Sex Work and “Human Trafficking” in Canada II: Poverty and Opportunity

(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 three will follow tomorrow.)

The Rescue Industry

Entering into this fray is what Laura Agustin aptly names “the Rescue Industry.”  Over the years, a network of NGOs, government agencies, law enforcement, public services, anti-porn crusaders, corporations, churches, journalists and even hospitals has developed in an informal capacity to propagate the rhetoric of the supposed sex work menace, often conflating prostitution, rape, human trafficking and slavery to the point where the terminology is used interchangeably.

Agustin regularly dissects the euphemisms and tactics of the rescue industry in her book, Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry, and her blog, including this observation:

The old-fashioned term still being used around the world is rehabilitation. – surprising, really, since the moralism behind it is so overt. That is, to talk about rehabilitation is to say that one’s present self is a mess, one is living some wrong way, one is self-harming and so on. Within that frame, rehabilitation means We will help you get clean and healthy. That’s good if you feel unhappy about your present lifestyle yourself – morally, I mean. The usage meant to replace rehabilitation talks about Exit Strategies, but media reporters repeat the old clichés with gusto. In a report from Korea, purveyors of rehabilitation admitted no one wants what’s on offer….

Working closely with this rescue industry, you’ll also find a group of anti-porn activists united by a belief that anything sexual exploits and therefore harms women, even if women are engaging in it voluntarily, enjoy what they do and remain fully autonomous.  Melissa Farley and Janice Raymond are two such names you’ll find recurring in anti sex work campaigns, and both were also called in as “expert testimony” in the Ontario court case by intervenors Catholic Civil Rights League, Christian Legal Fellowship and REAL Women of Canada.  Farley is an American anti-porn and anti-prostitution activist, director of Prostitution Research and Education and an advocate of the “Swedish Model” of laws which criminalizes the buyer (discussed shortly). 

Janice Raymond is a name many of my readers will remember from her book, The Transsexual Empire: the making of the she-male, which claims that transsexuals are really predatory men infiltrating the womens’ rights movement (and did decades of damage to trans people and created barriers to obtaining sometimes the most basic of human rights), and a paper for the US Government which led to the specific defunding or elimination of trans-related health care in public sectors, including during incarceration for transsexuals — sometimes even in cases of contrived connections like breast cancer.  She has since become a major proponent of sex work criminalization, and remains a representative for a number of rescue industry NGOs.  In “SEX TRAFFICKING OF WOMEN IN THE UNITED STATES, “ Raymond and D. Hughes assume that sex work is always exploitative anyway, so conflating the two is perfectly okay:

“… trafficking should not be separated from prostitution.  Anti-trafficking policies and programs must address organized prostitution and domestic trafficking. Most trafficking is for prostitution, and operates within the context of domestic sex industries.”

Of the intervenors who invited these two to testify, REAL Women of Canada has acted as intervenor (with mixed results) in most major social issues that come before a major court, including R. v. Morgentaler (which decriminalized abortion), M. v. H. (on the rights and benefits of same-sex couples), R. v. Sullivan (arguing for the personhood of the fetus), and the upcoming BC hearings regarding the legality of statutes in the Criminal Code which criminalize both polygamy and polyamory. They have also lobbied on nearly every piece of social-related legislation considered at the federal level in Canada, including Bill C-389.  The Catholic Civil Rights League and REAL Women of Canada were members of the Defend Marriage Canada coalition that fought same-sex marriage in Canada at every opportunity as well.  Although the organization and founder Gwen Landolt don’t enjoy the same kind of unquestioning loyalty from the Harper government that evangelicals like Charles McVety does, but the organization has made it one of their core positions to advocate for further criminalization of all forms of sex work, and “rehabilitation” of all sex workers, regardless of whether they want it.

Poverty and Opportunity, Border Migration and Human Trafficking

The reasons that women and men turn to sex work will often vary, but there is often some mix of poverty and opportunity in the equation.  Of the kinds of sex work I mentioned — street work, escorting, stripping, lap dancing, pro-dom(me)ing, massage, survival sex and porn — the balance between poverty and opportunity varies, but it tends to be paralleled by a balance between helplessness and control of one’s surroundings.  There are some who will always find a certain kinship on the street and gravitate there, and that’s cool if it works well for them (personally, I don’t know if such a sentiment can be sustained indefinitely), but overall, the situations where one is in less control of one’s environment tend to coincide with those where there is more desperation.  The end result of criminalization, however, is to take those opportunities out of the hands of the women and men who engage in sex work — opportunities which are happily snapped up by people who have no qualms of using others and are versed in subverting law and ethics.  And the poverty… the poverty always remains.

As mentioned, there is some belief that any portrayal of women for sexual purposes — whether the participant is motivated by poverty or opportunity — is violence.  Certainly, the sexualization of women in any context — whether in porn or conventional media — has potential to be (and most often is) objectifying to some degree.  Everyone’s opinion on this subject will vary, and it’s probably another article altogether, but given the intangible nature of human attraction, I don’t think it’s a realistic expectation to eliminate objectification entirely.  But it can be empowering to step into that role and take it and define it to be more consistent with our own understanding of ourselves.

With all this talk of human trafficking, it helps to understand what it is and isn’t.  The UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children (or Trafficking Protocol) defines it as:

“The recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs….”

Human trafficking doesn’t always include border migration, and the exploitation isn’t always about the selling and buying of sex, but the consistent elements are that one person ends up controlling another, via unethically-obtained consent or no consent at all, for the purposes of exploitation.

The distinction that the exploitation isn’t always about the selling and buying of sex is important.  There is a lot of talk about the Swedish Model, which criminalizes those who buy, but purports to emancipate those who sell.  This sounds great and noble on the surface, but in practical application still drives the trading of sex into underground cultures.  Even if sex workers can live without fear, the fact that their clients can’t still means rushed negotiations and communicating in risky areas.  In Sweden and the nations that followed it (Norway, Iceland), sex work hasn’t particularly decreased so much as migrated to Internet-based ventures, and if it hasn’t decreased, then it’s difficult to determine if any human trafficking has actually stopped.  More than that, in practical application, client-focused laws still provide authorities the means of harassing sex workers, in the guise of protecting them or else driving them out of the neighbourhood.  There have even been reports of increased violence, something that is certainly possible with a customer base that is in fear and on constant edge (Polismyndigheten i Skåne, Rapport – Lag (1998:408) om förbud mot köp av sexuella tjänster, Malmö-rapporten, s.27. (Skåne Police, Report – Law (1998:408) prohibiting the purchase of sexual services, Malmo report, s.27) ALM 429-14044/99, 2001).  There are some positives in the Swedish Model where that system empowers women; where it criminalizes the buyer, not so much.

In the western world, human trafficking is usually fought by combating sex work and any cross-border migration that can be tied to sex work. The latter assumes that everyone coming into Canada, the US, the UK, etc. and engages in sex work must be exploited.  Consequently, the failure to recognize that some might come here of their own volition and find opportunity has led to many of the statistical studies in human trafficking to be badly flawed, and focusing on solely these approaches has caused many real victims of human trafficking to fall through the cracks.  Using the term “human trafficking” for everything from escorting to refugees (or going one better like is starting to do by constantly conflating that with “child human trafficking”) actually confuses the issue, deflecting resources to fighting legitimate sex work along with exploitation, making it impossible to get clear and realistically comparative data, and setting up the fight against real trafficking to be controlled and exploited by far right moralists who are more interested in controlling what happens in peoples’ bedrooms than actually saving people in dire straits.

The irony is kind of sick, when you think about it.

(To be continued tomorrow)

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