Kate Cooper works as an Editor for the Latin America Bureau (LAB) and has previously conducted research amongst migrant sex workers in London.
Trafficking and the exploitation of women are highly emotive issues, and representations of trafficked women, particularly in the media, play to this. They take for granted that women who have been trafficked and who sell sex are coerced and that these women are victims of terrible circumstances and/or criminal gangs. The reality is however somewhat different: if we listen to the voices and perspectives of the women involved and dig beneath the surface of media stereotyping, one dimensional campaigns and political hype, these issues quickly become far more complicated.
The speakers brought together by the Central America Women’s Network on 27th April 2012 for the day conference, ‘Images of Trafficked and Exploited Women: the Role of the Media and Campaigns in Women’s Empowerment’, questioned such media and campaign representations. Sarah Jackson, for example, described the stock phrases used by journalists to portray trafficked women as victims, showing how their description
s repeatedly emphasise women’s/girl’s) youth, vulnerability and innocence; Rutvica Andrijasevic’s presentation deconstructed visual images used in early campaigns designed by the International Organisation of Migration (IOM) which depict women as mute and incapacitated, unable to speak or represent themselves. Such representations reinforce stereotypes of women as powerless and passive. Julia O’Connell Davidson questioned what is meant by ‘trafficking’ and what counts as exploitation. She described how
many women actively contract the services of traffickers to facilitate their travel from country to country, how they expect to pay back costs incurred and how selling sex may be one of the quickest and most effective ways to do this. At the conference, ‘exploitation’ seemed to be defined as the sale of sex although it is worth noting that women can be exploited in a range of occupations, including cleaners, domestic workers, factory labour and au pairs. ‘Illegals’ —illegal immigrants and those without the right to work— are, of course, more vulnerable to such exploitation as any attempt to assert their rights carries the risk of exposure and deportation.
If we listen to the voices of sex workers and trafficked women we come to understand that the use of traffickers can be a pragmatic way to migrate and that for many women selling sex is simply work. And as such, it is often preferable to low paid cleaning, caring or other service occupations. The truth is that large numbers of women described by politicians and journalists as ‘trafficked’ and ‘exploited’ may well consider themselves simply to be migrating or travelling (albeit illegally) and working.Put simply, women who use traffickers are not always victims, nor are those who sell sex always exploited. Many participants at the conference found it challenging to think that simply working to eradicate sex work and restoring so-called trafficked sex workers to their homes was not always in the women’s best interests. It doesn’t always sit easily, especially with those who consider themselves progressive and feminist, that some women not only choose to migrate illegally (often using traffickers) but that they may also choose to sell sex.
Undoubtedly, violence and coercion exist in parts of the sex industry. And women who have entered a country illegally are potentially more vulnerable to abuse. As with many illegal or unregulated activities, there is a lot of money to be made in the sex industry and a range of middle men, whether traffickers, madams, pimps or managers can make large profits. In some cases their practices can be exploitative and coercive; in other cases they can be protective and helpful. Homogenising all trafficked women as victims and all sex workers as exploited does not, however, help protect those who are in need of support and protection.
This is why sex worker organisations are so important. RedTraSex (http://www.redtrasex.org.ar/) in Latin America is in important case in point. It is one of a number of well known sex worker activist organisations, working for dignity, justice, respect and safety for sex workers across the continent. RedTraSex, believes, as do many other sex worker organisations, that the state should recognise sex work as work, as an occupation. Different countries across Latin America (as elsewhere) legislate for sex work in different ways: in Guatemala, for example, sex work is legal but sex workers have to attend mandatory health checks; in Haiti, Guyana and Suriname (as in much of the US) selling sex is illegal and women can be prosecuted; in other countries, selling sex is legal but many of the activities surrounding the sale of sex are illegal (such as running a brothel).
These legislative systems are not identical in detail or effect. However they all stigmatise and marginalise women who sell sex. When the state labels some women rather than others and requires them, for example, to carry a health card which states their occupation and results from sexual health check ups, this creates and reinforces stigma, which in turn endangers health and well being. Laws that force women to work in particular ways – for example that prohibit more than one woman from working from the same premises – clearly put women at greater risk, for instance from potentially violent clients. And in the case of those who are already illegal, the clandestine nature of their existence is accentuated by such laws.
In (fortress) Europe, the varieties of legislation regulating and governing the sale of sex are coupled with stringent anti-immigration policies in which illegal women are liable to deportation if discovered. This subjects non-European sex workers to an additional layer of danger and makes them increasingly vulnerable to exploitation and violence.
At the conference, xtalk, a London based sex worker organisation, spoke about the importance of legalising sex work in the UK, enabling sex work to be considered work, rather than a clandestine activity. In the case of those who are here illegally, legalising sex work might not help them directly but it might assist them indirectly in that it would help to reduce stigma across the sex industry. So too would a clearer discussion of the issues at a political and institutional level, starting with a more responsible, informed, detailed and sensitive portrayal of sex workers and migrant women.