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“There Can’t Be Numbers:” An Interview With Laura Agustín, Part 2

Yesterday, we posted Part One of an interview with Sex at the Margins author Dr. Laura Agustín. Today we present our second and final segment.

It’s incredibly common now to see abolitionists argue that when prostitution is legal, as it in Amsterdam, trafficking only increases. What does the most current research actually suggest? 

Everyone wants this thing called research to prove one position or another, but it can’t. Even if there were enough funds to do massive studies with a range of methodologies and amazingly objective researchers, the target is impossible to define and pin down. It’s the same problem as with numbers, the fact that the subjects of interest are operating outside formal networks. Of course you can have small ethnographic studies that provide real insight into particular people at a certain time and place, but those studies cannot prove anything in general. And certainly not about legal regimes, as in the quarrel over which causes more exploitation.

Over a very long period we may come to understand the effects of a regime like the Dutch, but it is too early now. I did research in Holland amongst people concerned with how the policy was working in 2006, when it was already clear that offering regulation only brought part of the sex industry into government accounting. Businesspeople interested in operating outside the law continued to do so; many escort agencies and other sex businesses refused to register; migrants not allowed work permits came and worked anyway and so did people facilitating their travel and work, and, in many cases, exploiting them. None of which proves that the whole system ‘increases trafficking’. You cannot even coherently discuss an increase in trafficking when there are no baseline figures to compare with. On top of which agreement about what everyone means by the word trafficking simply does not exist. This goes for both the Dutch situation and the Swedish – claims about trafficking going up or down cannot be proved. 

Learn Human Trafficking From Home

via flickr user STML
(via Flickr user STML)

Have you ever wondered what’s taught in university social work classes about sex trafficking? Several sex worker activists recently decided to go forth and find out by taking the online Human Trafficking course offered by Ohio State University’s Social Work program through Coursera, an education platform that partners with universities to offer online classes.

Course grades were based entirely on starting and responding to discussion forum topics and the students’ creation of human trafficking public service announcements. Although Coursera claimed that the class had 30,000 participants, in the end only 97 completed the class and received a certificate. Those who completed the class have not received the certificates yet. As activist Bella Robinson, put it, “God knows what it will say.”

The forum discussion, according to one sex worker student who posted on Facebook, was “about 99.99% about forcing women to stop doing sex work.” There was little or no moderation, with students up or down voting each other’s posts similarly to the way Reddit users do. The instructor, Dr. Jacquelyn Meshelemiah, an associate professor at Ohio State’s College of Social Work, rarely interacted with students and never corrected misinformation or addressed abusive comments.

No Victim, No Problem: The JVTA In Practice

These people look very pleased with themselves. (Photo of Speaker of the House Joe Boehmer signing the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act, via Boehmer's Flickr account)
Speaker of the House John Boehner signing the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act. (Photo via Boehner’s Flickr account)

This year, Congress decided that the term “john sting” needed a rebrand. What, they wondered, would justify all the wasted resources and manpower under a veil of moral indignation? After they put their collective hive mind together, a new, shinier, more bureaucratic term emerged. John stings are now called federally funded anti-trafficking work.

The change came earlier this year when Congress further institutionalized End Demand-style tactics by expanding the definition of who can be charged with human trafficking to include those seeking services from sex workers. And the way that these practices are being implemented is moving anti-trafficking work even further from addressing victimization—moving away from victims all together, in fact.

Big Mother Is Watching You: Mistresses of the Universe

Cindy McCain speaking at an event hosted by The McCain Institute in Phoenix, Arizona on November 22, 2013. (Photo by Flickr user gageskidmore)
Cindy McCain speaking at an event hosted by The McCain Institute in Phoenix, Arizona on November 22, 2013. (Photo by Flickr user gageskidmore)

Welcome to Big Mother Is Watching You, a guide to prominent  anti-sex worker activists, most of them women. This new feature is brought to you by Robin D.,  veteran activist with SWOP-Denver. Today’s Mothers are a pair of powerful heiresses and philanthropists who, of late, have focused their efforts on influencing policy affecting sex workers. 

Cindy McCain

Cindy Hensley McCain is an American beer (Anheuser-Busch) heiress with an estimated 2007 net worth of $100 million dollars, plus an income of at least $400,000 per year and at least $2.7 million in stock from Hensley & Co., one of the largest Anheuser-Busch beer distributors in the United States. Hensley & Co. was founded by her father Jim Hensley in 1955. McCain’s fortune was a major driver of her husband Senator John McCain’s failed Presidential bids in 2000 and 2008. In addition, she serves on the boards of a few well-funded charity NGOs, and is currently the chair of Hensley & Co..

Cindy McCain has been stoking sports event-related trafficking hysteria since at least late 2013, using the occasion of Super Bowl XVIII in her home state of Arizona to attach her name to the cause. She has campaigned for End Demand-style anti-trafficking legislation both in Arizona and at the federal level.  She began her human trafficking work in conjunction with The McCain Institute, a Washington, D.C. think tank funded in part by Walmart Stores, FedEX, and Paul E. Singer, a hedge fund manager and vulture capitalist implicated in the collapse of the Argentine economy in 2012.

Sports-event-related trafficking hysteria harms sex workers in a few ways. Unfortunately, law enforcement have started using these occasions as opportunities for ramped up stings and other arrests. Sex workers often expect that large sports events might bring increased business, only to find that not only is this not the case, but they’re at higher risk for arrest during these events. The harmful effects of “End Demand”-style legislation are well-documented, especially in the US, where no attempts are ever made by proponents to remove penalties against sex workers, and where penalty increases often target actions that sex workers take to stay safe, as well as prostitution itself.

Sex Trafficking: A Media Guide

This isn't sex trafficking. (An image used in a campaign for anti-trafficking organization Voices for Dignity, by Flickr user dualflipflop)
This isn’t sex trafficking. (An image used in a campaign for anti-trafficking organization Voices for Dignity, by Flickr user dualdflipflop)

Sex trafficking is when evil men steal little girls from the mall and keep them chained to beds where they are forced to service 100 men a day. Sex trafficking is when you ask your husband to sit in the next room while you see a new client, just in case. Sex trafficking is when a child molester agrees to pay for sex with a hypothetical, nonexistent eight-year-old and then shows up to meet them with duct tape and handcuffs. Sex trafficking is when a client asks for a duo and you book an appointment for yourself and a friend. Sex trafficking is when you “conspire” with your rapist and kidnapper to torture yourself. Sex trafficking is when you place an escort ad online for yourself.

Words mean things. Sex trafficking is a legal term with many different definitions in different states and countries. The legal term has become confused with the common mainstream usage—which tends to involve people being forced into prostitution—and this has led to a lot of confusion all around. As journalists, our job is to be precise with language and provide accurate information to the public. When reporting on sex trafficking, or sex trafficking cases, consider describing what has been alleged or what the statute the person is being charged with actually says—because it rarely refers to people being forced into prostitution.