Lies, Damn Lies, and Sexwork

When it comes to moral panics, nothing gets people riled up quite as much as sex. For a while now, I’ve been following the moral panic that some people are trying to foment around sex work and the trafficking of women.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I firmly believe that nobody should ever be forced into providing sex to anyone. There are no circumstances that I can think of that make that anything other than a horrible thing and I would love to live in a world in which that never happened. And at the same time, I also think it’s important to shine a light on the claims that thousands of women are trafficked in order to turn them into sex slaves.

So when Alexa tweeted a couple of articles from Britain’s Guardian about this topic, I went and checked them out. The first article details in inquiry into the existence of sex trafficking. Despite the claims that sex trafficking is widespread and the political support to end it, an analysis of the work all 55 police forces in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland showed that:

  • 10 police forces never found anyone to arrest for sex trafficking.
  • Of the 528 arrests for sex trafficking, 122 never happened. They were either recorded as sex trafficking by mistake or because the forces lied in order to look like they had made arrests.
  • Out of the remaining 406 arrests, only 15 people were actually convicted of trafficking. The others were either released or charged with other crimes ranging from minor offenses to managing a brothel.
  • For 10 of the 15 people convicted of trafficking, there was no evidence of coercion of the sexworkers they supposedly trafficked.

So either the police are incompetent or sex trafficking isn’t nearly as big a threat as some people claim. In either case, it doesn’t seem to me that adding more laws is going to help a lot.

The second article shows how the research on trafficking is based on a lot of speculation which is then exaggerated and inflated in order to scare people. For example, a couple of researchers were trying to determine how many women were trafficked for sex in 1998 and after interviewing the police, talking with specialists and studying the news reports, came up with 71 women who were trafficked or smuggled for sex. (If it’s voluntary, it’s smuggling rather than trafficking.)

They then suggested that the actual number might be as high as 20 times higher (1420 women), a number that they appeared to come up with by using as much flexibility as possible in an attempt to come up with an upper range. They cautiously said that “It is recognized that this is a wide range, but it indicates the likely scale of the problem while reflecting the poverty of information in this area.”

At that point, other people took the numbers without the disclaimers, exaggerated them and passed them on to other people who did the same. At the end of the process, all of which is detailed in the article, newspapers were reporting that 25,000 women had been trafficked into Britain for sex.

Similarly, an anti-sexwork group took the survey result that 80% of women involved in sexwork were foreign and claimed that most of them had been trafficked, even though the specialist police said otherwise. In fact, according to Dr. Nick Mai’s research:

the majority of migrant sex workers have chosen prostitution as a source of “dignified living conditions and to increase their opportunities for a better future while dramatically improving the living conditions of their families in the country of origin”.

Whenever anti-sexwork people bandy numbers and claims like these around, they consistently push for laws and measures that make the day-to-day lives of sexworkers harder. They increase the risks that people have to take to make the same amount of money, which puts them in real danger.

While a few groups are  honest about their desires to end prostitution, as if that has ever happened in any society, most of them wrap their efforts in the shroud of “protecting women” while acting in ways that make sexworkers’ lives harder, more dangerous, and more stigmatized.

What we need are policies and structures that help people make meaningful choices about their labor and their lives. We need to support people who engage in sexwork by not forcing them into the margins of society so they can access services without worrying about arrest. And yes, whenever someone is coerced into sexwork, we need to help them by offering real alternatives. But we also need to recognize that some people make an informed decision to become sexworkers for many different reasons and we need to respect that choice.

Just for a change, what if we actually asked sexworkers about their situations and made room for them to tell the world what they need? What if we listened to them without trying to filter it through an ideology that paints them as victims? What if we could treat them with respect and care, without infantilizing or denigrating them?

And what if we also looked at the research and used actual data to determine policies instead of accepting numbers that might as well have been created with a random generator with a few extra zeroes on the end? What if we based our decisions on what is actually happening instead of accepting as truth something that has been made up?

I wonder what policies we’d come up with. All I know is that it’d be very different than what we’re doing now.

Dr. Charlie Glickman

Charlie Glickman is the Education Program Manager at Good Vibrations. He also writes, blogs, teaches workshops and university courses, presents at conferences, and trains sexuality educators. He’s certified by the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists, and loves geeking out about sex, relationships, sex-positivity, love and shame, communities of erotic affiliation, and sexual practices and techniques of all varieties. Follow him online, on Twitter at @charlieglickman, or on Facebook.

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