Margaret Corvid on desire, change and culture

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Sex work is work: exploding the “sex trafficking” myth

With the freedom to work, organise and fight, sex workers will end coercion in the trade.

If sex work is work, then sex workers are workers. Photo: Getty
If sex work is work, then sex workers are workers. Photo: Getty

I am lucky to have taken up my work as a dominatrix amid a revolution in our thinking about sex work. Writers like Laura Agustín and Melissa Gira Grant have taken apart our sexualised, othered image, and sex workers and allies proclaim loudly that sex work is work. Banal on its surface, that statement is profound in its implications. We all work for a multitude of reasons, good and bad, mundane and heart-wrenching. It is society that frames those reasons differently, based on gender, race, class, and nationality.

Like everyone, I’ve seen the reports of people from foreign lands, brought to the west and forced to do sex work. They are called trafficked women, and are often depicted at the point of a police raid, with flashing cameras shoved in their faces. At best, they’re shown as victims; at worst, as nuisances and criminals. I write today to stand with Agustin, Grant, and Maggie McNeill, who have so powerfully argued that this portrayal, and the very concept of “sex trafficking” that underpins it, is a myth. To say this is not to sideline the coerced; in dismantling this pernicious myth, we put their lived experiences front and centre. Coercion, force, and violence in sex work are very real, but they pertain generally to life as a member of the oppressed, not just to sex work. They must be fought across the world, and the concept of sex trafficking does not help in that fight. Instead, it obscures the fact that many types of workers, from carers to builders, suffer force, violence and exploitation. Insidiously, the trafficking myth also deprives sex workers of agency and identity, as it sexualises and fetishises our lives and bodies.

Our stories can look very different from sensationalised raid reports or racy tell-alls, even with familiar-sounding facts. Originally from Romania, Paula was sixteen when her boyfriend took her to London to work as a sex worker. It was not her idea, but she was in love, and as excited as any new immigrant. She was willing to give sex work, and England, a chance.  Her boyfriend became an abusive drunk and addict, and after nearly a year, she was done. He grounded her by snatching her passport. “I couldn’t go anywhere. . . if you don’t have papers, you don’t exist,” said Paula. She went back to work; when she befriended a pickpocket, he sent his confederates to recover her ID.

Having freed herself, Paula dumped her boyfriend and set up as an independent sex worker, choosing her own working flat and making it comfortable and secure. By 2012, she was well on her way to success, taking an English course and saving up to study nursing. She was a part of the neighbourhood; she had applied for a national insurance number. Then, on 3 September, she was raided.  “When the police came in, they started accusing me of being a pickpocket and a beggar, just because I am a Romanian,” she said. They barraged her with questions and upended her tidy flat in a search for drugs. Although she was entitled to be in the country as an EEA national, she was reported to immigration authorities, and ordered to present her proof at the police station.

On the same day Paula’s flat was raided, police stormed into a number of flats in Mayfair, tearing down notices and harassing sex workers, maids and receptionists. Women working legally were thrown out of their flats and threatened with arrest if they returned to work; no evidence of drugs, minors or trafficked sex workers was found. Paula operated for months under police suspicion, never knowing when police or immigration authorities would approach her – even at her home, where she kept her job a secret. Eventually, she was cleared, but the experience changed her; today, Paula supports and organises alongside her fellow sex workers at the English Collective of Prostitutes.

Her experience is typical. “We’ve always said that anti-trafficking legislation was aimed at stopping women crossing international borders,” says ECP spokeswoman Niki Adams. “Trafficking is used as an excuse and a justification for raids on premises and arrests of immigrant sex workers which are ultimately and actually just immigration raids. It’s a way of enforcing immigration controls in a very repressive and heavy-handed way, but with the veneer of an anti-trafficking initiative and the idea that you’re saving victims. It’s just a con,” she says.

If sex work is work, then sex workers are workers. We face – and fight – all of the intersecting, systemic oppressions faced by workers everywhere. While law enforcement and a well-funded rescue industry contribute to a worldwide attack on our rights, sex workers have long been in the forefront of militancy and organisation. Like workers everywhere, sex workers are best situated to improve safety and working standards. Around the millennium, as women disappeared in a Vancouver neighbourhood, activist Jamie Lee Hamilton established Grandma’s House, which provided food, condoms and safe rental rooms for sex workers. Women were still disappearing when Grandma’s House was raided and closed in August 2000, and Hamilton was charged with running a bawdy house. Serial killer Robert Pickton was not caught until 2002, and was convicted for the murders of 26 women; he told an undercover officer in prison that he had killed 49.

In the United States, authorities have recently closed and seized the assets of MyRedBook, an advertisement and forum site for sex workers and clients. Under the guise of fighting trafficking, prostitution and money laundering, they have shuttered a website with a long history of fostering sex worker solidarity. “It’s a huge loss from a community standpoint,” said Melissa Gira Grant, interviewed for a report published Tuesday. She recalled that the site, which started in the early 2000s, had had forums that were more active than the advertisements section. Much of the site was free to use; with its closure, sex workers with limited funds, arguably the most vulnerable, have lost an essential community resource. Law enforcement also regularly infiltrate and shut down online screening tools, routinely used in America, where clients upload proof of identity and sex workers can verify thems; dissuaded from using these tools, sex workers are left vulnerable to harm and arrest.

The raid on MyRedBook is part of a wider American crackdown on sex workers, whose result may, ironically, be more migration. “It’s almost like breast cancer awareness in its publicity right now,” says Kelly Michaels, an American specialist in tantric sex. Michaels tours to work when her children are with their father. For her, arrest could mean exposure and the loss of her children; touring can keep authorities from picking up the scent, but could equally put her at risk, as she is continually meeting new clients. “The main reason I tour is law enforcement. . .to keep myself a moving target. I would love to be able to book locally and not make myself vulnerable,” she says. For her, today’s media furore about trafficking has proved too much. After six years as a sex worker, and a bitter fight to wrest custody from a whore-shaming ex-husband, Michaels is retiring from sex work, and is making a documentary about her attempt to follow the advice of the rescue industry, supporting her family by other means.

Victor Hugo said that a writer is a world trapped in a person. The same is true of any of us. There is more to Paula’s story, or to Kelly’s, than a body and a job. Theirs are stories of personal success. They’re about the hope and apprehension of a new venture, the universality of domestic violence, and the ingenuity displayed in surviving it. They’re about the joy of building a business, and the fear of its destruction through causes outside of your control. They’re stories about finding your voice. Most of all, they are each a part of the broad, human story of uncertainty, change, and the sometimes bumpy road to building a new life. We may enter sex work out of optimism or out of desperation, and we may love our jobs or hate them. For most of us, our reasons, and our sentiments, fall somewhere in between, but all of us can fall prey to the state and the rescue industry. Capturing and labelling us, they decide our fates; they become the coercers, and can shatter lives. Let our society set them aside, together with the trafficking myth; let sex workers take the lead in debates about our lives and work. We are coming out of the shadows, and demanding our freedom to work, organise, and fight. With that freedom, sex workers ourselves will end coercion in our trade, and we will take our rightful place in the struggle to end it everywhere.