trying to lobby for the kind of legal structures that would allow them to work more collectively and more safely in improved working conditions. It also gives weight to the myth that sex trafficking is everywhere, and that the industry is so rife with it that we need to close the whole thing down, when the truth is that we have little to no real data on human trafficking. The epidemic you think you ‘know’ to be real is based on figures that have literally been plucked out of thin air. The way we arrived at the numbers of trafficked people in the UK that are still used in campaigns is traced here (spoiler: someone guessed, and someone quoted them, and the rest is history). Another article from the same period unpacks an internal police report on the results of a huge nationwide anti-trafficking operation. It reveals not only that the figures have been warped beyond all belief, but that conflation is everything if you’re in the business of looking like you’re achieving something.
Operation Pentameter’s “528 criminals arrested” in hundreds of raids on brothels turned out to be something more like 122 administrative errors, 106 people released without charge, 47 cautions for minor offences not related to trafficking, 73 people charged with immigration breaches, and the rest charged with other offences relating to drugs, driving, or brothel management (a brothel, as you may know, is legally defined as any premises where more than one sex worker works. Most sex workers I know have technically been brothel keepers at some point, usually when they’ve allowed a friend to work from their spare bedroom or been asked to sit in the lounge and act as security in case a client tried to pull anything.) 22 people eventually went to court on trafficking-related offences, including two women who had initially been identified as victims of trafficking. 15 were convicted, not under the international UN-approved definition of trafficking, which involves the use of coercion or deceit to transport an unwilling man or woman into prostitution, but under a different definition, using “the UK’s 2003 Sexual Offences Act, which makes it an offence to transport a man or woman into prostitution even if this involves assisting a willing sex worker.” 10 of the 15 convictions did not meet the UN definition, only the UK 2003 Sexual Offences Act definition (under which, as a colleague pointed out, her favourite taxi driver is technically guilty of trafficking, since he transported her to work last week).
If you don’t want to see sex work conflated with trafficking, which sees sex workers (or taxi drivers) punished or criminalised for consensual sexual activity between adults, and frustrates genuine attempts at helping those who are suffering sexual abuse, then disentangling trafficking from sex work becomes the centre-stage issue. And this clip becomes apparent as the problematic clusterfuck that it is.