The Sex Trade: Lies, the ‘Voice of the Voiceless’ and Other Silencing Tactics

Silence by Alberto Ortiz, Flickr

Photo credit: Alberto Ortiz, Flickr

This article was first published on The Huffington Post – 2 June 2014

Most people are voiceless because no one is letting them talk or listening to them when they do. There is a lot to be said for quitting being the voice of the voiceless and letting people speak for themselves. But not by those seeking to abolish the sex trade. Words are put into people’s mouths when they can be, and when they can’t, those people are silenced and dismissed.

Amnesty International UK has not accepted such tactics, instead listening to people in the sex industry and voting for decriminalising the consensual sale of sex between adults and rejecting the “end demand” Swedish model at their recent AGM. But in the European Parliament, these underhand tactics, which influenced voting earlier this year, have yet to be condemned.

These are 5 places where lies and silencing tactics need to stop:

1. Fundraising – dishonest activists and making children lie

At the end of May, Somaly Mam, a celebrity anti-sex trafficking activist and fundraiser, resigned from her foundation, following the uncovering of lies in her own story of being sex trafficked and the discovery that she forced children to lie about being sex trafficking victims to raise funds. From the 1990s, young girls including Long Pros and Meas Ratha were made by Mam to tell harrowing stories of being sex trafficked in television interviews. Worryingly, this incident of children being forced to lie to raise funds for an NGO is not an isolated case.

2. UK & European Parliaments – bias and libel

In March, the biased All-Party Parliamentary Group on Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade – funded by anti-gay charity CARE – released their biased report attributing quotes to the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP) that were in fact said by an NHS Outreach Project Worker and using some of the ECP’s, Professor Phil Hubbard’s and my quotes out of context. The report recommends the “end demand” Swedish model, which does not work to end demand, but does increase danger and stigma.

In February, before the European Parliament voted on MEP Mary Honeyball’s report recommending the Swedish model, Ms Honeyball sent an email to MEPs libelling the 560 NGOs opposing her report as being “comprised of pimps”. The NGOs included anti-human trafficking, women’s rights, HIV/AIDS and human rights organisations, as well as sex worker led organisations – the people she was silencing claiming to care for. A counter-report demonstrating the severe lack of evidence in Ms Honeyball’s report was also signed by 94 academics. The Swedish law does not work and is dangerous. Sex workers deserve a law that ensures their human rights as do sex trafficking victims, not a law that fails them. Mary Honeyball’s defamation of 560 NGOs should make the result of the vote void.

3. Campaigning – ignored and spoken for

The European Women’s Lobby, Equality Now and other groups seeking to “end demand” ignore the danger the Swedish model creates. They selectively choose people formerly in the sex trade who support their approach while dismissing the concerns voiced by sex workers and their call for decriminalisation, which is echoed by the World Health Organization, UN Women, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health, the Global Commission on HIV and the Law, and Human Rights Watch among other organisations.

Lori Adorable, a sex worker who I recently interviewed on sex workers’ rights and how negative experiences of the sex trade, like mine, are often used by those seeking to abolish prostitution to argue for the Swedish model, recommends “people explore the websites of the organizations who are members of the Global Network of Sex Work Projects.” Regularly, these people are spoken for “but these women are speaking for themselves, and they’re asking for decriminalisation.”

4. Television – being “unrepresentative” and spoken over

Women currently and formerly in prostitution are used in a tokenising way by anti-prostitution feminists and religious fundamentalists pushing for the Swedish law that will result in dire consequences on lives they cannot even imagine living. When we do not satisfy the requirements of their mouthpiece, we are discounted, shut up and shut down.

Laura Lee, whose experience of sex work is positive and very different to my own, is discounted and told she is not representative on BBC Newsnight.

On BBC1 The Big Questions, I am spoken over by a woman claiming to care for women like me, who have had a traumatic experience in prostitution. Though earlier in the programme, she says I make prostitution sound “warm and cuddly”. For those who know me, they will know how ludicrous this is.


5. Social media – the pimp lobby, dismissing and co-option

Current and former sex workers who disagree with the “end demand” agenda are told they are not representative, they are pimps, they are shills of the sex trade lobby, they are suffering from false-consciousness, and some have received threats of rape and death.

I am accused of being the “Pro-Prostitution-Lobby’s humane face” who “peddles” misinformation and fights “dirty”…by a former friend. And I am “probably very unhappy”, but then she would know through the hours we spent talking on the phone (which, due to being in different countries, cost me hundreds of pounds I do not have currently).

Pimp Lobby Accusations

Note: Sex workers’ rights activists are against sex trafficking, and some of us actively engage in anti-human trafficking activism in addition to sex workers’ rights activism. These are both human rights issues affecting people in the same industry. Caring about both groups of people is probably the most natural for people who really do care about those in the sex industry and not involved in activism with moral, religious or anti-prostitution feminist agendas to push a dangerous ideology.

I need a laugh not to cry after that.

“Before I spoke English and could use Twitter I was representative of some young Indian sex workers,” writes Molli Desi, a London based sex worker. “[N]ow I have broken through that technological and cultural glass ceiling I am no longer representative and I can be ignored.” She rightly states that this is “a disingenuous argument and disqualifies our attempts to participate. It also allows for the unheard voices of my still “representative” friends to be appropriated and spoken for by others.”

It is easier to use a woman in the sex trade when she is not present to speak for herself. A vulnerable woman who is homeless and suffering from addiction was used by an anti-prostitution feminist to argue for the Swedish model, which she opposes as does the photographer, Chris Arnade, who took her picture.

Women, men, trans men and women, and nonbinary people in the sex trade are not only and not always someone’s daughter, son, sister, brother, mother or father, but they are always people deserving of their right to be listened to and truly heard.

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The Swedish Model Criminalising The Purchase of Sex Is Dangerous: The European Parliament Should Have Rejected It

This article was first published on The Huffington Post – 27 February 2014
An extended version of this article can be read on Women News Network

Some 560 NGOs and civil society organisations along with 86 academics and researchers urged the European Parliament to reject the report promoting the criminalisation of the purchase of sex that was put forward by London MEP Mary Honeyball in a plenary session this week in Strasbourg. But although the European Parliament has voted in favour of the report, putting pressure on EU member states to re-evaluate their prostitution laws, they do not need to make the same mistake.

Not surprisingly, the experiment has failed. In the thirteen years since the law was enacted, the Swedish government has been unable to prove that the law has reduced the number of sex buyers or sellers or stopped trafficking. All it has to show for its efforts are a (contested) public support for the law and more danger for street-based sex workers. Despite this failure, the government has chosen to ignore the evidence and proclaim the law to be a success; it also continues to advocate that other countries should adopt a similar law. (“The Swedish Law to Criminalize Clients: A Failed Experiment in Social Engineering”, Ann Jordan, Program on Human Trafficking and Forced Labor, Center for Human Rights & Humanitarian Law)

In sound bites, the Swedish Government has been spinning their sex purchase ban, known as the “Swedish model” or sometimes the “Nordic model” though it is not adopted by all Nordic countries, as a success. However, research does not show it has reduced sex trafficking or sex work. In addition, their own police report demonstrates it has pushed prostitution indoors with nearly three times as many Thai massage parlours in Stockholm and the vicinity:

In 2009, the National Bureau of Investigation estimated that there were about 90 Thai massage parlours in Stockholm and vicinity, most of which were judged to be offering sexual services for sale. At the turn of 2011/2012, the number of Thai massage parlours in the Stockholm area was estimated to be about 250 and throughout the country about 450. (The Swedish National Police Board, Situation Report 13 “Trafficking in human beings for sexual and other purposes” for the year 2011)

Mary Honeyball, Labour’s Spokesperson on the European Parliament’s Women’s Rights and Gender Equality Committee, who wrote the report recommending the Swedish sex purchase ban, said she wanted a model that reduced prostitution. She claims demand has halved in Sweden. However, this is untrue:

The law has been enforced almost entirely against clients of street-based sex workers but the government does not have any evidence of a decrease in sex buyers since the law went into effect. They do not know how many men were soliciting on the street before or after the law. They do not know if men moved from the streets to indoors and on line, or out of the country. They have not collected such data and so cannot prove any success in achieving the primary goal of the law. (“The Swedish Law to Criminalize Clients: A Failed Experiment in Social Engineering”, Ann Jordan, Program on Human Trafficking and Forced Labor, Center for Human Rights & Humanitarian Law)

On Sunday 23 February, I met Mary Honeyball at the BBC1 debate on The Big Questions about whether it should be illegal to pay for sex. Clearly, by the inaccuracies she was stating, she is misinformed – and misinforming others – about the actual outcomes of the Swedish model.

There is very little evidence to suggest that any criminal laws related to sex work stop demand for sex or reduce the number of sex workers. Rather, all of them create an environment of fear and marginalisation for sex workers, who often have to work in remote and unsafe locations to avoid arrest of themselves or their clients. These laws can undermine sex workers’ ability to work together to identify potentially violent clients and their capacity to demand condom use of clients. (UNAIDS Guidance Note on HIV and Sex Work)

As someone who had a traumatic experience of prostitution, mine is a standard narrative held up as an example of why the Swedish model is needed. But actually my traumatic experience in the sex trade, suffering being raped more than once and beaten once, every time while working alone, and ending up an intravenous heroin and crack addict, is a prime example of why decriminalisation is needed.

There is no drug harm reduction practised in Sweden because it is deemed to enable drug use. So as a former intravenous addict, I would probably have died from a blood-borne virus or perhaps lost a limb. Equally, there is no harm reduction for sex workers because access to free condoms is erroneously believed to encourage people to sell sex. So I would be at an increased risk of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases if I was unable to afford my own condoms. These issues primarily affect women working on-street who are most often in poverty and many suffering with addiction. The sex purchase ban has put these women in more danger:

The approach of criminalising the client has been shown to backfire on sex workers. In Sweden, sex workers who were unable to work indoors were left on the street with the most dangerous clients and little choice but to accept them. Where sex work is criminalised, sex workers are very vulnerable to abuse and extortion by police, in detention facilities and elsewhere. (UNAIDS Guidance Note on HIV and Sex Work)

The Swedish model has meant for sex workers who are mothers, they are at risk of losing custody of their children as by selling sex they are deemed unfit parents. This happened to Petite Jasmine and custody of her children was given to the father, a man known to be violent, who had threatened and stalked her. She was given no protection by the Swedish authorities. Then, in 2013, he murdered her.

The Swedish model is social cleansing, something Sweden has history of undertaking. It must not be done in this country or in any country.

Without the criminalisation of the purchase of sex the UK, and other countries, should work to establish comprehensive services to meet the needs of women, men, trans men and women, and nonbinary people seeking to leave the sex trade. There are 80,000 people in prostitution in the UK, most of whom are in poverty and 70% are single mothers. Huge investment from the government is needed and these complex services are going to take a long time to build. Additionally, these services will not work if they are forced.

For many women selling sex, they do not have other options, so we need to reform our benefits system and end poverty so no woman has to sell sex in order to pay her rent so her family are not made homeless, to ensure her children eat, or to heat her home. Criminalising her clients is not going to help her. It will only put her in greater danger.

The priority for police must be building trusting relationships with people in prostitution as it is in Merseyside, but this is impossible when clients are criminalised under the Swedish model. Merseyside has astonishingly high conviction rates for violent offenders targeting sex workers, which makes all of society safer. Their hate crime model, working closely with sex work projects that offer harm reduction services, has great results on assisting women leave the sex trade and ‘exiting’ is not the focus.

Women being able to work together in well-lit areas on-street and a small number of women being able to work from premises together should be decriminalised as research shows whether on-street or off-street, women are more at risk of rape and other violence when they are on their own and isolated. The two women who were recently murdered in London were working alone: Mariana Popa who was working on-street, and in an area where a police crackdown on street prostitution was being enforced, and Maria Duque-Tunjano who was working alone in a flat. Under decriminalisation they might still be alive because they would have been able to work with other women for safety.

Decriminalisation also means sex trafficking victims do not need to fear arrest and being charged. Jes Richardson, a sex trafficking survivor, was not able to turn to police for this reason, and it was a sex worker who helped her escape. She is another woman formerly in the sex trade who is advocating for decriminalisation. The Swedish model, according to the Swedish Police report, cannot demonstrate it has reduced sex trafficking:

According to the Swedish National Police Board it is difficult to estimate how many people may have fallen victim to human trafficking in Sweden during 2011. The number of victims discovered in Sweden depends largely on the resources which the police put into detecting this crime and on the skills that exists within the police organisation. The level of these initiatives varies between police authorities and differs from one year to another. Neither is it possible to identify (nor indeed to locate) all of the victims, mostly girls and women, who are mentioned in tapped telephone calls or observed during police surveillance.  (The Swedish National Police Board, Situation Report 13 “Trafficking in human beings for sexual and other purposes” for the year 2011)

Sex workers are often well placed to identify and assist sex trafficking victims and essential in ensuring this and developing it further are good relationships between the police and sex workers.

I stand with 560 NGOs and civil society organisations and 86 academics and researchers who also object to the Swedish model and urge EU member states not to criminalise the purchase of sex when reassessing their prostitution laws.

Dr Jay Levy, who conducted research in Sweden over several years on the outcomes of the criminalisation of the purchase of sex, met with me in London at the end of 2013 to discuss his findings.