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