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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. 

Cyntoia Brown and the Commodification of the Good Victim

Cyntoia Brown graduated Lipscomb University with an associate’s degree in prison. (Photo via Fox 17 Nashville/WZTV)

Imagine at the age of 16 being sex trafficked by a pimp named “cut-throat.” After days of being repeatedly drugged and raped by different men, you were purchased by a 43-year-old child predator who took you to his home to use you for sex. You end up finding enough courage to fight back and shoot and kill him. You arrested [sic] as result tried and convicted as an adult and sentenced to life in prison.

So reads the text in an image Rihanna reposted on Instagram, referring to trafficking victim Cyntoia Brown. Judging by the swirl of news media coverage recently about the case, you would think it had just happened within the past few months. But actually, the shooting death of the Nashville man took place in 2004 and Brown has been in prison for it for more than a decade. A documentary about her plight came out in 2011 and reached an international audience; a local paper, The Tennessean, has been running in-depth coverage about Brown’s case since last year; and Tennessee lawmaker Gerald McCormick was inspired to co-sponsor a bill in the Tennessee legislature in February offering parole to people with lengthy sentences who were convicted in their teens because of Brown’s story. This begs a couple of questions: firstly, why are we just hearing about this case more than a decade later? Secondly, why have anti-trafficking abolitionists stayed so quiet about this?

The answer to the second question, and perhaps the first one, is because Brown does not fit the profile of a “good victim.” Victimhood is a commodity in the anti-trafficking rescue industry. It is used, exploited, and manipulated as a means for supposed  “nonprofit” organizations to acquire more funding and political power, wealthier donors, and increased media coverage. Nonprofits tokenize survivors by having us speak for their fancy fundraisers, they use our stories for their newsletters, and they tote us around like little anti-trafficking freak show exhibits.  

Big Mother Is Watching You: Hollywood Edition

For her third installment of Big Mother Is Watching Youa guide to prominent anti-sex worker activists and officials, Robin D goes to Hollywood to check out do-gooder celebrities and the whorephobic campaigns they run.

Susan Sarandon and Meg Ryan

Susan Sarandon flexes her activist muscle at the Witness Focus for Change Benefit in 2009 (Photo by Kate Glicksberg, via Witness Flickr account)
Susan Sarandon flexes her activist muscle at the Witness Focus for Change Benefit in 2009 (Photo by Kate Glicksberg, via Witness Flickr account)
Meg Ryan doing a TED talk in 2010. (Photo by Flickr user redmaxwell)
Meg Ryan doing a TED talk in 2010. (Photo by Flickr user redmaxwell)

Susan Sarandon and Meg Ryan were key players in NGO fraud Somaly Mam’s ascendence in Hollywood. Mam is the celebrity activist exposed by Newsweek in 2014, after a slew of articles about her fabrications appeared in The Cambodia Daily in 2012 and 2013. She ran a re-education camp filled through brothel raids and therefore populated by local sex workers held against their will and others deemed to be “at risk” through Mam’s organization AFESIP (Agir Pour Les Femmes en Situations Precaires). Both populations were instructed on at least several occasions to lie about their stories and concoct trafficking tragedy porn to relate to visitors and journalists.

“I have been personally inspired by the work of Somaly Mam and I encourage anyone who can devote time and money to help Mam continue to make a difference in this world,” Sarandon stated on the Somaly Mam Foundation website. Ryan appears in Nicholas Kristof’s documentary Half the Sky, which lauded Mam’s organizations for their work. Both Sarandon and Ryan were photographed multiple times with Mam at various Hollywood events and fundraisers.

Sarandon seems to have missed the point of the May 2014 expose of Mam in Newsweek, saying that she continues to believe Mam’s story regardless. Mam’s victims, though, apparently aren’t worth her consideration. Sarandon has made no public statement on the testimony of the women now saying that Mam coached them to lie and fabricate horror stories about being trafficked, including Srey Mao and Meas Ratha; nor on the medical records on purported Mam trafficking victim Long Pros’ eye, proving that her eye was removed in surgery for a tumor and not by an imaginary pimp gouging it out; nor the untold many sex workers who have been and continue to be imprisoned in “rehabilitation centers,” including AFESIP’s center.

Big Mother Is Watching You: Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton in 2009. (Official photo from Department of State page)
Hillary Clinton in 2009. (Official photo from Department of State page)

For our second installment of Big Mother Is Watching You, a guide to prominent anti-sex worker activists and officials, we’d like to remind you of a few salient facts about Hillary Clinton and her relationship to Somaly Mam, after the formal launch of Clinton’s second presidential bid on Sunday. 

While U.S. Secretary of State (2009-2013), Hillary Clinton was responsible for the continuation, from the Bush Administration, of trafficking-related foreign policy harmful to sex workers in the Global South. Under her tenure, the U.S. Department of State continued enforcing the Anti-Prostitution Loyalty Oath, a policy that led to the defunding of a number of very effective anti-HIV/AIDS organizations operating in the Global South who were were unwilling to condemn the sex workers receiving their services. The U.S. government defended that policy to the U.S. Supreme Court, who ruled 6-2 against them in 2013 on free speech grounds (Justice Elena Kagan recused). Unfortunately, that ruling only applies to organizations based in the United States, though it was recently reinterpreted to also apply to organizations based in the U.S. but working in affiliates or offices abroad.

During Clinton’s administration, the Trafficking In Persons Office, a division of the U.S. Department of State, also continued to reward Cambodia with an improved TIP Report ranking for its 2008 criminalization of prostitution, a Bush administration move that led to the imprisonment of sex workers in Orwellian “rehabilitation centers” and other horrors, including beatings, extortion, and rape.

Off the Street (2011)

 

I was excited to read and review Off the Street. The true story of Las Vegas vice cop Christopher Baughman, leader of the Pandering Investigation Team (PIT) and Human Trafficking Task Force, it seemed like the perfect read for a sex-work-loving, law enforcement supporter such as myself.

The story begins when a prostitute on the Strip is beaten for two days by her pimp, who’s also the father of her son. Baughman becomes her crusading investigator, despite the victim’s objections to leaving her attacker. Baughman seems to understand the cycle of violence and abuse with which he’s so familiar, and acknowledges the woman’s reluctance to assist in the case. He acknowledges that there are indeed “bad” cops:

“I understand that the power of the badge can only amplify qualities in a person. For instance, a good man with a badge can only amplify qualities in a person. … There are others who carry a badge and feel an automatic sense of entitlement. They might bend over backward for some citizens, but declare in the same breath that any ghetto is just a self-cleaning oven. These men have also become my enemies. I have no use for them. They have dishonored their position, slighted the city I love and tarnished the badge that I carry.”