Crusade against trafficking may be missing the point on sex industry

Reports into human trafficking typically fail to acknowledge that foreigners who wish to come to work in the EU have very few legal options available, and thus tend to be forced into the shadow economy where they are, indeed, vulnerable to exploitation

A BBC investigation has that found up to £500,000 every week is spent on prostitution in the North, while the PSNI estimate there are 88 brothels in operation. Cue predictable outrage from every quarter. Presumably, the figures south of the border are even higher.

According to the BBC, “Many of the women working in the brothels have been trafficked from abroad. They are held captive and forced into prostitution.” Sensational stuff, eh? Images of hundreds of dark ladies held in manacles, unshackled only to perform their immoral services, spring to mind.

Examine the fine print, however, and you discover that the average number of women in each of these brothels is not 25 or 50 but just 2, practically a cottage industry, in other words. So there are 170-odd whores in the North, not counting those who work the streets, servicing an adult male population of something like 700,000? Well, blow me down.

An earnest inspector was quoted as saying, “There’s a significant demand in Northern Ireland for prostitutes and that’s larger than other parts of the UK and Europe.” Where his evidence came from wasn’t clear. England sounds like a seriously moral place.

Being a Northern story, it was only to be a matter of hours before the police were being bashed, this time by Amnesty International for not doing enough to help the “victims”. Again, no evidence was provided for this claim. But what do I know?

Perhaps hundreds of African and East European girls have been on the phone to Amnesty complaining about the RUC, er, PSNI and their chauvinistic, patriarchal, sectarian, racist, blah, blah attitude? Or maybe not.

It was St Augustine (AD 354–430), hardly a sexual radical, who admitted that if prostitutes were banned, society “would be reduced to chaos through unsatisfied lust”. Cato the Elder (234–149 BC) was even more pragmatic: noticing a young aristocrat leaving a brothel, he went over to applaud him on the grounds that the more easily his sexual desires were satisfied, the more time he would spend on serious matters.

I’m not sure I would go that far, but some of these popular misconceptions — held by the BBC, the police and Amnesty alike — deserve to be pricked.

The modern approach to sex offences has little to do with human rights. It is really concerned with patrolling sexual behaviour, and protecting stereotypical spiritual women from stereotypical animalistic men.

Reports into human trafficking typically fail to acknowledge that foreigners who wish to come to work in the EU have very few legal options available, and thus tend to be forced into the shadow economy where they are, indeed, vulnerable to exploitation.

‘Trafficking’ has too often become another word for migration. This vague and prejudiced label fails to acknowledge that people often take free decisions to leave their homes, and also that the reason they fall into the hands of ‘traffickers’ is because no one else will assist their desire to make a better life for themselves.

The frequently well-intentioned anti-traffickers claim there is a new ‘slave trade’ — tens of thousands of people, especially women and children, being sold across borders and into bondage every year. The anti-traffickers paint a picture of Conradian darkness, where women and children are bought and sold by evil gangs, and then forced into labour and kept in their place by threats of murder or voodoo vengeance.

This distorted depiction portrays foreign women, especially those who end up working in prostitution, as objects rather than as active subjects. These women do not simply move around the world; rather they are trafficked across borders, smuggled and shifted like pieces on a chess board.

Apparently, they do not make hard decisions about where to go and what work to carry out; instead they are bought and sold and forced into ‘slave labour’ from which they must be ‘rescued’, in other words, sent back where they came from — all in their own best interests, of course.

Of course, forced kidnapping should be clamped down on. But migrants are often willing to take menial jobs for relatively low wages as this is still preferable to the poor opportunities in their home countries.

To the Amnesty Internationals of this world, any woman working in the sex industry as, by definition, exploited and abused. The fact is that some migrants choose to work in the sex industry in order to avoid exploitation in other industries, where there is frequently low pay and long working hours. Police raid after police raid in Ireland and the UK has found precious few victims and rather a lot of women who have said openly and without duress that prostitution is their chosen line of work.

Curiously, though, migrants tend to become subjects of concern for campaigners only when they enter the sex industry, despite the fact that they can earn significantly more that way than they would as home-helps or fruit-pickers, for instance.

Of course, women often enter the sex industry because of a lack of choice; you would be hard-pressed to find young girls who aspire to be prostitutes when they grow up. Yet at the same time, how many workers in different industries and sectors, especially poorly paid migrant workers, feel that they have unlimited options available to them? Don’t most people work out of necessity? Ultimately, ‘trafficking’ has become a powerful and emotive tool for prostitution abolitionists to win wider public support for their efforts to clamp down on the sex industry as a whole.

In a world where hard choices have to be made, many want to get on with their jobs so they can provide for themselves and their families. For some working in the sex industry — which by the way covers everything from charging for sex to providing attentive dinner company to pole dancing — is enjoyable, or at least more fun than gutting chickens, for instance.

Yes, whenever there is forced trafficking of people, it should be clamped down upon. The problem today is that the term ‘trafficking’ is being applied promiscuously to more and more situations where individuals have not been blown by the wind to try their luck in the West; they have made a conscious decision to come here.

The crusade against trafficking looks less and less like a serious attempt to assist migrants and increase their options, and more like a super-moralistic fantasy campaign against evil and perverted Johnny Foreigners polluting and corrupting Western civilisation. Women in the sex industry, wherever in the world they hail from, can think for themselves.

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