Arguing Right(s)

I’m not exploited.”

“I find my work empowering! I love sex! It’s fun!”

“I chose to do this. I could do lots of other things. I have a degree!”

These are some of the things I see people saying when we’re talking about decriminalisation and rights, and I’m happy for you, I really am, but what you’re saying is completely irrelevant. And sometimes it’s downright harmful. 

I understand why you’re saying it. I’ve done it myself, many times. I’m willing to bet that I’ll do it again some day when I’m caught off guard in the middle of an argument and my cheeks are burning and my heart is pounding, and the weight of the shame and stigma is making me feel like a trapped animal.

When someone is telling you that you don’t know your own life or your own experiences, that you don’t know what you do or don’t consent to, and they’re making no attempt to hide their revulsion – asking invasive questions and telling you that you’re damaged and a liar and a victim – it’s hard to keep it all together.

The implication that we’re dirty, disgusting and desperate draws on a narrative so firmly established, institutionalised and legitimised by nearly everything in our culture that sometimes it’s hard to keep swimming against the tide. I try to focus on doing better in future, rather than thinking too much about the times I didn’t get it right. It wasn’t okay, but I think we should recognise how difficult these confrontations can be, especially in the absence of solidarity and support. It’s not easy to weather that violence alone.

But when it comes to thinking about these things in their broader context, when we have space to reflect, community around us, and when we are not between a rock and a hard place, I think  we have more of a duty to acknowledge when a particular narrative is doing more harm than good. I’m not by any means the first to say so, but I still see these narratives of empowerment versus exploitation being perpetuated all over the place. and I think we need to start saying to each other: “I see you, and I understand that your back’s against the wall and that’s really hard, but when we’re trying to demand rights and you say “I like my job”, what does that mean for people who don’t?”

I want to look at a few of things I’ve said, and that I see other people saying, that don’t really make sense when you unpack them, and that hurt other marginalised groups within and outside the sex working community. I want us to try for more, and better, solidarity.

“I love my work! I’m empowered and sex is great!”

The truth is that you deserve rights if you like your work, but you still deserve them, (and probably need them more) if you don’t like your work. Responding to prohibitionist claims about how unpleasant sex work is with cries of empowerment and enjoyment means taking the bait and moving the focus of the discussion away from the work of sex work. When we do that, we’re caught up in a never ending game of top-trumps in which we endlessly compare people’s experiences of sex work and try to find an essence somewhere at the centre of it all on which to hinge our opinion of whether or not workers should have rights. We need to stop hunting for the essential sex work experience. It’s not there, and it never was. And we don’t need it to be, because the whole conversation is a pointless, irrelevant distraction.

People are entitled to rights, justice and safety, regardless of their experiences. So the fact that you enjoy your work or have good feelings about it is nice (it might even be useful information sometimes, since we are battling stereotypes here and it’s good to introduce the idea that some people have a okay time doing sex work in order to balance the fact that we’re often all lumped together and imagined as reduced to desperate, miserable wretches– but it’s not an argument for rights. If anything, the reverse is true. Ever had a job you didn’t like? Did you find yourself thinking “‘what I really need right now is just … fewer rights. That’d really improve things for me.”

No? I didn’t think so.

 

“I don’t do sex work out of desperation. I could do other things/I’m really wealthy.”

I’m happy for you. But just like the ‘I love my work’ situation, this isn’t an argument for why you should be allowed to work in a completely decriminalised environment, with access to good service provision and labour rights. The people who are not in your situation need rights just as much as you do, and then some. If your circumstances dictate that you have to do a particular type of work, the best case scenario is not that someone criminalises the purchase of that labour and leaves you with nothing. You already picked between ‘this type of labour you didn’t want to do’ and ‘nothing’ and you preferred the first option, so it’s not acceptable to have someone take that decision away from you unless they’re stepping up to the plate and providing you with an something equivalently well-paid, flexible and autonomous option.

 

“I’m not pimped.”

Some sex workers need or want to work for someone instead of operating independently, for a variety of reasons, not least because it is (in the UK at least) the only way to work with someone else and be a little less at risk of prosecution (because theoretically the buck stops with your manager instead of you). You deserve rights whether you’re working for someone else or not, and if anything, you need them more when someone is turning a profit from your labour, in order to limit the ways in which their power over you can be abused.

While we’re on the subject, we need to lose the word ‘pimp’ from these discussions, because the word carries strong racial connotations and is massively steeped in anti-Blackness and racism. When you’re talking about managers or bosses, say so. If you’re talking about abusers who also happen to be managers, then describe them as such. We have a vocabulary to talk about the people in the industry who we work for and with, and we there is no need to invoke the spectre of violent, Black masculinity in the process. The rescue industry is appallingly and unabashedly racist, and has been for a very long time. Part of working against that is refusing to use terms like ‘pimp’ and pointing out other examples of appropriation such as the tendency of sex work prohibitionists to call themselves ‘abolitionists’ in the style of those who called for the abolition of Black slavery and the current movement against the racist prison industrial complex. And if you aren’t already aware of Peechington Marie’s workpiece on the erasure of Black sex workers in pretty much every discussion to do with sex work , you need to be.

 

“I don’t take drugs.”

Some drug users are sex workers. Other drug users are dentists. Or lawyers. Or shop assistants. All of these people deserve rights at work, and whether or not they use drugs has absolutely nothing to do with it. It’s important to see when a totally irrelevant factor is being used to shut down conversations about rights. Otherwise you may end up shaming drug users in an attempt to refute the claim that sex workers don’t deserve rights because ~drugs~. What’s actually happening here is that the stigma that affects drug users, (which says that people who use drugs don’t know what’s best for them and people who don’t use drugs should step in and take over their lives without permission) is being used to suggest that sex workers are also incapable people, who aren’t qualified to speak about their own lives. Drug-use stigma is often brought into the conversation as part of a narrative that suggests that only terribly unhappy people with out of control lives ever use drugs (which is demonstrably untrue), and that therefore sex workers shouldn’t have rights because their work is making them unhappy. As we’ve already established, the way to help people who are unhappy at work is not to deprive them of rights or push the industry they work in further underground.

It’s tempting, when you belong to a marginalised group and you’re trying very hard to get some rights, to try and distance yourself from other marginalised groups who happen to be associated with you. But it actively hurts the other group (in this case, drug users) and it doesn’t further your position, because the association with that marginalized group wasn’t a valid argument against sex worker rights in the first place, and another will spring up in its place.

 

“I don’t have mental health problems.”

This is very similar to the drug argument, and again, it’s an attempt to budge certain people to one side so that we can move on, get some shiny rights, and leave them behind. It’s not cool, and it’s not okay. Mental health problems are yet another stigmatised thing that people use to try and discredit sex workers. It’s usually used to suggest that either:

1. sex work causes mental illness

or

2. only people who have a mental illness could ever want to do sex work.

The suggestion that sex work causes mental illness is plain wrong. There might be a lot of people in sex work who suffer from mental illness, but correlation is not causation, and if you think it is then you need to take a step back and go learn about how events relate to one another. Research about sex workers is notoriously hard to do, and there’s no way of figuring out whether an unusually high percentage of people in sex work suffer mental health problems unless you’ve got equivalent samples from people in other jobs to use by way of comparison. And even if you could prove that, there’s no way of knowing whether those people’s mental health problems are due to their work, the violence and stigma they experience, or their lack of rights.

An additional complicating factor is that when you’re looking at a type of work that can have pretty flexible hours and may allow some people to work a lot less than they would need to in other jobs, you’ve potentially got a working setup that’s attractive to anyone who regularly needs time off or can’t work very much, so you may find a high number of people who suffer mental illness, (or any other chronic illness) in sex work because the work better suits their needs.

But even if we put the flaws in the argument that ‘sex work causes mental illness’ aside for a moment, it still doesn’t make sense to support any form of criminalisation. If we’re arguing that the stress associated with someone’s work is bad for them, the solution is not to deprive them of rights, or of work. Successfully reducing demand, if it’s even possible, means creating a buyer’s market, which in turn means that sex workers end up with fewer clients to choose from. It’s a nightmare situation that means they have to start charging less and offering more services to people they might normally refuse as clients. Does that sound like a situation that would improve anyone’s mental health?

Contrary to popular opinion, alternative jobs don’t pop out of the ground to allow sex workers to leave sex work when policy or law makes their lives harder. If you really believe in increasing suffering and endangering sex workers as a way of driving us out of the industry (and into the waiting arms of poverty and destitution), then I think you’re cruel and inhumane. Get a grip and learn about evidence-based harm reduction (and if you think Melissa Farley counts as evidence, go back to square one and acquire some knowledge of the scientific method before rejoining the conversation, because you’re not qualified to be here until you understand the difference between actual statistics and completely meaningless numbers with a percentage sign next to them.)

Just like the drug stigma thing, this is another smoke-screen argument that uses stigma around mental health to delegitimise sex workers. Anyone can experience stress, and stress can trigger or exacerbate mental illness. One way to help people experience less stress in their jobs is to offer them more rights and more support, not less. This is the point to drive home, rather than insisting that someone deserves rights because they’re lucky enough not to have any mental health problems right now.

 

“I wasn’t abused as a child”

Much like the discussion above, some people are survivors of childhood abuse. And some of those survivors are sex workers, and some of them are nurses, and others may be linguists or bus drivers or working in the home. But the difference is that nobody is pointing to those workers who aren’t sex workers and trying to weaponize the abuse they survived against them to imply that they lack capacity. No one is telling nurses who are also survivors of childhood abuse that they’re reliving and reproducing the abuse they survived if they have a bad day at work where a patient attacks them or they have to do something they don’t enjoy. No one is telling them that the good days or the dull days are actually bad days and they just can’t see it.

Just like mental health and drug use, being a survivor is used against people to invalidate their decisions. Think about that for a moment. Not only has someone had to survived abuse in the first place, it’s now being used against them to discredit what they are saying about their own lives. Survivors who sell sex deserve rights, and so do people selling sex who are not survivors. Please, please don’t be complicit in suggesting that survivors of abuse shouldn’t be respected and believed when they speak about their own lives.

 

“I’ve never been hurt at work/My clients are nice to me.”

Whatever your job, if you suffer abuse, or your clients aren’t nice to you, that’s not your fault. And you don’t get rights as a prize for being lucky enough not to have experienced any violence while working.

 

“My clients are disabled.”

Please don’t use disabled people as political pawns. The implication here is that disabled clients somehow represent a more pitiable and/or more wholesome group of people and therefore sex work that involves a disabled client should be allowed to happen because otherwise these poor disabled people lead sexless lives and we don’t want that to happen. Sometimes working with disabled clients is totally roped off as Not Sex Work even though it’s a sexual service offered on a transactional basis. Not only does this argument approach disability in a horribly reductive manner, it’s incredibly offensive and objectifies disabled people in order to produce a hierarchy of good sex work versus bad sex work, leaving other sex workers behind because their work hasn’t been deemed worthy.

This discussion nearly always erases and ignores disabled sex workers too. There are a lot of us, and we shouldn’t be left out of discussions that centre disability and sex work.

 

“I work indoors.”

That’s nice, but not everyone can, for lots of good reasons. Given that people working outdoors are even more stigmatised, suffer more violence, and are more often criminalised (which heavily influences the stigma and the violence I mentioned a minute ago), don’t you think they might be in the market for some rights? And why would you deserve rights only while you’re working indoors? Is there another hierarchy at work here? Of course there is, but it’s bullshit and we need to actively work against it, and this argument doesn’t do that.

Besides the fact that some people can’t work indoors, they shouldn’t have to. It’s often insinuated that outdoor sex workers somehow lower the tone just by existing in a public place, which is outright whorephobic. Some people are allowed to be outdoors at certain times and in certain places, and be visible, while others are not. The people who are allowed to be outside without anyone trying to force them out of sight usually belong to the most privileged sections of society. The implication is that the space is for them, and they shouldn’t have to encounter you if they consider you undesirable.

If you’re so disgusted by sex workers that you can’t bear to look at them waiting around for clients, then you need to consider that they probably don’t want to look at you either, and neither of you has more of a right to public space. It’s very fucked up that in practice ‘public space’ is nothing of the sort: it’s evident that some people are allowed to be anywhere at any time provided they are not visibly a member of any stigmatised group, while others can be forced out of public space at any time. And if your main concern about the visibility of people presumed to be sex workers is that house prices might fall, (and you think that’s more important than the fact that violence against outdoor sex workers practically doubles when soliciting and kerb-crawling are made criminal activities,) then you need to get the fuck away from me.

“I’m a domme/a masseuse/ I don’t have sex.”

What’s that got to do with us all having rights?

The hierarchy I mentioned a moment ago? Here it is again, and it’s still not okay. So sex work is fine until it involves some kind of sexual service that is ‘bad’ or ‘worse’ than whatever you’re doing? If you think that anything happening between consenting adults is inherently bad or wrong, or becomes so when there’s money involved, then you’re going down a really dangerous path. Who gets to decide which sex work is okay and which isn’t? How much sex or what kind of sex is all right? No matter how you slice this, someone gets left out in the cold. And the reality is, the people doing the most stigmatised work that you’re trying to distance yourself from right now? They need their rights, and desperately.

 

Injustices that Matter: Reclaiming space from Allies at ‘Fantasies that Matter: Images of Sex Work in Media and Art’ (and beyond)

So myself and a couple of other sex workers caught wind of a conference about sex workers and representation, and excitedly rushed to Hamburg to enjoy what promised to be a weekend of stimulating papers and panels. We noted prominent sex worker rights advocates in the lineup, and imagined (fantasised?) that a conference on the subject of representation would, hopefully, have taken the time to reflect on its own subject.

The main problem with representations of sex work is that they are almost always projections – fantasies- produced by people who aren’t sex workers. It amounts to an insidious erasure – the projections demand centre stage, bumping our accounts of the material realities of our lives to one side, and even denying the need for them. It’s an act that says: ‘We don’t need you to speak, we have our ideas about you already, and the last thing we want is for you to disrupt or complicate them.’

The conference title – “Fantasies that Matter” – seemed to go straight to the heart of the matter, recognising that representations of sex workers by others are mere fantasies – and that those fantasies have very serious implications for the people they are supposed to be about. We assumed, naively, that the importance of allowing sex workers to lead conversations about their lives would be only too apparent to anyone grappling with this subject, since to work towards anything less would reproduce the key problem, amounting to a flimsy meta-critical representation of representations.

Ultimately, we were disappointed to see the conversation led by people who were not sex workers, and to see only a handful of current sex workers take the stage. It was disappointing as well to note that the conference participants and attendees were, as in so many sex worker and allied spaces, overwhelmingly white, and that this was not meaningfully addressed by most of the conference participants or the organisers, despite Marissa Lobo’s occupation of the stage during the ‘Bread and Roses: Rethinking Sexual and Economic Justice’ panel to talk racism, anti-colonialism, and generally disrupt the injustice taking place (you can find out more about her work around Decolonial Struggles and Performative Interventions into Western Politics in the form of performances such as “Fuck Your Queer White Supremacy Celebration!” by checking out this transcript of an amazing interview with her here.) Additionally, trans people were underrepresented, and incidences of cissexism and transphobia went unchallenged by the organisers. The persistent erasure of sex-working people of colour and trans people was uncritically reproduced, and racist, colonialist and transphobic discourses remained dominant because, despite being frequently mentioned by speakers and audience members, there was little engagement beyond reiterated ‘disclaimers’ for attendees who openly questioned their erasure. [If you’re a PoC or trans person (or both) who was in attendance and you’d like to share your experience of the conference (or even if you weren’t there but you’ve got stuff to say on the topic), please do let me know if I can signal boost or include your voice better here.]

Many of the sex workers in attendance felt on the outside looking in, despite being the topic under discussion (and dissection). It’s a familiar feeling for sex workers, but the irony of a group of our supporters coming together to discuss the oppressive nature of how sex workers are represented, but failing to reflect on whether they were in the process perpetuating this and other oppressions, was not lost on us. By the second day of the conference, we were organising to demand that we be allowed to take the lead in discussions about our lives and our representation. For the essential blow by blow account of everything that went down, check out Fornicatrix’s summary of events here.

It was, not for the first time, a case of marginalised people becoming objects of enquiry for others, and it made me think that it might be time for a broader discussion about how this sort of stuff happens, and what kind of invisible power dynamics allow to it go largely unchallenged. When this happens, we – as people interested in social justice and the dismantling of systems of oppression – have a problem. The existing hierarchies that dictate who should do the speaking and who should be spoken about are reinforced and reproduced. The marginalised person is positioned as object, the outsider as subject, and the expertise and lived experiences of the marginalised person are typically pushed aside except where they are useful to the outsider.

Researchers who are positioned outside the marginalised communities they study who are in search of an ethical solution to such imbalances of power sometimes turn to concepts like ‘Research Justice’, which aims to centre research on the needs of marginalised groups. This framework suggests that: “Research Justice is achieved when marginalized communities are recognized as experts, and reclaim, own and wield all forms of knowledge and information.”  Strategies include equipping communities with:

  1. Control over information and knowledge that impact them;
  2. Capacity and resources to produce their own information and knowledge;
  3. Capacity and resources to use and wield all forms of its knowledge to effectively advance their agenda;
  4. Equal access to information outside of the community despite increasing commodification, privatization, and hyper-abundance of information;
  5. And, the capacity and resources to determine ‘validity’ and ‘credibility’ of information and knowledge, and methods to create them…on equal footing with all other institutions in society. [Source here]

Effectively, Research Justice is the recognition that when someone builds their career on the disenfranchisement (read: suffering) of others,  their gains must be counterbalanced with equivalent (or ideally, greater) benefits to that community. Otherwise, you’re simply the latest in the long line of those exploiting a group of people who have been structurally prevented from articulating the conditions of their own lives, among other injustices.

This applies not only to research, but also to cultural modes of production. If you’re taking an oppressed group of people as your topic, you need to address the power imbalance. Your work needs to benefit them, and they need to be actively directing your project from the outset. They should own it, because it is theirs, and the only reason it’s in your hands is because you’re benefitting from their disempowerment.

A token individual is insufficient. If you are unable to find members of the relevant group who are willing to cooperate with you, your ideas are probably heinous, and I recommend that you reconsider your life choices. If you’re pretty sure you’re not reinforcing inequalities or structural oppression, but you really can’t find anyone from the relevant group to direct proceedings and benefit directly from the work, then you should put it on hold until you can. Sometimes this means you won’t get to do what you want to do. You’ll live. Nothing should happen without the direct and meaningful involvement of the group you’re taking as your subject. I don’t care how good your screenplay or lecture is. We’re talking about praxis here – if you believe in justice, and acknowledging hierarchies of power, then act on that. It’s not enough to say you know you have power, if you do nothing useful with it.

It’s essential to ask yourself why you’re identifying as an ally, and to realise that there is no such thing as conditional allyship: if you won’t tolerate criticism or take direction, or if you require gratitude, niceties, or honorary membership from the people you’re supporting, you’re doing it wrong. If you won’t move beyond acknowledging your power to doing something about the injustice of it, you’re not an ally. And if you indicate that you intend to withdraw your support because you feel undervalued, then I suggest you go elsewhere, because you are putting your own interests before those of the people you’re supporting, and anyone who’s more interested in the feel-good factor of ‘helping’ than actually improving the lives of others is not a loss to any liberation movement.

Screenshot 2014-08-14 21.24.42

If you are in a position of power, it’s true that you can’t represent everyone you have power over (and you should stop pretending that anyone ever asked you to). What you can do is turn over your platform and make space for people to represent themselves. If you find yourself facing accusations that you’ve left people out, it’s important to ask – have you really tried? Is it that you can’t make space for people to speak for themselves, or that you simply haven’t? (Clue: if marginalised groups of people, including migrant black women and sex workers, take over the stage because they feel spoken for and over, you are probably reproducing unjust hierarchies of power, and it’s likely that you could have done more to facilitate their involvement.)

If you believe in social justice, then when people who have less power than you suggest, ask, or demand that you give them a platform, the only just thing to do is to hand it over. Get off the stage, hand over the mic, and, most importantly, realise that your role from that point on is to listen, reflect, and take direction. If you feel hard done by, you are likely grappling with your own entitlement. You’re accustomed to having a certain amount of space, because you have benefited from the exclusion of others, and some of that has been reclaimed. I suggest that you sit with your feelings, and examine them thoroughly. If you allow these to play out internally before you bring them into the conversation, everyone will benefit. Those with more power will end up surrendering some of their unfairly occupied space (and avoid reoccupying it to talk about their feelings of guilt or discomfort, which are not useful to anyone), allowing those with less privilege to speak a little, at last, and on top of that, you will have fewer of those “can’t-believe-I-said-that” moments to berate yourself with in the years to come.

Notes:

1. For a very good account of one ally’s reflection on this issue, see this. That’s what being an ally looks like, folks.

2. For more on the erasure of PoC from sex worker rights activism, it’s essential to check out @_peech’s analysis here

Why this video needs to fuck off

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.