Victims of trafficking are failed by our state-led approach

The reliance on state actors to deliver support is inadvertently compounding the suffering experienced by some of the most vulnerable people in the UK.

Faith travelled to the UK aged 14 with a couple who had promised her parents that she would support her. When they arrived she was locked in the house and made to work day and night for no pay. She was raped by her exploiter and made to have sex with other men. Her trafficker told her that if she went to the police they would put her in jail.

After a number of years she escaped when a door was left open. She saw a policeman but hid until he passed. Instead she approached a woman on the street. She stayed with her for a while however after being abused she escaped again and stayed on the streets for a period. Help came when she befriended a woman at a local church. After telling her about her experiences the woman told her about a local support group who in turn encouraged her to approach the police. Four years after coming to the UK she approached the authorities and told them about her experiences. Her trafficker has never been identified.

Faith was one of the women who participated in IPPR’s in-depth case study report on human trafficking between Nigeria and the UK. In 2011 alone, over two thousand potential victims of trafficking were identified in the UK. Despite notable efforts by government, border officers and police, human trafficking is a crime that the UK is not getting to grips with. To start to do this, we need to acknowledge that state- led approaches alone cannot combat trafficking.

People who have escaped trafficking need to be supported. A lack of alternative support (whether real or perceived) was a key reason given by trafficked people for staying with their traffickers and exploiters. Even if they did manage to escape from their initial situation, without adequate protection people are vulnerable to further trafficking and abuse. Many exited one trafficking situation only to enter into another. Some were caught by their trafficker, others were ‘rescued’ and then re-trafficked into another situation. Others entered into informal support that was highly exploitative; including abusive relationships or support where they were obliged to offer sex or servitude to their hosts in return. Furthermore, with no access to safe support, our research was clear that trafficked people will feel less confident to pursue the prosecutions of traffickers. Addressing these issues is difficult. Trafficking victims need and deserve support, but too often their irregular immigration status prevents them from receiving it.

Perhaps acknowledging this, the UK has invested in systems to identify victims of trafficking. A process has been put in place to identify whether someone has experienced trafficking (the National Referral Mechanism or NRM, hosted within the UK Border Agency). Agencies including the police and border officials have received training in spotting signs of trafficking. Last week, the government announced that this training will be further rolled out to other professionals including social workers and GPs.

All this is welcome, but the government needs to broaden its approach. Part of the problem is that state-led solutions alone are unlikely to ever deliver a full and effective response to protect trafficked people. Due to the hidden nature of exploitation none of the forty people who participated in our research were referred into support as a result of a ‘raid’ by the police. Whether due to experiences in Nigeria or the threats of traffickers, people interviewed were afraid to seek support from authorities such as the police, border agents or social workers. Very few approached the police themselves and some actively avoided them. Instead they sought support from members of the public or people in community spaces such as churches. Critically, those they sought support from also lacked confidence in the authorities and many advised against approaching them. Often, interviewees only came forward when they came into contact with a trusted member of their community who was able to refer them into official support. By this point many were in detention, prison or had experienced lengthy periods of abuse.

Delivering training to frontline services in identifying trafficking is an important step. However, our research shows that we must go beyond state agents and ensure that the people in communities that victims of trafficking seek support from are equipped to help them. This means delivering training to people in community settings such as churches and community groups on the laws on trafficking in the UK, the support available and the routes into support. The voluntary sector also need to be involved. Finally, in order to ensure that people will engage with official agencies, the government need to make the NRM independent of the immigration system.

The reliance on state actors to deliver support is inadvertently compounding the suffering experienced by some of the most vulnerable people in the UK. We must recognise the importance of engaging communities in the response against trafficking in order to ensure trafficked people can access the help they need.

Jenny Pennington is a researcher at IPPR

Posters are displayed in Quezon City suburban, Manila, as part of the annual observance of International Day against Human Trafficking. Photograph: Getty Images.

Jenny Pennington is a researcher at IPPR

Photo: Getty
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A rape-able sex robot makes the world more dangerous for women, not less

Eroticising a lack of consent is no answer to male sexual violence. 

On Wednesday, the Independent reported a new setting had been added to the personality range of a sex robot made by the company True Companion. Called “Frigid Farrah”, the setting allows men who own the robot to simulate rape. If you touch it in a “private area” when it is in this mode, the website explains, it will “not be appreciative of your advance”.

True Companion says the robot is not programmed to participate in a rape scenario, and the idea is “pure conjecture”. Nevertheless, the news has reopened the debate about sex robots and their relationship to consent. What does a rape-able robot say about our attitudes to consent, sex, violence and humanism? Do sex robots like Frigid Farrah eroticise and normalise male sexual aggression? Or does allowing men to “act out” these “most private sexual dreams” on inanimate objects actually make real women safer?

The idea that allowing men to “rape” robots could reduce rates of sexual violence is fundamentally flawed. Sex robot settings that eroticise a woman’s lack of consent, coupled with male aggression, risk normalising rape. It sends a message to the user that it is sexually fulfilling to violate a woman’s “No”.

It’s important to remember that rape is not a product of sexual desire. Rape is about power and domination – about violating a woman’s body and her sense of self. Raping a robot is of course preferable to raping a woman, but the fact is we need to challenge the attitudes and sense of entitlement that cause violent men to rape in the first place.

There is little evidence to back the claim that giving men sexual “outlets” reduces violence. The research that exists is focused on whether a legalised sex industry can reduce sexual assault.

Studies on Dutch “tippelzones” – spaces where soliciting is legal between certain hours – claimed the areas led to a reduction in sexual violence. However, the research lacked precise data on incidents of sexual violence and abuse, and the fact that sex workers themselves can be victims. As a result, it wasn’t possible to determine exactly how the number of rapes and assaults fell in the population at large.

Similar claims made by social scientist Catherine Hakim also failed to prove a causal link between legalised prostitution and reduced levels of sexual violence – again, because low reporting means a lack of accurate data.

Other research claims that access to the sex industry can in fact increase incidents of sexual violence. A 2013 report by Garner and Elvines for Rape Crisis South London argued that an analysis of existing research found “an overall significant positive association between pornography use and attitudes supporting violence against women in non-experimental studies”.

Meanwhile, a 2000 paper by Neil Malamuth, T Addison, and J Koss suggested that, when individuals considered at high risk of acting sexually aggressively are studied, levels of aggression are four times higher among frequent consumers of pornography.

However, just as the research fails to find a causal link between access to the sex industry and reducing violence, there is no research proving a causal link between violent pornography and gender-based violence.

Instead, we have to look at the ethical and moral principles in an industry that creates models of women for men to orgasm into. Sex robots are, at their heart, anti-humanist. They replace women with plastic and holes. They create a world for their owners where women’s voices and demands and desires and pleasures – and right to say no – are absent.

That should trouble us – we are creating products for men which send a message that the best woman is a compliant and silent one. That the best woman is one who lies back and “likes what you like, dislikes what you dislike”, to quote the True Companion website, who is “always ready to talk and play” but whose voice you can turn off whenever you want.

“By transferring one of the great evils of humanity from the real to the artificial, sex robots simply feed the demon of sexism,” says Professor Alan Winfield of the Bristol Robotics Lab. “Some might say, 'What’s the problem – a sex robot is just metal and plastic – where’s the harm?' But a 'fembot' is a sexualised representation of a woman or girl, which not only invites abusive treatment but demands it. A robot cannot give consent – thus only deepening the already chronic and dangerous objectification of real women and girls.”

What research does tell us is that there is a clear link between violence and the perpetrator’s ability to dehumanise their victims. That, and a setting designed to eroticise a woman’s lack of consent, suggest that Frigid Farrah will have no impact on reducing sexual assault. Rather, it creates a space where rape and violence is normalised and accepted.

Instead of shrugging our shoulders at this sexualisation of male violence, we should be taking action to end the belief that men are entitled to women’s bodies. That starts by saying that rape is not an inevitable part of our society, and the danger of rape cannot simply be neutralised by a robot.

Sian Norris is a writer. She blogs at sianandcrookedrib.blogspot.com and is the Founder & Director of the Bristol Women's Literature Festival. She was previously writer-in-residence at Spike Island.