The numbers of sex trafficking victims are exaggerated
- Published: 13 February 2010
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Figures relating to sex work and trafficking have been fudged by mainstream media, conservative feminists and career politicians. The numbers of people who are victims of sex slavery and trafficking are far lower than what is generally reported, writes Elena Jeffreys.
A startling report by investigative journalist Nick Davies for The Guardian last October, Inquiry fails to find single trafficker who forced anybody into prostitution, has shocked English policy makers and created a new war of words over migration, sex work and exploitation. Numerous opinion pieces, first hand accounts and rampant moralising followed The Guardian’s coverage of the issue between October and November last year, but Davies’ articles remains an important contribution to understanding the figure-fudging in relation to sex work and trafficking.
Davies writes that politicians and the media have been exaggerating the numbers of sex workers who are victims of sex slavery and trafficking. He goes on to compare the exaggerated numbers of trafficked sex workers with other government lies including weapons of mass destruction, and the sexed up policy dossiers that rationalised UK’s hawkish actions in relation to Iraq.
The exaggeration of numbers of trafficked sex workers and sex slaves has been going on for over a decade. Much of this stems from a general misunderstanding about the differences between sex work per se, sex slavery and trafficking…a misunderstanding amplified by the fact that in many countries, ALL of these activities are crimes, and ALL are under the gaze of a migration-sensitive and politically astute police force, media and government trying to jockey for brownie points among a difficult public landscape of financial crisis and celebrity sensationalism. Career politicians, conservative feminists and desperate journalists have exploited the public’s penchant for stories about sex and the ethnic ‘other’ to replicated the lie that all migrant sex workers are trafficked sex slaves.
To make matters worse, government and non-government organisations with a vested interest in bumping up trafficking numbers have been on a spree of deceit in order to justify their own funding. Davies proves that UK prosecutions to do with sex work, migration and/or drug use were chalked up as trafficking-related to make it appear that the cops were doing something about a perceived problem that didn’t actually exist. Police busted brothels, charging those on the premises for sex work, drug use and migration related offences, and then deliberately lied in documentation to Government that such operations were associated with trafficking, when actually nothing of the kind had occurred.
Pornpit Puckmai from Empower Foundation in Thailand shares a similar story of policing activity against sex workers in the name of non-existent trafficking crimes. She refers to the two recent raids in Phuket which involved a team especially formed for the raids which included armed soldiers and a (Thai) Channel 7 news crew. Fifty six sex workers and one minor were arrested for sex work, with condoms used as evidence against them. Twenty seven of the sex workers were migrants without the correct visa who were detained awaiting sentencing and possible deportation to Burma.
Puckmai proposes that such violent persecution and high-profile raids on sex workers:
may be the authorities and politicians way of declaring ‘See I have these problems in my area all sorted and under control’ or may be to take the public’s mind off other issues, to answer the USA or their own superiors, to fit in with the propaganda against migrants, or to promote the anti-trafficking law, or the drug laws, or to get a good (USA) Trafficking In Persons Report. It seems that we sex workers are the most popular group to become scapegoats for any department wanting to show their good works on any issue.
The US Administration has become the target for sex workers across the world angry at systemic fabrication of trafficking and sex slavery figures. Inaccurate reporting of figures has been going on for so long now the US Department of State is addicted to it. Their annual Trafficking In Persons Report is treated by developing countries as a report card for compliance to the US preferred approach to the criminalisation of sex work; while the rhetoric is about trafficking, in practise it means policing sex workers.
The new Obama regime seems slightly embarrassed by it all. Look closely at footage of Hilary Clinton standing in the background while the State Department minions spit out bloated quotes about trafficking in Iran. She cringes at the badly hidden political motives being fuelled by anti-sex work sentiment. And in her recent comments about the President Obama's Interagency Task Force to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons she is at pains to make explicit that the trafficking they are dealing with is “both trafficking for sex trade purposes and trafficking for forced labor.” Sex trafficking doesn’t rate a mention for the rest of her speech – instead forced labour for sweatshops is the only issue singled out.
Clinton, like every other centrist politician on the planet, is wracked with the political nightmare of a reasonable and important issue (migrant labour abuses) being hijacked by crazed extremist crusaders (anti-sex work populists taking advantage of anti-migrant xenophobia). A focus on migrant sex work above all other migrant labour and the accompanying necessary fabricated evidence means that stopping migrant labour abuses has become a fight for political territory, not an industrial relations struggle. If the UK or the US Governments want to address real issues affecting real workers, they have to shake anti-sex work campaigners out of the anti-trafficking woodwork. As Puckmai concludes: “Is anyone serious about improving the situation or do we want to keep up this wonderful tradition of going through the raid and arrest ceremony?”
Elena Jeffreys is the president of Australian national sex worker association Scarlet Alliance.
Image (centre): Bangkok: Sex workers protest the opening ceremony of the XI International AIDS Conference in 2004. Photo courtesy of Janelle Fawkes.