The best way to help trafficked women: abolish immigration controls

April 2, 2009

I’m Alive!!!  But really, really busy with activism, and work, and PhD applications.  It’s quite possible no one is actually going to read this, due to my extended absence.  Also, I wish I could write something about the G20 protests, but I’m not there as I couldn’t get the time off work.

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Rahila Gupta has an mostly very good article in today’s Comment Is Free arguing in favour of the European Convention on Human Trafficking, which would allow women up to 90 days of accommodation in which to gather evidence that they have been trafficked and apply for asylum. 

Unfortunately, in the article, Gupta says that 80% of prostitutes in the UK are foreigners, and that most of them were trafficked, and condemns those who would rubbish those statistics.

Here’s the thing – it’s fully possible to “rubbish” that particular claim and still agree with every other word in Gupta’s article.

There were serious methodological issues with the survey that claimed to find that most foreign prostitutes were trafficked – among other things, the authors interpreted a willingness to have anal sex as proof that the woman in question was trafficked.  Good methodology is important – as sociologists, are we interested in the truth, or in what “proof” would best serve our particular view of the world?

That being said, of course women who are trafficked should be allowed to stay in the UK.  And of course, as Ms Gupta says, a lot of women in sex work are not there by a full and free choice but because the situations in which they find themselves provide them with no better option.  And of course we have to provide exit strategies for anyone who wants out of the sex industry. 

I feel, however, that the government approach to trafficking, which includes the acceptance of the statistics quoted above, actually makes migrant women, trafficked or not, more vulnerable to being exploited and forced into the sex industry.   The government defines trafficking very narrowly – and any organisation, like the Poppy Project that requires government funding must adopt this definition.  This definition would continue even if women are given 90 days to decide if they want to contact the police.   Women who knowingly came to the UK illegally and were coerced into sex work, or became prostitutes willingly but were deceived about the hours, or became sex workers later because no other jobs were forthcoming given their lack of papers – none of these women would necessarily qualify for government assistance.

Furthermore, the government uses the spectre of supposedly widespread trafficking to justify crackdown in immigration and more authoritarian border controls – the new concentration camp for migrants being built in Calais, for example, has been portrayed by the government as necessary to prevent human trafficking. 

Finally, let us not forget our sisters (and brothers) in other industries, where they are viciously exploited and subject to sexual violence.  While the government pretends to care about trafficked sex workers, Transport For London is having many of the tube cleaner union activists deported, in retaliation for their union activism.  Many of these women have experienced sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape on the job – but somehow, this sexual violence is of no concern to the government.

One of the many reasons I have undying respect for Rahila Gupta, even where I disagree with her, is that she knows this and incorporates it into her analysis of the situation of migrant sex workers.  In her book Enslaved, Ms Gupta profiles not only a sex worker, but also a domestic worker, a women in an arranged marriage, a (male) construction worker and an asylum-seeker.  She makes it clear that non-status women in any industry are very vulnerable to sexual violence.  She also argues that the only way to eradicate this exploitation and violence is by eliminating all immigration controls.

In the short-term, advocating for the Convention may be the best way forward, though it is crucial that feminists engage very warily with the government, and recognise the shortcomings of this law.

However, in the long-term, only the abolition of immigration controls, and the establishment of a society where no one is forced to become a sex worker / prostitute to fend off starvation, will end human trafficking. 

While I may disagree with Ms Gupta’s acceptance of the quoted statistic, I fully support  her goal of abolishing immigration controls.  And I think this is very important to emphasize – that a lot of people who “rubbish” those stats still agree with  most of what Ms Gupta says are still vehemently opposed to trafficking and to the exploitation and abuse of any migrant workers, regardless of whether they were trafficked or not, and believe strongly in providing all sex workers / prostitutes with exit strategies.   Hopefully, we can build a movement from these common goals and agree to disagree on peripheral issues.

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3 Responses to “The best way to help trafficked women: abolish immigration controls”

  1. Jen Says:

    I just wrote a big, long comment and it got lost in an electronic sneeze.

    Anyway, the jist of what I was saying:

    We need to open borders, but we need to change our whole attitude to this as well, or it will be as though the borders are still in place.

    I remember seeing a No Borders statement where they mentioned that sometimes women just like to get around from country to country, and trafficking is the method they happen to choose. I guess what I’m saying is that all this “free choice” stuff is a huge red herring, and shows that no matter how many legal borders we remove, the real borders will remain until we start thinking differently.

    At the moment, our definition of a trafficked woman who had “no full and free choice” is someone who had no better option than to go with traffickers, who was naive and thought she was getting into the entertainment business, who is totally innocent, and then when she tells her story she’s some sort of saint with superhuman fortitude. That’s a lot to ask of someone, but not only that: it’s like she had to prove she was totally naive and ignorant and then every step of the way someone yelled “surprise!” and she found herself working in a brothel. That’s highly unlikely, as we’re talking about women who live much closer to war, misery and death than we do. Even if they had some choice in the matter, even if they’re resigned to being there until there are exit strategies, even if they didn’t choose between that or total painful death rape torture annihilation, even if they chose between that or a relatively safe job at home, but they just wanted to travel for various reasons, it’s irrelevant to whether they should be legal, or whether there should be exit strategies. I mean, maybe some women choose that as a step in the way.

    I find it very fucked up that we have to exclaim

    “Oh she was innocent and the big bad wolf tricked her into working in a brothel!”

    “Oh, no woman would possibly choose that!” (big assumption)

    Of course, this does not negate the fact that a lot of them are choosing from a very limited set of crappy circumstances. But all this “ooh if she stayed behind she’d be murdered!” – yes, to be taken into account, but not to be used as opposed to “well, she wouldn’t be murdered if she stayed home, therefore she made her own bed and she go fuck herself in it”.

    It’s irrelevant – right now we’re talking in terms of poor innocent naive stupid victims and big bastards with bushy eyebrows. It’s some kind of fucked-up daddy-daughter phallus worship thing, and to be honest we need to stop projecting our various puritanical attitudes onto, let’s be honest, exotic women whose extraordinary tales of survival in bad circumstances we would like to hear at the dinner table, “Oh I talked to this fantastic woman from Trinidad…”.

    Although I think without that whole narrative, combined with the sexual thing, if we stopped treating oppressed women as blank slates onto which to project stuff, 95% of the feminist movement would lose interest. I mean, you don’t talk about that stuff, you don’t have the odd oppressed woman hanging about at your garden party, you don’t get to call it a “feminist conference”.

    So yeah basically I agree with you, I just think there’s lots here we need to examine / get pissed about in this particular debate. And also that we shouldn’t let certain interests shift the goalposts away from “equal rights for everyone and the right to do your job safely and get the fuck out of it if you want to” into irrelevant territory. I mean, god, we’re all about “oh, I was working for a corporation and then I saw the light and decided to work in the third sector now please pat me on the back”, and we have to conceptualise that same freedom of movement as “exit strategies” for those other women – wow, that’s really big of us.

    • Gwen Says:

      I agree wholeheartedly with this. There’s a difference between choice and agency – agency involves people making decisions within the contexts of their lives, which might be really, really fucked up. An article I read about migrant sex workers in a Canadian feminist magasine made the point that, if forced to choose between going blind working in an electronics assembly plant, or making three times as much in prostitution, prostitution might look like the best choice. But of course, it’s appalling that those are your choices to begin with.

      I’ve said this before, but I really, really dislike the legalisation/criminalisation dichotomy in the sex work debate. Neither decriminalising sex work, nor criminalising clients, is actually going to ensure that no one is a sex worker because s/he feels s/he has no other choice, or is being forced. We have to look at the systems of oppression that create contexts whereby someone only has bad options. And immigration controls are one of those systems – people may find themselves opting for sex work because the only jobs open to them are low-paying, labour intensive jobs, where rape & violence are par for the course no matter what. Cf. BFP’s piece on migrant farm labourers in the US.

      I also agree about projecting our own issues. If you look at the sex work / prostitution debates once again, there are sex workers / prostituted women on ‘both sides’ of the debate, but more often than not the non-sex workers involve seem to view these women as “credibility tokens”. As in “a sex worker agrees with me!! So I’m right!!”
      Projection also explains the huge focus in the feminist movement on how women are represented, ie lad mags, porn, sexist t-shirts, etc. And yes, that stuff is important – when ASDA is selling a T-Shirt that makes light of rape, it contributes to a culture where rape is considered completely acceptable if the woman in question is drunk/acting “provactively”/wearing anything but a nun’s habit, etc. But, as someone pointed out on UK Feminist Action when we were all being urged to write to ASDA and complain – surely we should be equally, if not more, concerned with the plight of the women who made the T-Shirt for 3p/hour. But now that I think of it – maybe this also has to do with the whole postmodern “living your life as if you were on tv” phenomena, whereby we are what we buy, and we are what the media says we are. Hmmm… requires more thought, a probably reading a lot of postmodern French philosophers.

      There’s an issue generally with “what is a feminist issue/ what is not” among feminist groups, but also with those groups who do work on anti-sweatshop campaigns, etc., not incorporating a feminist analysis and not presenting themselves as feminist campaigns. So if you’re a young, relatively privileged, feminist starting out, and you want to join a “feminist campaign”, it might not occur to you that No Sweat is such a campaign.

      Nonetheless, I’m continually shocked by the complete lack of concern in the dominant feminist movement for migrant women who are NOT in the sex trade. Where are the campaigns in solidarity with domestic workers being raped by their employers? Or in solidarity with women inhaling dangerous pesticides as they pick fruit? Or the factory workers who will never manage to pay off the debt they owe to the traffickers who brought them to the UK. As I said in the post, Rahila Gupta does write about this stuff – but somehow, when it comes time for action, we’re only supposed to be concerned for prostituted women. It’s even difficult rallying concern for asylum-seekers who are survivors of rape. And I’m really not sure why this is. It’s not as simple as racism, I don’t think. Nor as simple as the “all prostitution is rape” theory making sex work seem like the ultimate issue, because surely you can believe that (which I don’t) and still believe that forcing your domestic worker to have sex with you in exchange for not having her deported is also rape. Any thoughts?

  2. Jen Says:

    Projection also explains the huge focus in the feminist movement on how women are represented, ie lad mags, porn, sexist t-shirts, etc. And yes, that stuff is important – when ASDA is selling a T-Shirt that makes light of rape, it contributes to a culture where rape is considered completely acceptable if the woman in question is drunk/acting “provactively”/wearing anything but a nun’s habit, etc. But, as someone pointed out on UK Feminist Action when we were all being urged to write to ASDA and complain – surely we should be equally, if not more, concerned with the plight of the women who made the T-Shirt for 3p/hour. But now that I think of it – maybe this also has to do with the whole postmodern “living your life as if you were on tv” phenomena, whereby we are what we buy, and we are what the media says we are. Hmmm… requires more thought, a probably reading a lot of postmodern French philosophers.

    Well, I’ve been reading lots of superhero comics lately, and, while I love them to bits, all the characters in them who are remotely relevant are superheroes, supervillains, or mutants of some kind, fighting to protect this invisible mass of innocents who you never actually see, who may not even exist. Being a princess or a star of some sort is a huge feminine fantasy, I know I thought it was a viable career option when I was like six or seven, and with movies like Pretty Woman we’ve come to view prostitution in something of the same light (I’ve had several women tell me they saw that as kids and thought it would be great to be prostitutes when they grew up). I think there are these parts of white middle-class femininity that really have a huge effect on how feminists approach certain issues, that we really, really need to address before we charge in and do what we think is best. In fact, a bit of a tangent, but that really comes across in the kinds of pop culture that get feminist accolades that portray women kicking arse and being kind of superwomen, as opposed to something like Sunset Boulevard that, really, could be seen as a devastating comment on women and narcissism. I know when I saw the final scenes, with her raving about “all those wonderful people out there on the dark” my jaw pretty much fell on the floor – anyway. That would explain the way feminists are more eager to complain about the stuff on the T-shirt (which, I’d be enclined to go, ewww, that’s pretty despicable) and not care about the women who made them on 3p an hour.

    Also, white middle-class women wanting to be feminist heroes – we’re embodiments of that kind of dominant femininity, we’re kind of the vessel, the physical representation of it, and some of the aspects of that we do criticise (all the stuff we erroneously term objectification, the porn, prostitution, etc.), but a lot more we’d be very uncomfortable living without, and a lot of the attitudes we hail as feminist and progressive are just updated versions of stuff you’d see in a Jane Austen novel. The women making the T-shirts don’t embody that kind of femininity, though they might aspire to it (it’s the dominant ideology after all). So maybe we don’t view them entirely as women because of that. It’s a disturbing thought, but not improbable at all. And then, the ones involved in pornography and prostitution – well, they do embody it in a manner that we want to save them from, but they embody it. So we do view them as women.

    And, I think when say anti-capitalist or racially-conscious feminsits have campaigns around labour issues, I have noticed that they tend not to treat them as feminist issues, they treat them as “something bad that happens to women predominantly”, but other than that a feminist analysis is often really lacking. Notice how many people get offended if you suggest that prostitution is (“just”) a job? And yeah, I was going to reference that bfp post as well.

    And of course, you mention the focus on “you are what you buy”, I’ve seen far more feminists offended that their power as consumers isn’t recognised than concerned about women in bad workplace situations. And of course this whole heroines, kickass women, princesses, whatever schtick is a huge part of what makes women the primary consumers and targets for advertising – when I see feminists complain that “everything out there is aimed at men”, it makes me pretty annoyed, and also complaining about not being accurately represented in the media and especially in advertising (for fuck’s sake!!!).

    I think it’s a huge indictment of the idea that you have to have lived through a form of oppression to fully comprehend it. You take away the most oppressive forces in their lives from middle-class feminists, they will howl and scream. And I think that’s the other thing that I find disturbing: the lack of empathy with which we treat the women we’re supposed to be so concerned about, they’re like currency. Witness also the scorn with which women we perceive to be “oppressing themselves” get treated. I mean, if she got into the situation and didn’t have a choice, then good for her, little angel – but if she had any choice in the matter whatsoever, then screw her! You read appalling things about female celebrities – I think there are illusions as to how much power they have, because they have the ultimate form of the whole princess thing – no sympathy for her! She’s a Powerful Woman, she has it all already!

    At the end of the day, I think our unwillingness to recognise in which ways we are disenfranchised leads to a total lack of sympathy for most women in crap situations. I mean, people like Robin Morgan harp on enough about how we’re all basically oppressed the same – she’s not right in the sense she thinks she is, but there is something all women have in common, we’re all disenfranchised. It’s pretty interesting that the most vocal, most prominently performed attempts to end that disenfranchisements actually reinforce it and celebrate it so much.

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