Victims suggest innocence. And innocence, by the inexorable logic that governs all relational terms, suggests guilt. - Susan Sontag
Here’s another reader letter whose response was long and complex enough to warrant an entire column. And though I’ve answered the main question here on several occasions, every new look at it may succeed in “turning on the light” for different people.
I understand about moral panics and poorly supported statistics. On the other hand, the experience of policewoman Kathryn Bolkovac in Bosnia would indicate that there is a serious problem of trafficking and coercion, at least in certain countries and under certain circumstances. Have you read her book or seen the movie based on her experiences in Bosnia? Abusive and coercive working conditions tantamount to slavery are actually quite common in the world; should we be concerned about forced prostitution, or is it your opinion that this is so uncommon as to not be a problem?
I’m not familiar with Bolkovac, but I must point out several things: first, that she is a cop. As you know, cops have a tendency to exaggerate, especially when the subject is criminal behavior; their world-view demands a belief in the concept that crime is rampant and that something must be “done about” it, and that the solution always involves more cops and more punitive measures. Even an unusually skeptical cop is laboring under a heavy burden of presupposition and experience viewed through a skewed “law and order” filter; take a look at the stories of the LEAP members Radley Balko has guest blogging on The Agitator right now and you’ll see what I mean. These are clearly not stupid men, but they were so indoctrinated into the “drug war” philosophy that it took them years of considerable negative input to break out of it; it’s not exactly a stretch to suggest that Bolkovac has a similar handicap.
Next, abusive and/or coercive working conditions, though common as you point out, cannot be battled by criminalizing employers or denying the agency of those who choose to work under those conditions; consider the controversy over Foxconn. Horrific work conditions in the 19th century did not end because governments criminalized employers or “rescued” workers from exploitative factories, but because those workers organized themselves to demand better conditions and governments eventually backed up those demands. As long as sex work is illegal, there will be exploitation in it because the workers are unable to organize for change; essentially, the government acts as an enforcer for the exploiters. In every place where prostitution is decriminalized, coercion and exploitation virtually vanish; tellingly, the only exploitation which remains in legalized systems (such as those in Queensland or Nevada) tends to revolve around those sectors which are illegal (unlicensed, etc) or limited by regulations (such as the number of brothel windows allowed in Amsterdam). In other words, evil people (including corrupt cops and bureaucrats) will immediately move to take advantage of any artificial bottleneck which allows only some people to do sex work while excluding others.
Third, the existence of coercion in sex work no more proves claims of vast “human trafficking” networks or justifies “trafficking” hysteria than the existence of child sexual abuse proves claims of Satanic cults or justifies “child predator” panic. Furthermore, situations which arise in areas embroiled in or just emerging from chaos (such as late-’90s Bosnia) are no more representative of the rest of the world than the social or economic conditions of such places are. The overwhelming evidence is that only a small fraction (<2% of adults, <10% of minors) of sex workers are coerced in any concrete sense, and that the majority of such coercion is perpetrated by individuals or small groups (gangs, etc) rather than by international cartels or even large criminal enterprises.
Finally (and this brings us back to Bolkovac), though many people (especially cops and moralists) insist on viewing the world as a Manichean struggle between the forces of good (equated with order) and the forces of evil (equated with disorder, i.e. free action), this clearly does not make it so. Human behavior is complex and there are few clear “heroes” and “villains”, few pure “victims” and “victimizers”. One of the processes which laid the groundwork for “trafficking” hysteria was the criminalization of interpersonal antagonism in the 1980s and 1990s. While it’s certainly true that some relationships are unilaterally abusive, it is also true that the majority of what is now termed “domestic violence” in adult relationships is the result of a complex two-way interaction rather than a simplistic TV cop-show abuser-victim dynamic such as many feminists pretend to be the norm. Those who believe in this kindergarten conceptualization of human interaction cannot help but be confused when women (or men, for that matter) stay in abusive relationships; they attempt to explain the reluctance to break up (or even to blame the abusive partner) on “brainwashing” or fear (of physical violence) or whatever, when in fact the relationship may fill a real (though unhealthy) need in the “victim”. If a woman is forced out of an abusive relationship by ham-fisted state action (such as mandatory domestic violence prosecution) or some other paternalistic intervention without examination of the underlying reasons she accepted such a relationship in the first place, she is likely to seek out another, similar one to replace it. Furthermore, when abusive relationships are interpreted through a rigid neofeminist “male aggression and patriarchal dominance” filter, abusive male homosexual relationships and those in which a woman abuses her partner of either sex must be disregarded or even denied because they disprove the cherished model.
The enshrinement of the “male aggressor-female victim” model in both mainstream feminism and Western legalism made both the “Swedish model” and “sex trafficking” mythology inevitable. Since moralistic Westerners (especially Americans) and radical feminists both view sex as a dirty, awful thing, any form of it which is not sanitized by whatever rituals the particular group demands (marriage, absolute female choice without any practical consideration whatsoever, exclusion of men from the interaction, etc) is interpreted as “violence” and “abuse” inflicted by evil, powerful men on innocent, passive, childlike women. Prostitution thus becomes a form of rape and exploitation, something it is impossible for women to choose unless they are under some form of duress. The existence of victimization necessitates a victimizer, hence the “trafficking” myth which insists that each and every whore is the victim of a man or men who “forced” her into a life of degradation, torture and dirty, filthy, awful sex. This narrative spawns “end demand” programs which cast customers (properly understood as equal partners in a simple economic transaction) as sinister quasi-rapists, and inspires police to capture hookers in order to pressure them into producing “pimps” who probably (93% for adults, 90% for underage) don’t even exist. The rise of “anti-trafficking” initiatives have therefore created perverse incentives for women to invent these pimps; if they’re “trafficking victims” they escape prosecution and may even get some other goodies, whereas if they’re prostitutes by choice or circumstance they go to jail. Naturally, the number of reported “pimps” and “traffickers” rises, and the police and fanatics can claim that “sex trafficking” is a “growing problem” whether the supposed “pimp” is a real person, a relatively-innocent man fingered by a desperate streetwalker, or a wholly imaginary character.
In the absence of criminalization, negative factors in sex work (such as exploitation, coercion and other unbalanced interactions) are no more or less common than they are in other human personal and professional interactions. The world is not fair and people are imperfect, so there will always be bad relationships and crappy work environments. The best we can hope for is the removal of unnecessary and artificial obstacles which prevent people from demanding fair treatment from the other participants in those relationships, or leaving those situations if the other parties refuse to change.