The told, and told again, tale of sex trafficking
I just read an article in the UK newspaper, the Guardian promoting a forthcoming book by Mexican journalist Lydia Cacho http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/sep/01/lydia-cacho-mexican-journalist-interview?newsfeed=true
The book makes an all too familiar claim to be breaking the silence over the ‘untold tale’ of sex trafficking. Can it have escaped anybody’s notice that far from being an untold tale, sex trafficking is the global cause de jour? Governments, charities, the UN, multilateral development agencies all kinds of authorities and private enterprise spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year on research and anti-trafficking initiatives. Who could have missed the enormous campaigns against sex trafficking backed by giants like Google, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and MTV. Dozens of documentaries, books, journal articles and films have been released including an HBO series that was seen by millions. Even Eastenders has had a sex trafficking storyline. Sex trafficking is a high priority of the US government which publishes the detailed Trafficking in Persons report each year and penalises countries that it sees as not taking strong enough actions against trafficking. A glance at the internet shows that thousands of anti-trafficking NGOs have been established in the last decade. Churches, clubs and student bodies in dozens of countries address sex trafficking either by funding rescues and rehabilitation of sex trafficking victims or ‘raising awareness’ about it. (if you doubt any of this set up a Google Alert for ‘sex trafficking’) Several ‘campaigning journalists’ have made sex slavery their schtick, most notably Nikolas Kristof of the New York Times whose methods have included buying ‘sex slaves’ and raiding brothels in Cambodia. It has become the favorite cause of globally famous artists and local amateur dramatic societies alike and attracted a constellation of celebrities from Meg Ryan and Emma Thompson to Demi Moore and Ashton Krutchner. (pictured in India with rescued girls) Like Cacho, they invariably posit themselves as ‘brave’ and declare themselves ‘not easily scared’ the moment they step out of their hotels with their media minders or security staff to ‘confront the traffickers’. ( Cacho takes this one step further by giving herself this award within the hotel.)
The publisher could not have missed this. Presumably they assessed the appetite for sex slave stories and saw a market not yet satiated. But readers really should know two things before they consider buying the book.
First there is a huge and growing body of credible evidence that much of the information and data about trafficking are inaccurate to wildly exaggerated. Even the US Governments’ own Office of Accountability noticed that the actual number of trafficking victims located by US funded programs was far fewer than projected and insufficient to justify the expenditure. (see 2007 HUMAN TRAFFICKING : Monitoring and Evaluation of International Projects Are Limited, but Experts Suggest Improvements. digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1015&context=humtraffdata) All around the world it is routine for costly police operations to fail to locate any trafficking victims among the sex workers they arrest. (The UK’s Operation Pentameter was a case in point. see Mai, N Migrant Workers in the UK Sex Industry (2009) ESRC End of Award Report, RES-062-23-0137. Swindon)
Second, the discourse advanced by Cacho and many, many others before her, leads to laws that conflate trafficking with sex work and seek to eradicate it by criminalising clients and subjecting sex workers to raids, arrests, forced rehabilitation and detention, and in the case of migrants, deportation.
Many rescue organisations set up in the sex trafficking boom have been found to be unethical and the centres in which sex workers are detained after alleged rescues are often hotbeds of abuse from which they escape as soon as possible. And of course the so called rescues are conducted by the same corrupt police that sex workers in much of the world identify as the main perpetrators of violence against them.
Happily in contrast there is a genuinely untold story that’s worth listening to. It is sex workers global mobilisation against the about sex trafficking and abuse it creates.
There is a large and sophisticated sex workers rights movement made up of sex workers of all genders, ages and backgrounds V from dozens of countries both rich and poor. Hundreds of them met recently at the Sex Workers Freedom Festival in Kolkata India where they talked with an authority possessed only by those who have lived the experience about the real nature of human trafficking, people smuggling and exploitation of migrant sex workers. “Save us from saviours’ has become a catch cry of sex workers who tell a more nuanced and complex story than the simple discourse of sex trafficking by gangs of violent male criminals serving up duped innocents for other men to rape. They talk about the damage caused by the blunt tool of anti-sex work laws that claim to address trafficking but which fail the real victims, miss the perpetrators and violate the dignity and rights of all sex workers. They insist that the sex workers rights movement offers far better analysis as well as practical solutions to these issues. They reject the suggestion made by Cacho and other feminists that sex work is slavery since no woman with perfect choices would ever do it. On that logic stacking shelves in a supermarket in London is slavery, let alone working in an electronics factory in China or a quarry in the Congo.
Although the account of Cacho’s investigative method in the Guardian article is not complete it struck me what an impoverished and unethical vantage point sneaking about hotel lobbies taking secret photos of sex workers and their clients is compared to the lived, considered and articulated positions expressed by sex workers in Kolkata last month. So is conducting interviews that the author constructs and interprets. Who would buy a book about, say, Native Americans, based on secret photos taken around a reservation and having asked a few of the indigenous people how awful their lives are?
It’s particularly disappointing that Cacho did just that in Bangkok of all places. One of the most well established and respected sex worker organisations in the world, Empower, and the regional federation of sex workers’ organisations the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers were both just a couple of train stops away. Those sex worker led organisations provide insights that are as complex as the issue and as rich as the collective experience of those who have lived it. They do this not only through publications but also through films, pictures and performance. Empower, which includes many women from Burma and other Asian countries in Thailand to work in the sex industry, recently produced an excellent report and beautiful and informative tapestry about trafficking and anti-trafficking. ( See Empower Foundation ‘Hit and Run’ http://www.empowerfoundation.org/index_en.html) Cacho would have been much better off spending her time talking with the women who told their genuinely untold tales in that work of art than sitting in her hotel imagining the traffickers coming to get her. Likewise readers would be better to listen to what sex workers have to say about trafficking and how to fix it than reading yet another contribution to the ‘sex slave’ literature genre.
Any potential readers interested in actually benefitting people abused within sex industries, of which there are plenty, would be better off sending their money to an organisation like Empower to use to give practical support to real women and supporting them to push their case for real solutions in the real world.
Cheryl Overs August 2012
Entry filed under: research.