News: Why Stop the Traffik has Got It All Wrong by Brooke Magnanti

By now, most everyone will have seen Stop the Traffik’s recent “viral” in Amsterdam’s red light district, where bystanders who think they’re enjoying a show are suddenly broadsided with a ham-fisted social justice message about dancers supposedly trafficked into the city’s numerous licensed kammers.

It’s slick. It’s attention-getting. It’s basically Kony 2012 but for sex trafficking.

It neatly employs a trick that has been used by what Laura Agustin calls the ‘Rescue Industry’ for some time now: conflate all trafficking with sex trafficking, and all sex work with trafficking. Never mind riding roughshod over what is really going on. Never mind the fact that the cost of the extreme an ill-thought anti-trafficking panic is ironically enough, real human lives as sex workers are driven away form vital services, imprisoned, and abused.  

By this logic, it’s then perfectly acceptable – indeed, even heroic, in the minds of the rescuers – to mislabel consensual sex work as abuse (calling even me a “trafficked Eastern European“)  and at the same time to ignore the more widespread and less fashionable phenomenon of forced labour happening in domestic and drug sectors. 

In other words: the people who influence public taste and public policy definitely don’t want anyone looking too closely at where their cleaners and their drugs come from, but everyone hates sex work, so attacking that is A-OK. Raids that rescue exactly zero trafficked individuals and put plenty of willing others behind bars are fine. Anti-trafficking has a body count, but let’s not talk about that.

In general, many sex work activists are opposed to the model of legalised sex work in Amsterdam, but it is still better than random raids on legal work (as in Scotland) and the fear of being busted working illegally (as in most parts of the US). Most sex work activists want decriminalisation, as practised in parts of Australia and in New Zealand, because it helps re-establish a good connection to legal protection.

It should go without saying that most sex work activists are opposed to forced sexual abuse, and would prefer to have a good relationship with police and the public so they can help pinpoint suspected cases. And yet every time they say this, they are accused of being pimps or worse.

Meanwhile numerous and consistent exposes of anti-trafficking “saviours” being rather less heroic than they claim to be go widely unheeded.

Now Theresa May is in on the act, calling for tougher laws because she feels the conviction rate is too low.

Is it? As Nick Davies found in his investigation into the massive failure of Operations Pentameter and Pentameter 2, “On the sidelines of a debate which has been dominated by ideology, a chorus of alarm from the prostitutes themselves is singing out virtually unheard.” The operations failed to result in the prosecution of a single trafficker – and that is a real waste of resources on every level.  

Seems to me, if multiple coordinated operation across all police forces in the country monumentally failed to find trafficking, that says one of two things (and possibly both). Either that there isn’t very much trafficking to speak of, or that they’re going about it all wrong.

But rather than try to think either of how better to tease out the rare cases, or better detect existing ones, we are simply told over and again what we need are “harsher” penalties, “more” police. And the real shame is the number of so called feminists who would not tolerate police abuse of their own class, but happily support the imposition of police raids on women in sex work that never manage to find actual trafficking victims. As I’ve said before and will no doubt say again, you can’t find a needle in a haystack by telling people the needles are everywhere. 

So, Stop the Traffik, well done. My hat is off to you with your masterful concern trolling. With a light show and some nifty dancing, you have managed to strip any content from what is in fact a complex and ongoing debate that deserves more than a cynical “viral”. It has all the depth of the end of sixth form show, and about as much maturity. The real shame is that people with no knowledge of the history of the trafficking panic will see this flashdance and believe it.

Brooke Magnanti is author of The Sex Myth which explores many fascinating myths about sex.

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