Sex Work and “Human Trafficking” in Canada IV: Going Forward

(I had to break this one into four parts, although it is essentially one article.  This part is directly preceded by Part One: The Ruling, Part Two: Poverty and Opportunity and Part Three: Trans and Sex Work.)

The War on Craigslist

The Ontario ruling occurs just as the human trafficking angle has gained enough traction to have escort listings removed from Craigslist.  The newspapers were more than happy to fuel that fire, too.  Papers receive the lion’s share of their revenue from classifieds, and are hurting significantly because of services like Craigslist, Kijiji, eBay et al.  Some of those publications (like the Sun papers in Alberta) used to make a pretty penny from escorts’ ads, themselves.

Change.org has spearheaded much of the “end trafficking” vocalization which entirely confuses sex work with trafficking interchangeably — enough so that I’ve almost written them off as a not-enough-of-the-facts site that willingly exploits herd-mentality thinking and unfilled blanks in order to advance its causes.  Nevertheless, a petition has been filed which supports sex worker rights and opposes the scapegoating of avenues of trade like Craigslist.  I urge my US-based readers (we Canucks can’t participate) to read and if so inclined, to sign.

Where To Go From Here?

For the time being, not much has changed.  A stay was issued on the ruling pending an appeal, and law enforcement in many cities have stated the intent to continue to enforce the laws in question.

But the chances of an appeal yielding a different result is fairly spurious, and ultimately, the Canadian government will need to reassess sex work as a whole.  New Zealand (where sex work was completely decriminalized) and Sweden have been held up as two divergent possible models.  The New Zealand model does have some regulation, sort of like saying “you have to allow this, but you get to choose how and where it can happen,” and this has allowed them to still tackle real human trafficking and exploitation, while giving the women and men who engage in sex work autonomy.  But our Conservative government has not been as fond of decriminalization, which is simply not sex-negative enough for their liking.

Even before the ruling, the backlash was mounting.  The Conservative government started writing legislation to use backdoor clauses in laws to combat organized crime and legislation pretending to combat human trafficking to generate new approaches to fight all manner of sex work, and even facilities like bathhouses.

Human trafficking does exist.  I’m not claiming that it doesn’t or that it isn’t serious.  However, further criminalizing sex work by taking away any and all means to do it safely and in a self-determined way is a horribly misguided means of combating it, and that is what this discussion has disintegrated into.

I’m also not going to labour on the point that trafficking isn’t as widespread as it’s claimed, except to point out that the statistics generated to raise concerns are inflated, and in fact provide some cover for some forms of trafficking.  The premise that “crossing borders” + “engaging in sex work” always = “human trafficking” means that if you help someone you met online come to your country and then she starts working as a stripper, then that gets added to human trafficking statistics.  Hell, some of the loosely-defined studies would group Jesus himself in as a sex trafficker, if he accompanied Mary Magdalene across a border.  However, it’s true that even if it’s a small number of people affected, outrage is still justified and something needs to be done.

What I don’t agree with is the idea that the disempowerment of women in the sex industry will help in any way to end it.  You can try to end ponzi schemes by banning all financial investing, and it may in fact address some ponzi schemes… a little bit… for awhile… until those behind them find a loophole.  In the process, you’ve destroyed an industry for little benefit, and even driven underground the people who might be best positioned to help fight the actual problem.

Any way forward MUST empower the women and men who work in the sex trade, and give them the freedom to be self-determining. Failure to do so will only perpetuate the underground nature of sex work and create opportunities for exploitative individuals and organizations.

Human trafficking is an issue that has been hijacked by a far-right agenda that wishes to dictate what women (and some men) do with their bodies.  It is the same lobby that opposes abortion, gender reassignment, contraception, porn and even at times masturbation.  It is a lobby that has decided that its warped interpretation of morality should be the overriding law of the land, and that somehow by achieving this, the economy and everything else will fall into line (and sometimes also believes that global catastrophe is preordained, and that the rapture is a reasonable exit strategy).  It is a lobby that demonizes free will and choice, because villainizing choice is an effective means to seduce the masses into supporting prejudices (by seducing people into believing that what they’re reacting to is not really a trait itself, when they’re acting on the unspoken and often inaccurate smorgasbord of inventions that go with it).  It is a lobby that twists language and exploits women and children in peril to redirect funding and social consciousness to fuel a social agenda that.

Human Trafficking Solutions

Of course, there still remains what to do about actual human trafficking, which is a serious problem, as it has been for decades.  Laws that actually target coercion, control and exploitation would be a start.  Enforcing them would require opportunities for authorities to be able to monitor the sex trade, without criminalizing the trade itself.  The whole logic behind anti-prostitution law being used to fight human trafficking resides in the fact that it gives opportunity for investigation.  If sex work is decriminalized, there needs to be some other means of initiating an investigation that ideally won’t be abused by those same authorities to harass.  Licensing might be one way of creating a regulation structure, although Canadian cities have long licensed escorts and grossly abused that process (earning Edmonton a reputation for being “worst pimp in Canada” first by ridiculously high license fees and when the cry of extortion went up , by using the law to harass and levy ridiculous fines).  Not to mention that it will take a generation for sex workers to be comfortable with regulation and intrusion of any sort, even if the authorities in question work in earnest to do so ethically.  Another possibility is to look at immigration by screening the jobs that applicants are coming to Canada to fill, and emigration by launching an information campaign on how to scrutinize job offers out-of-country — both targeted toward males under 18 and females under 28.

But empowerment is key.  Empowering sex workers to work more in the open, to have resources to turn to when there is distress, to have freedom to communicate… I’d call that a good start.

There are also still online services like Craigslist to consider.  Rather than shutting them down outright, one idea being advanced is establishing a verified adult industry provider section in such places.  I have mixed feelings on this, especially about how identification records could be abused (as law enforcement again historically has had a habit of doing), but it’s worth thinking further about.

And finally, I owe a thank-you to Laura Agustin for pointing to a Time Magazine article that seems fairly balanced and not so filtered through the biases of the agencies that typically provide info to reporters on how to navigate the issue. It states it better than I was going to when I first started this piece.  The article is specifically about women in Ukraine who become trafficked, and situations in other nations can, of course, vary.  But it is clear from this that the fight against human trafficking absolutely has to include work to address global poverty and corruption:

“Don’t be confused,” she says. “Nobody takes us by the hair and drags us onto the ships.” She gestures toward the mouth of the port. “Those are like the gates to freedom for a lot of us,” she says. “Yeah, like the Statue of Liberty,” adds another girl, and the group of them erupts into laughter.

In the article, Simon Shuster points out how the story we’ve come to expect of girls seduced by false promises of work in wealthier nations has actually changed, and the pimps we imagine have been replaced by former sex workers who simply explain how much money there is to be made in prostitution elsewhere, while kidnapping is now replaced by “voluntary, if desperate, participation:”

The poverty and general hopelessness in many villages of eastern Ukraine, Moldova and Romania now run so deep — especially in the wake of the financial crisis — that the promise of a job as a prostitute abroad is enough to get the vast majority of trafficked women to sign up voluntarily. They follow the mamachki to foreign resorts or big cities in Western Europe, where the prevalence of sex workers from the ex–Soviet Union has earned them a nickname: Natashas. The girls work the streets and hotel lobbies until they get deported or homesick. After a few weeks off in Odessa or wherever they call home, they’re shipped out again. The cycle ends when they earn enough to retire or, as more often happens, when they get too old for the job — which in this business can be as young as 26.

If we as a nation fail to see through the rhetoric, we will ultimately fail to deal with the real problem, and instead hamstring it.

Links

While I don’t encourage people to go into sex work, I do believe that anyone who does should have the info and resources they need to do so safely, and awareness of the risks and state of criminalization.

Advocacy Organizations:

Issues Discussion:

Safety Considerations:


  1. November 9th, 2010

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