Willing Brides and Consenting Homosexuals ? : why we must unite against the trafficking paradigm.

28/09/2010 at 07:23 4 comments

by Cheryl Overs.

Over the last few months I have been reading and writing about sex work and law. I have had the chance to comment on several excellent papers as they are being written and had some wonderful opportunities to work with skilled and knowledgeable activists in human rights, the women’s movement, HIV and sexual and reproductive health.  I have also had some great opportunities to learn from sex workers and hear the conversations that are taking place within the movement.

Of course there is plenty to say about so many aspects of sex work and law globally.  Much of it is being said by far more articulate people than me andthe PLRI website is dedicated to making that information accessible.  http://www.plri.org. Here I want to mention two issues that strike me as high priorities.

1.      A BIG MESS  : Sex workers have almost no say in research  and it is a mess of competing agendas and assumptions.

Research standards are appalling and we don’t even know what laws affect sex workers in various jurisdictions or have common definitions of decriminalisation, regulation, legalisation, semi decriminalisation etc .  Every day a new conceptual framework for sex work law appears in my inbox. The only thing they seem to have in common is they are all written by non sex workers  ( see   http://www.plri.org/resource/17-different-frameworks-sex-work-law-and-still-counting)

This,  combined with  ideologically driven faux-research,  distorts the information base and  renders sex work virtually a fact free area.  This is illustrated by the incomprehensible mix of law reform that is taking place around the world.

2.       A BIG MISTAKE :  the Trafficking Paradigm.

My second  issue is about the polarised battle that is seeing sex work sredefined as ‘trafficking and sexual explotati0n’.    Sex workers are frustrated by the ideologies that have driven destructive and abusive attacks on  sex industries disguised as  raids and rescues of exploittion victims.    Recently  this has gone to a new and more dangerous level.   In the course of  exchanging  ‘track-changed’ documents with colleagues and fellow activists from different disciplines and backgrounds  I have noticed emergence of a new term  “willing sex workers.

The danger here is that this term signifies that even those who support decriminalisation of sex work are now accepting the trafficking paradigm by repositing  willing sex workers as a subset of this broader category  ‘sex worker/victim of trafficking or sexaul explotation.   Male and transgender sex workers are invisibilised in this discourse , perhaps because they are not so easily  labelled as exploited/trafficked.   (Although why leave a lucrative market untapped?  Proposals to end an imaginary scourge of trafficking  of men are no doubt being written as we speak.)

The implications of this slow but clear shift are enormous. Health and human rights promoting programmes f – in other words successful sex worker interventions – can now be seen  as applicable only  to ‘willing sex workers’ while  ‘unwilling’ sex workers deemed to be trafficked or sexually exploited need  raids, rehabilitation and anti-trafficking programmes.

Perhaps the most depressing thing about this is that sex workers themselves and other well meaning folks are buying into the trafficking paradigm.   People are rightly concerned about slavery, child sexual abuse and people smuggling.  I am not going to argue about how many people are forced into sex work,  but even in that overstudied  ‘hotbed of sex trafficking’  Cambodia,  the only credible study,    less than 2% of sex workers say they had been sold or co-oerced.  ( CACHA 2008) How might this compare to the percentage of married women who were forced into  marriage  – even in the ‘hotbeds’  of forced marriage ? What percentage of gay men  have been forced into sodomy ?  We don’t know, but clearly both happen.  But it would be absurd  to  preface the words  ‘bride’ and ‘gay man’ with  ‘willing’ or ‘consenting’.  Can you imagine reports that say that condoms should be distributed to ‘consenting homosexuals’ ?  Can you think of anything more absurd, more homophobic or more stigmatising ? Can you think of anything more absurd than describing Kate Middleton  as a ‘willing bride’ ?

Positioning  ‘willing’ and  ‘unwilling’  doesn’t contribute to justice for people who have been raped, beaten imprisoned in the course of either marriage, homosexuality  and no-one would suggest that.  Nor would anyone suggest that  rejecting the terms  ‘willing brides’  and ‘consenting homosexuals’  amounts to a denial that those things happen.  Yet this is exactly what the trafficking paradigm sets out for sex workers.

I was very surprised recently to see a US sex worker  group congratulating a state government in the US for wiping the prostitution convictions  of  ‘trafficking victims’.    This  confirms to the government that ‘innocent victims’  deserve kinder treatement than   the  ‘willing sex workers’ whose convictions will stand.  To me this was a very disappointing piece of advocacy.

Labour rights are  the main demand that flows from the idea that sex work is work.  These demands  for human and labor rights apply equally to the willing and the unwilling – and everyone in between, which is most sex workers.

Perhaps the highest priority for the sex workers rights movement should be to unite to reject the entire paradigm of trafficking and sexual exploitation.  Only by doing this can we  focus on convincing the public and policy makers that  public health, human rights and social development  outcomes for sex workers depend on  justice for all. The duped innocent,  for the incorrigible slut,  for the happy hooker;  for the screaming queen and for the ‘sex slave’   – and for  the other 99% of adult sex workers who dont fit these  sterotypes  – all need the same thing and our  slogan says it perfectly – ‘only rights can stop the wrongs’


Entry filed under: health, HIV and AIDS, human rights and law, research, sex work.

Human Rights : part of the problem ? VAMP’s response to “Prostitutes of God”

4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. FW  |  30/09/2010 at 11:12

    ♥ Excellent entry. The constant trafficking talk does where one down, though I fight it like my life depends on it. It’s the demand – DEMAND – that sex workers rights advocates MUST acknowledge that trafficking happens… and once we do, if we do… nobody lets you forget about all the poor unwilling victims that they want to get paid to save.

    Whole thing is disgusting. ‘Cept you. You’re great. 🙂

  • 2. Ariane  |  06/10/2012 at 23:07

    Reblogged this on Καιρός und kommentierte:
    I d like also add the fact of “cargo-cult-science” (Richard Feynman) is in full bloom.

  • 3. scarlotharlot  |  04/11/2012 at 18:06

    Reblogged this on Bound, Not Gagged.

  • 4. scarlotharlot  |  04/11/2012 at 18:37

    I hadn’t read this before, Chery. Great! Yes, and you know it’s one of my bones of contention. It’s an endless cycle of confirmation of anti-trafficking frameworks(s).

    Much of this issue revolves around funding. It’s my impression that ‘the most respected,’ receive funds under the auspices of trafficking. There is huge status attached to this, even from within our communities. Class issues are in play here also…Plus they can do, and actually do great work in the field of sex worker rights as well.

    Really, being a U.S.-er, I compare this to the 50s McCarthyism. It’s very serious and we are constantly confronted by people who must swear publicly that they are ‘opposed to trafficking,’ (despite the fact that trafficking includes regular commercial sex in U.S. law…which people don’t know or choose to ignore.)

    When wading through supporting sex worker expression, I keep signing on to (and promoting) our statements which now ALWAYS include opposition to trafficking (without mentioning the problems of the definition).

    I think we could turn that around with enough explanation from enough people. I think those who are concerned about this need to mount a campaign…that means me too.

    So, we can critique the frameworks, perhaps develop new relationships with advocacy groups that need to swear we are not ‘communists’ (metaphorically).

    Also there are further questions of inside-outside strategies that I think our movement needs to address, and how to work with sex worker ally groups (and actual sex worker groups) that are more aligned with the U.S. Evil Empire-Mainstream. Just my own sardonic take on it here, but one of my issues is how it would be good to create an environment that isn’t so treacherous emotionally, and that would include more respect. I know all movements have these issues…and I have been in others and seen it, but it seems like a goal and an issue in this and other contexts.

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