Marijke Vonk is a Dutch sex-positive psychologist who specializes in working with sexual minorities; besides working as a therapist, she is a writer and lecturer on various topics concerning sexuality. Since I discovered her blog a few months ago I’ve been repeatedly impressed by both her thoughts and the way she expresses them; if we had a thousand allies like her sex worker rights would be all but accomplished. So naturally, I had to ask her to do a guest column for me!
When it comes to sex, the Netherlands is known as a tolerant country. We’ve got marriage equality for same-sex couples, a usually laid-back attitude towards sexual diversity, famous red-lights districts and since 2000 legalised brothel-keeping. But in recent years, the human trafficking panic has caught on and attitudes towards sex work have changed. “The happy hooker does not exist” claimed Dutch politician Gert-Jan Segers, one of the initiators of new legislation to criminalise clients of sex workers. “All prostitutes are forced” states Frits Rouvoet, an “expert” on sex work. It’s interesting how these men will not change their minds, not even when numerous sex workers contact them to let them know they are indeed happy and not forced.
As in the rest of the world, inflated numbers of incidences of trafficking are used to reduce sex workers’ rights. The National Reporter on Trafficking in the Netherlands claims thousands of reported cases of possible victims of trafficking, but these reports include registration of non-sex worker women travelling alone (!) and sex workers visiting family abroad. Even sex workers who buy new things, have a lot of friends or like their workplace are regarded with suspicion and reported as possible victims. Sadly, these “thousands of reported cases” are repeated by politicians and NGO’s who claim more action (and money) is needed to combat this extensive problem. When confronted with the inaccuracy of their claims they seem wholly uninterested. “Maybe the problem is slightly exaggerated. If that means we get more help for victims I have no moral objection”.
Most people involved in the Dutch rescue industry don’t seem to mean any harm towards sex workers themselves, they genuinely appear to want to help victims. They don’t see the harm, and I think that’s where one of the major issues in Dutch sex workers’ rights lie. They truly don’t see how their actions are harming both victims and sex workers. And from a psychological viewpoint this makes sense: it feels good to fight for a just cause, to help powerless innocent victims, to be one of the good guys. Accepting that the “victims” not only refuse your help but are actually victimised by your actions causes a great deal of cognitive dissonance, something we all try to avoid. It’s no wonder then that rescuers deny facts and sex workers’ experience, but their ignorance is far from harmless.
During recent raids on legal brothels hundreds of policemen violently forced their way into the workplace of twenty or thirty sex workers, smashing up their belongings, taking their earnings and bringing the women, their clients and anyone else near the establishment to police stations for questioning. Scaring clients of sex workers is currently a popular method, not only by harassing them during raids but also by lying about the prevalence of forced prostitution: This has caused a noticeable drop in business for Eastern European sex workers in red light districts. New legislation is being proposed to criminalise clients of sex workers when they “should have known” those sex workers are forced to work. To be clear, sex with people who are obviously forced is of course already illegal and called rape. But the major initiator of this new legislation is of the opinion that all sex workers are forced, this is simply a step towards end-demand laws. Eastern European women are disproportionally stalked by police under the guise of anti-trafficking, they are followed around airports and stopped and questioned in public areas. Prostitutes working from home are raided, their belongings confiscated and are even kicked out of their homes. Necessary permits for brothel-keeping are impossible to get, which has resulted in a strong power imbalance between brothel-workers and the proprietors, a situation which almost begs for abuse and exploitation. Sex workers have no legal way of arranging a work place for themselves. The lies about trafficking and forced prostitution have resulted in increased funding of rescue organisations and ceased funding of sex workers’ rights organisations. Actual victims are becoming more and more invisible under all the bloated claims, making them harder to reach. Outside of the Netherlands the situation is even worse; anti-trafficking laws and regulations have hurt the position of sex workers and has increased police brutality towards sex workers. Rescue organisations are currently the biggest perpetrators of human trafficking in the world, abducting women and girls from their homes and workplaces, keeping them in shelters against their will and forcing them to do manual labour under terrible circumstances and for a criminally low wage.
In order to change this, we need to make people see the harm they are doing. But it’s difficult to convince people of the idea that they believe in lies and that their actions have resulted in the harm and even death of others. In couples therapy I often explain the idea of “the golden bridge out” of a conflict. If you and your partner disagree you need to give the other person a graceful way of admitting they are wrong; if the only way they can change their mind and agree with you is by agreeing they are a lying piece of garbage with no sense of empathy, they’re not going to agree. Always give the other person a golden bridge out, a graceful way of changing their minds that doesn’t necessarily involve crushing their self worth. I think we need such a bridge out for the antis, the rescuers, a graceful path for them to change their minds without having to state they were the bad guys. They need a story in which their egos can stay intact. They need a golden bridge out of their far from victimless crimes.