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.

114 thoughts on “Why this video needs to fuck off

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  5. I’m a huge believer in a person’s right to use their body for whatever purpose they see fit, especially when it comes to employment and I despise the way that the sex industry is portrayed and the way that workers are looked down upon. That being said, I acknowledge the issue of human trafficking and think it’s an awful reality that this does go on. What confuses me about this video though is that it’s in the Red Light District. I see what they’re trying to do, but I wonder about the confusion it causes for the potential patrons. Those men who stopped to watch, and possibly pay for services, probably shuffled off feeling somehow ashamed of ‘browsing’. But they shouldn’t, because that’s a place of perfectly legal work where browsing is encouraged and I would imagine, preferred, otherwise no one working there would make any money. It seems to imply that everyone working there is a possibly a slave-trade worker, when the majority are there doing a job by choice. The ‘sadly’ they end up here part, I assume, refers to those forced into this sector and for them it would be very sad. But using the word ‘sad’ as a blanket statement for the entire area and industry is a really weird thing to assert when people are there to make money willingly. I don’t know.. I just.. I don’t get it.

    • Who in their right mind wants to dance in i window, in nothing but underwear? This video is important reglardless if you, including me are pro free choices. this video aint about pro chioces, its about making a statement against trafficking.Please dont make this video into something it aint. You have a choice to claim your oppinion elsewhere.

      • who in their right mind wants to pops other people’s pimples? (a beautician)
        who in their right mind wants to clean the streets of the city every sunday morning at 4am? (street cleaing personel)
        who in their right mind wants to work 16 hrs a day in investment banking?
        that’s not the question to ask, and that’s not what the “pro free choice” argument is about.

        raising awareness about trafficking is good, and i think the author of this article agrees with you and me on that…. however, the critique is that this video confounds several things and therefore has undesired side effects, that go (far) beyond raising awareness for human trafficking.

      • I didn’t mean any offence by what I said, I feel very strongly about trafficking, I’ve based projects on it and all sorts. I just meant that I’m confused about the location they used as it seems to send a mixed message about the red light district.

    • Well said Kaylegh. It strikes me as odd that I live in a country where men are encouraged with scholarships to play a dangerous, life threatening, sport that has a long history of causing serious brain injuries. Colleges actually give them scholarships, but women are denied the right to make a living with their own bodies as they see fit. CAn their be a bigger double standard?

  6. Isnt it more important to end the problem(patriarchy, which is the reason why the sex industry exists) instead of finding a way for the victims to work WITH it? working with it will only make it stay, if we adjust to it we will accept it and thats not what we want. This question just popped up instantly in my head when reading your text and I had to comment to see what you thought about it. I personally feel like women always always should be able to do whatever they want with their bodies, and be able to do it safe, but isnt working in the sex industry only feeding and nourishing the patriarchy? I cant make up my mind and I want these two to go together but in this question I feel like I might just aim for the video instead of pro-choice simply because I feel like working in this business only brings money to the patriarchy and makes it go round.. What do you guys think, am I wrong?:/

    • I think you’re overly simplifying the root cause of the sex industry, and absolve the responsibility of others. “Patriarchy” doesn’t actually explain anything if you think about it for more than a second. Furthermore, the article hints at this – the idea of women having sexual freedom to participate in the sex industry and the demonization of solely the purchasers is not logically consistent. When you construct a simple argument, a simple solution pops up. But this wasn’t the argument we were having, so your solution doesn’t solve it. We should care about all trafficking, not just for sex. That’s what this piece was about.

      • could you please tell me why you think so, I had a feeling I was wrong when writing all this but I couldnt figure out why and Id appreciate if youd tell me your thoughts

    • Patriarchy is not the reason why the sex industry exists. That statement makes it seem like sex is a man’s activity and that women really only participate to please men. Not all women start in the sex industry because they feel it’s the last resort or because they have daddy issues. Sex work has always existed and it was never just woman’s work. All throughout history there have been male prostitutes and it used to be a lot more common for men. If you want to learn about the sex industry today, you should look up Nina Hartley interviews. She became interested in the career at the age of 17 and started her career in adult entertainment when she was older. She is also a sex educator.

  7. Thank you so much for writing this. Your voice is soooo needed to interrupt the great urgent white hope that the anti-trafficking movement is inspiring by using patronizing narratives about sex work that have no connection to the experiences of sex workers themselves (aside from the occassional tokenistic perspective that merely reinforces the movement’s overarching goals/ideology).

    And, to the people who are wondering if working in the sex industry reinforces patriarchy, does women working in nursing or teaching reinforce patriarchy since those are traditionally female gendered fields? Is the only way for women to challenge the patriarchy to give up those professions and move to male-dominated fields? No! Then what’s the difference? Ah, the fact that women’s bodies are more directly seen as a part of the work. Furthermore, if we integrate an economic justice analysis into our understanding of feminism we start to understand the complexity of sex work, and that there are push/pull factors that aren’t going away anytime soon that contribute to sex work being a profession for some women. For some people, sex work is a survival strategy because there are not any other professions to which they have access that allow the same access to a living wage (despite the potentially exploitative conditions that exist- but let’s be honest, working minimum wage at Walmart is also hella exploitative and comes with its own set of shitty labor conditions and we should be careful about assuming that working as a stripper is any more exploitative than being a fast food worker… and if we wanna go down that road, maybe we should talk about what our measure of exploitation is?). And lastly, at the end of the day, the sale of one’s body for wage labor under a capitalist system is well… inherently part of the capitalist system. We all sell our bodies under a capitalist system as wage laborers, just in different capacities. Sexism makes it so women’s bodies are inherently a part of that capitalist system in a sexualized capacity- and it’s important that women are able to exercise their agency as to how much they want to embrace their sexuality as an essential element of the work they do. Which is to say that, yes, there are women who would choose sex work regardless of economic circumstance (and also those who wouldn’t). Surely, the degree of choice one has to enter into sex work is always already produced out of a particular power structure (as is the degree of choice we all have to enter into any form of wage labor)– yet we should be careful about deploying narratives that expect ideological purity from people who are often the targets of state and institutional violence.

    Again, thanks eithnecrow for your insightful blog post! keep ’em coming.

  8. You put entirely too much thought into this, which is kind of creepy. Brothels are horribly antiquated ideas and women should respect themselves enough not to sell their bodies in the first place. Sorry, but obviously there’s more to women than their bodies and the objectification of them (CONSTANTLY) is boring. I feel sorry for women that think that’s their only option or get tricked in trafficking. Either way, this is all bad.

    • Why is it creepy that a sex worker write about sex workers? Why is it creepy that a feminist write about feminist issues?
      Sex workers sell a service, not a body. They sell as much of their body as any other occupation which is based on corporeal exchange (waitress, carer, surgeon, plumber, the list is endless).

      You didn’t put any thought into a response, yet commented anyway. I’d say that was much creepier.

  9. I agree that women should be free to do what they wish and be part of the sex trade if they wish.

    I agree that we should be tackling the societal situation that forces people to sell themselves to survive; to maintain their families; and in some cases to feed their drugs use.

    I believe there is a distinct difference between not getting work and then making a choice to work in the sex trade – versus – the circumstances where (mainly) young women are lured with promises, imprisoned, drugged and forced to participate in an horrendous life they do not wish or choose to do.

    I was in Amsterdam and came across the Red Light district when out walking. I felt embarrassed and very sad for the women I saw there, although I was ignorant of the circumstances of those people. I came across an article about a year later and have since read more including accounts given on their experiences of being abducted and forced into the most horrendous life, with little hope of being saved or escaping. I learned that a high percentage of the people I saw there would be trafficked. The statistics are there for anyone to read should they so wish.

    Based on that, I read the message from the dancers to be aimed at the people who had been abducted and trafficked and, however, misguided you view that to be, to bring attention to anyone who saw it. At least they are attempting to do something. My concern is that it is a huge criminal activity and they may suffer for their actions.

    So, in the simplest form – in my view, there is a HUGE difference between making a decision (voluntary or circumstantial) to sell your body for money, and those people who are abducted and trafficked and living a life too horrific to even contemplate, without their consent.

    • With respect:

      “I learned that a high percentage of the people I saw there would be trafficked. The statistics are there for anyone to read should they so wish.”

      The statistics aren’t there, and those we have indicate that trafficking is happening on a much smaller scale than we are generally led to believe. There’s a link in the main article to a guardian article breaking down some figures regarding the UK’s anti-trafficking operations.

      • Here’s a link to a Dutch article which cites some actual research on coercion in the Dutch sex industry.

        The article is in Dutch, but I have a English translation of it (not available online). The relevant bits:

        “The Scientific Research and Documentation Centre (WODC) of the Ministry of Justice did a comprehensive Evaluation on the Lifting of the Ban on Brothels. The conclusions were moderately positive. In the report by Regioplan, 354 prostitutes from the legal circuit were comprehensively interviewed in a neutral environment. Not any sign of human trafficking was detected. Eight percent – and not 75% as ex-Labour Party and Member of Parliament, Hilkens had claimed – pointed out they had initially entered the business by force.

        In a scientific research report by Platform 31 professor Hendrik Wagenaar (Sheffield University) reached similar conclusions. A small ten percent of the legally working and besides confident prostitutes once had to free themselves from unacceptable working conditions.

        A collaboration between scientists and the Criminal Investigation Department did a study of forced sex work in massage parlours that turned out to be almost non-existing.”

        Obviously the nature of “trafficking” is that you’re not going to be able to detect all of it, but even accepting that those findings understate the case to some degree, there’s still a long way to go before you can validly claim that a “high percentage” are trafficked.

        (Disclaimer: I haven’t read the primary sources. But they are linked to in that article if you want to check them out.)

  10. Very interesting response. I saw the video and thought it amazing as a vignette and a great ad campaign – but that the money shot, the reveal, was all about male shame. So the gratifying moment here is about seeing men humiliated for a situation that they may not want at all (I’d propose here, possibly controversially, that few men would actually like to stimulate human sex-worker traffic based on deception. Maybe someone could prove me wrong). So ultimately we’re back to man-shaming as a way to end sex work – a strategy that is fraught, complicated and replete with puritan zeal, and which denies female agency in selecting sex-work as an option (and yes, of course coercion is different).

    To Wendy Lyon – there’s great discussion about the Poppy Project in the UK, too, which (allegedly) found far fewer victims of sex trafficking than had been anticipated.

  11. Pingback: Why this video needs to fuck off | The Fucked Up Crew

  12. I agree with every sentiment expressed in this article. I come from a country where the sex industry is heavily criminalized (South Africa) and as far as I can understand it, criminalization is the root of all evil, so to speak, in this matter. Every other month there is a story about how police officers harassed sex workers only for the object, seemingly, of extorting sexual favours from them, or using the official “procedure” to abduct the “accused” to a place where they might be raped. This state of affairs is enabled by only one thing I think: the criminalization of the sex industry. This is in some way supported by the implicit moral judgement in society against sex work which in turn sustains the prevailing legal position and gives power to the courts to deliver certain judgments in favour of others.

    And this video seems to be fueled by that implicit moral judgement. So, yes. It should definitely fuck off. Nicely put, eithnecrow.

  13. Pingback: Melissa Gira Grant | Sex Work in 2013: No Debate

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