In Response: Sex Worker Rights & Human Trafficking

People...Some arguments have no resolution. For instance arguments with philosophy majors in share houses over who stole your cheese are likely to end in “Did you ever really own the cheese?” At which point it’s easier to just walk away rather than risk a homicide charge. Unfortunately not all arguments are as trivial as your lactose snack food. Some arguments involve making choices for other people, because they may or may not be in a position to make a choice for themselves.  These are the arguments that will never really have a resolution, because the issue is too complex and the people arguing are too personally invested. 

Recently a good friend brought to my attention this article. I highly recommend that you read this article now, as I’ll be referring back to it quite a bit. I'll wait...

Finished? Awesome, let's continue.

The sex industry is actually a bit more complicated than Julie Bindel makes it seem. The problem a lot of people have with solving the issues surrounding it is that they can’t get past the sexual aspect of it. Sex adds a layer of urgency and drama to any argument, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. So we’re going to temporarily remove sex from the issue just to get us started.

Imagine that you’re working in the hospitality industry. Not too hard for some of you, I’m guessing, since most people will have worked in hospitality at some point in their careers. As anyone who has ever worked in hospitality will tell you, some people are there by choice because they actually like the industry. As confronting as I find this idea, it is actually true. There are people who really enjoy being a barista, who get a kick out of making fancy and pretentious coffees. Likewise there are chefs who genuinely love making food and even restaurant managers who just love having their own eatery. Good for them. They’re all happy and that’s great. But let’s not forget that there are some people there who really don’t like hospitality, who have only taken these jobs as a way to get through their uni course. These people hate hospitality. They hate the hours, they hate having to serve asshole customers and they hate the actual job itself.

Are you with me so far? We’ve identified two very different groups of people within the same field of work. There are people who want to be there and those who don’t. Alright, let’s continue.

Now imagine that there are good hospitality companies and bad ones. Again, I’m guessing this is something many of you have experienced at some point in your life. There are bars, restaurants and cafes that treat their staff well, that ask them what work hours suit them, that pay them a proper wage and even superannuation. These places care about their staff because they understand that happy, well treated staff will reflect on the quality of the establishment they run.

Then there are the other kind of hospitality businesses. These are the places that pay their staff cash in hand, that expect their staff to turn up to a shift with a broken arm if need be, and who will abuse their employees in every way they can think of to get the performance they want out of they staff. These kind of places are awful and they chew staff up and spit them out with a kind of slave labour mentality; that it’s easier to replace them than it is to treat them well and hold onto them.

Even if you’ve never worked in hospitality, you can probably compare this example to your own industry. There are people in every workplace who really don’t want to be there, who resent having to be at work to the point that it makes them physically ill and distressed. And there are companies in every industry who treat their staff terribly and will always find ways to cut corners to get around employee rights. 

So when this article informs me that “As with various studies on women in prostitution, it was clear from our interviewees that the vast majority are desperate to get out of the sex trade, but find a number of significant barriers that prevent them doing so.” I would argue that if you interviewed people in hospitality, you would find just as a high a percentage saying the same thing. As with hospitality, there are a few different groups of people working within the sex industry. There are those who chose to get into the industry but don't really want to be there, for any number of reasons from their rostered hours, to the irregular pay, to just genuinely not liking the work. Then there are the people who really love their job, they're good at it and they enjoy it and this is their career. There are also those who have been trafficked in to the industry against their will. This is more than a "not wanting to be there" mindset, this is people who were never given a choice. Bindel seems to ignore these distinctions and instead tells us that all sex workers should be grateful for the opportunity to leave. 

Also, much like hospitality, there are the different kinds of establishments. There are the ones that operate legally and within the law, that look after and respect the rights of their workers and there are the illegal parlours that literally buy human trafficking victims and allow their workers to suffer at the hands of clients. This is a crucial distinction. 

Every person has a right to decide what they want to do with their life. They have the right to decide if they want to be a sex worker or an architect, a stripper or an insurance assessor. My issue with debates like this, is that they strip people of their personhood and reduce the complexity of a very big issue down to “you’re either with us or against us.” 

I am against human trafficking. I am against any person being in a situation they don’t want to be due to circumstances beyond their control. But I am also very, very strongly for human autonomy and the freedom of choice. To declare that all “prostitution is a human rights violation” is not only offensive to sex workers who chose to be in the industry, it’s grossly offensive to victims and survivors of actual human rights violations. Sex work is real work, it is a real industry populated by real people who have chosen to be there. Yes, human trafficking does exist, it is a vile and abhorrent practice that should be expunged from the face of the earth, but stripping sex workers of their rights and protections is not the correct way to go about it. In fact it’s probably the worst possible way to do it. 

One of the things that Julie Bindel seems most upset about is that sex workers rights activists and sex workers alike, don’t appreciate attempts made by “exit organisations” to rescue people from sex work. If you’ve never heard of exit or rescue organisations, then allow me to shed some light on them. They are groups who feel the need to “rescue” women who are in the sex industry. And I do specify women here, because rescue organisations tend to overlook the large number of men and trans-women who are working in the sex industry and instead focus on heterosexual, cis-gendered women. The reasons for wanting to rescue these women are not the same for every organisation. Some of them are aimed at rescuing women who are in the sex industry as a result of human trafficking, often arriving from other countries. Sometimes their goal is to help women who turned to the sex industry as a last resort for financial reasons or as a result of drug habits. And on occasion it’s a religiously motivated salvation effort to rescue women from the depths of depravity and sin. My experience with them is limited to the religious groups who would bring cupcakes in for the sex workers. They were greeted with, at best indifference, but more typically frustration and indignation by the service providers. 

By attempting to rescue people who have chosen to be in the sex industry, you are undermining the legitimacy of their chosen career. Would you consider doing the same thing for people who are working in hospitality? For people who are working 18 hours days and three jobs to support their family? They're people too, and I promise you most of them would not be in that industry by choice if there was a better alternative. But you have turned your attention to the sex industry because something about the ‘sex’ aspect of it appals you. It doesn’t matter that there are thousands of people every day selling their bodies to corporations and organisations that might fundamentally oppose their ethics, beliefs or religion, because at least they’re not having sex. Do you think that someone who is an Animal Rights Activist that has to take a job at The Body Shop is happy about their situation? Are their hours of labour and ethical compromise less or more harmful than a person who made the decision to be a sex worker because they wanted to. 

Julie Bindel also seems affronted by suggestions that the sex industry be decriminalised or legalised, believing that this lends a legitimacy to the industry that it clearly does not deserve. Let’s clarify those terms first. In Victoria, sex work is legalised and regulated. This is different to it being decriminalised, which is what New South Wales has done. The difference is that decriminalisation doesn’t make something legal, but it means that it’s not a priority for law enforcement. For instance when marijuana is decriminalised it means you still can’t legally sell it, but likewise you can’t be denied a job because you smoked it outside of work hours.

Legalisation however means that you can set up shops, you pay taxes and you can advertise commercially (depending on the laws regarding advertising). So in Victoria, brothels are legal. Sex work is legal. You’re allowed to pay for sex without the risk of prosecution. There is nowhere in the United States where sex work, brothels and paying for sex is legalised and regulated. In the United Kingdom prostitution is legal, however a lot of the associated activities are crimes. This means you’re legally allowed to exchange sexual services for money, but soliciting in a public place, owning a brothel, pimping, kerb crawling, etc can all get you fined or imprisoned. 

In Melbourne, our parlours are regulated by the government. This means that the government tells us what we can and can’t do. That might sound awful, but it’s actually a pretty great system, comparatively speaking. The government stipulates that it is illegal to pay for sex in a brothel and not wear a condom. This means that in a brothel we can enforce this rule and customers who attempt to remove their condoms with, or more often without, the sex worker’s knowledge can be criminally prosecuted. They literally broke a law. In the UK and US, that’s not the case, because there's no government legislation there for a sex worker to enforce. Brothels are illegal in both countries, so there’s no establishment for the sex worker to go to for assistance.  Similarly, if in the US a client assaults a sex worker, the sex worker can’t really report it to the police without disclosing their relationship to the abuser. If they do this, then they’re just as likely to be prosecuted as the abuser since legally they were both engaging in criminal activity. 

For reasons of comparison, I should point out that I have never experienced or been exposed to violence against sex workers. I only worked in legalised and regulated parlours, so every room was equipped with both a panic alarm and an intercom button that connected to the reception desk. In the event that a client became rough, the service provider was encouraged to push either of these buttons and the floor staff would drop what they were doing and run to the room to assist the service provider. 

I also was never exposed to human trafficking. All applicants to the parlours I worked at were required to bring several forms of verified identification. We then made a point of sitting down with applicants and discussing the nature of the work and making a private assessment of their psychological capacity to handle the role. Obviously none of the brothel staff were psychologists, but we felt it important to use our best judgment about whether the person applying would be negatively affected by the role. We turned down the applicants we felt weren’t up to the work and explained to them why.

This does not happen in street work. This does not happen in parlours operating outside of the law. This is the difference legalisation and regulation makes. It makes brothels and people accountable. The women in the Dreamcatcher documentary most likely wouldn’t have been subjected to the violence, assault and abuse they suffered, if they had been working in a legalized, regulated brothel. But Bindel would encourage us to remove these forms of regulation in the attempt to reduce human trafficking, ignoring that it was the absence of regulation that led to Brenda Myers-Powell experiencing the horrific conditions that she did.

I was privileged to work in legal, law abiding parlours that respected the rights and safety of the people employed and who were working there. I know that not every parlour in Melbourne had the same level of care or legality. But I do know that the legal brothels did. I know because they were required to by law. This is not the case in the UK or the US. As for the argument that legalisation increases human trafficking, I will let Forbes do a better job than I can at rebutting that.

Yes, sex against a person’s will is one of the most abhorrent violations a human being can suffer and that’s what we’re talking about when we discuss human trafficking. But, as I have argued before, if we as a society had a better relationship with sex and sexuality, there most likely wouldn’t be a market for sex slaves. We sell people into sexual servitude because while there is a demand for sex workers, we as a society treat those in the industry with such repudiation that only the truly determined or the truly desperate would put up with the social stigma in order to work there. If sex work were like being an accountant or a lawyer, if we gave the role respect and legality, then people would be free to work in the industry and feel legitimised. And if people felt free to work where they wanted to, in legal and regulated establishments then there would be no market for slavery. We have no human trafficking ring for baristas or bartenders, because there’s no stigma attached to being either of those things. There is a ready supply of people from the general public who will happily do those jobs and we will not judge them for it.

If you criminalise the sex industry and the people involved with it, you’re pushing the whole thing underground. You’re further stigmatising work in that realm and telling people that they’re broken if they want to work there. You’re opening up a demand for sex workers while closing off the legitimate channels through which people can get into that work. How do you help people in illegal brothels when you most likely can’t even find them?

By all means, advocate for the end of human trafficking and help to find people who are in the sex industry against their will. But for the love of free will, don’t tell me that it’s all the same. Don’t sanctimoniously inform me that brothels treat women as“…simply a commodity, and the pimps and buyers legitimised as customers and managers.”  Those people are customers and managers, in an industry that is older than civilised society. And in case I haven’t made myself inescapably clear, the people who choose to be sex workers are legitimate workers. They’re not there for you to rescue them, they’re not your goddamn damsels. They’re fighting against every stigma society has to do the job that they’re good at and that they enjoy. You don’t get to tell them that they’re wrong. And you certainly don’t get to strip them of their rights and protection so you can feel like you’re doing something to combat human trafficking or sexual violence. That's going to take a lot more effort I'm afraid. 

That is all.

You may go now.