Sex workers’ rights activists are often accused of denying problems that exist within the sex industry. The media, rescue industry and anti-prostitution activists emphasise cases of abuse, exploitation and coercion to support their idea that sex work is not just work and regulation is needed. Sex workers and their allies then stress that most prostitutes work because they want to, that cases of abuse and exploitation are the exception and that actually, many sex workers like their job. But this does not mean that sex workers and their allies deny that victims exist or that human trafficking is a problem. Instead, sex workers’ rights activists believe that policies concerning sex work should be based on facts, human rights and respect for adults’ agency and autonomy. We don’t deny problems – we are trying to solve them.
Anti-prostitution activists assert that exaggerating problems, inflating numbers and making up statistics are acceptable when it’s done to call attention to abuses in the sex industry. For example, the Dutch public prosecutor’s department has stated that an estimated 70% of sex workers are forced, even though they know of no research to supports this, and justify that by saying that it doesn’t really matter if it’s 10% or 70% because forced prostitution is always horrible. Female tourists and sex workers who enjoy their work are included in registrations by CoMensha, the Dutch coordination centre for human trafficking, as possible victims of human trafficking. These numbers are then multiplied by fourteen (!) in the 2012 report on sexual exploitation and presented as the number of actual victims. This is justified by assuming that most of the victims must be hidden and that it’s a horrible crime no matter the prevalence so numbers don’t matter. Activists have actually been criticised by Dutch politician Gert-Jan Segers for arguing against the lies.
But numbers do matter. We need to know what is going on in order to make rational and informed decisions. Incorrect understanding of sex work and trafficking have been leading to misguided laws and policies, which have resulted in an increase in abuse and exploitation. We cannot discard research in favour of wild assumptions.
It seems self-evident to me that lying is wrong. Furthermore, these statements aren’t just an exaggeration, they are fundamentally incorrect, and policies based on these false claims are hurting sex workers ánd victims. We need to base policies on facts, not mythology,
Some facts on Dutch sex workers:
– 90% don’t even know anyone who is being forced
– 93% like or are neutral about their colleagues
– 92% have never experienced violence at work
– 86% is happy or even very happy with their job
– they see 10 to 30 customers per week
– 84% like their customers
– 80% never experienced any trouble with a customer ever
– 90% feel unrepresented in politics
– 90% feel government does not protect their interests
– 95% claim politicians have no idea what is going on in the sex industry
Since the brothel ban was lifted in 2000, about one third of the licensed workplaces have disappeared. Cities are not obligated to give out new brothel permits, which has resulted in a growing shortage of licensed workplaces. Workplaces behind windows are being closed, brothels have their permits taken when there is even the slightest sign of trafficking and no new brothels are opened. Although a brothel permit for escorts is not yet mandatory, escorts without a permit are harassed by police, refused from hotels and legislation is being proposed to ban escorts from working in hotels at all. There is no way a sex worker can arrange to work independently, get their own workplace, obtain a permit or start their own business. Because there are so few options to work, many sex workers are now working in the unlicensed sector.
Because unlicensed is often (deliberately?) confused with forced, sex workers in the unlicensed sector are the target of legislations aimed at tackling trafficking and involuntary sex work. There is an interesting contradiction when it comes to fighting unlicensed prostitution: while there’s a thick ‘rescue’ sauce smeared all over it, the ‘punish the dirty whores’ attitude is still obvious. Unlicensed sex workers are subjected to violent police raids, financial penalties, their belongings are confiscated, their money is taken from them, and anybody working for them or with them is arrested. Sex workers in the unlicensed sector who have children are usually reported to child protective services, and because unlicensed means criminally coerced in the minds of many health care professionals, children are assumed to be at risk and are often put in custody.
Licensed workers on the other hand are forced, by the government, to place themselves in a dependant working relationship with a proprietor who has a brothel license. Because of the permit-shortage, proprietors find themselves in a extraordinary position of power which almost begs for abuse. Sex workers are refrained from starting their own brothel, are not allowed to work independently, are refused by banks, get kicked out of their houses if the landlord finds out what work they do, are refused mortgages and are subjected to random police raids and interrogations. And when they have the misfortune of being suspected of being a victim (for example because they placed an ad, bought new things or even had a threesome) they go through the same misery as unlicensed sex workers.
Sex workers who want to report abuse and coercion are prohibited from working in the sex industry. They cannot persecute abusers if they do not intend to stop working, because it is assumed that abused or coerced sex workers are involuntary sex workers who would stop working if the abuse stopped. Voluntary sex workers are not regarded as ‘real’ victims. Furthermore, proprietors are not allowed to provide a workplace for sex workers who reported abuse. Again the assumption is that real victims would never want to work as prostitutes, so providing them with a workplace would mean involvement in human trafficking and forced prostitution, which will cost you your brothel licence. Understandably this has prevented many sex workers from reporting abuse.
The most horrible consequence of this war on unlicensed sex workers is the reduced time and money for victims of coercion and trafficking. Vice squads spend disproportionate resources hunting down unlicensed workers, police teams short on staff spend extraordinary amounts of time on interviewing the huge majority of voluntary prostitutes and there is proposed legislation making it mandatory for sex workers to have regular meetings with health care professionals, leaving less time and money for people in need. We do not have an excess of resources available, neither in law enforcement nor health care. Careless allocation of these resources is immoral and should not be accepted.
Disrespect, ignored and silenced
Because of the stigma associated with prostitution, sex workers are often the target of abuse. Many people feel that those ‘dirty whores’ deserve to be degraded, that they are so sub-human that common courtesy should not apply for them. Sex workers are spat on, called names, peed on, harassed. Drunk tourist assholes think it is funny to treat these women, who they cannot see as actual people, in a degrading manner. In movies sex workers are rarely anything but a prop. A dead hooker isn’t worth investigating. Running over a prostitute gives you bonus points in your video game. Sex workers are rarely depicted or experienced as actual human beings, persons with personal lives and loved ones, workers with ambitions and multi-faceted personalities. Instead they are seen as ‘other’, people not like us at all, and there is good evidence that this stigmatisation leads to an increase in violence directed at sex workers.
A common alternative to the ‘dirty whores’ approach is to consider sex workers as broken goods and unfit adults. There exists a strong stereotype that the average prostitute is of below average intelligence, has very few options available to them and ‘found herself’ in sex work because circumstances forced her into the profession. Former sex workers are shunned from jobs that involve any type of real responsibility, are fired if their former job is ever discovered and former sex workers carry the stigma forever. A whore is a whore and cannot be treated as an equal. I’ve been at multiple meetings where the attendees insisted on calling sex workers ‘girls’ or even ‘little girls’. I’ve regularly been warned that prostitutes are scared and easily startled, so I should approach them with care and slowly gain their trust. Slurs are common, sex workers are called ‘prostituted women’, cum-dumps, compared to animals on display or even called ‘meat carrousel’. Absence of sex workers at meetings on sex work is explained by stating that prostitutes are hard to reach and unwilling to talk.
The truth is that most sex workers are not ideological hippies trying to change the world, but instead are hard workers who want to make money. They have very little incentive to tolerate the belittling and bullshit, and would rather work a few extra hours than educate professionals who use their baby-voices when talking to them and offer cookies. Another truth is that sex workers want to be heard. Since I’ve started talking openly about my support of sex workers’ rights, around 2009, sex workers have all but imposed their trust and stories on me. I’ve been invited to join their communities, be part of a movement, meet for coffee, these people are not hard to reach.
But very few politicians and health care professionals seem to want to listen. They invite rescue organisations as professionals on prostitution. Sex workers who claim to work out of their own free will are told they are confused, their histories are examined and any trauma or negative experience offered as proof that they are unfit to make their own decisions or judge their own motivations. Instead, rescuers will tell them that they too are victims, they just don’t know it yet. And when finally a sex worker with no trauma, a good education and a promising future who truly chose to do sex work from a privileged position with plenty of options available to them speaks up, they are told they are not representative and they should give more priority to the experiences of people less fortunate, and to be silent so the professionals who claim to speak for the voiceless can talk.
Lack of information
It is virtually impossible for sex workers to protect themselves from police violence and institutional discrimination, because there is no clear information available on what is expected from a sex worker, what rights they do and do not have or how to adequately appease those in power so they do not punish or prosecute you. The government only provides information on forced sex work, trafficking and how to get out of prostitution, but not on how to work as a licensed sex worker. Although Soa-Aids is a really good organisation with a respectful attitude towards sex workers they have not succeeded in providing a clear overview of laws and regulations relevant to sex workers. Even politicians and other professionals often haven’t a clue what is and is not allowed, and although I would not go so far as to say the chaos and contradicting information is intentional, cleaning up that mess does not seem to be a priority for anyone. Instead, more laws and legislations are added and confusion grows.
Members of the European Union are allowed to work as a prostitute in the Netherlands, but thanks to the ‘barrier model’ they are hindered in doing so. The government provides no information for women who want to come to the Netherlands to work, there are no organisations to help them set up their life here or find housing, nobody offering them information on their rights and responsibilities as a sex worker. Because of this, sex workers from Eastern Europe are dependent on people who have made an illegal profession out of assisting foreign sex workers. For a big fee they arrange transport, the necessary papers, guide you through the bureaucratic jungle and help with housing. Helping sex workers is by definition human trafficking (273f lid 1 aanhef sub 3) but sex workers are offered no alternative and are forced to work with criminals.
A board member of Sekswerk Nederland recently attended an event aimed at sex workers, there were organisations and professionals there that were supposed to help sex workers in a professional manner. As a woman with years’ experience in the sex industry she wanted information on how to professionalise her work, perhaps arrange a different workspace and so forth. The people of the UWV, who were there to assist sex workers in becoming more independent and provide exactly that type of information, were not even aware brothel licences were needed and had no idea to how to help her. But they could totally offer her information on how to get out of prostitution and train to become a nail stylist if she wanted! I’m not sure how she stopped herself from smacking them over the head with her university degree.
How to solve problems in prostitution
The most important step in combating problems and abuses within the sex industry is full legalisation and deregulation. Almost all of the problems within the industry are the result of laws, legislation and stigma, by treating sex work as anything but work the industry is made vulnerable to exploitation.
Sex workers need to be treated as professionals in their field. Funding should go to organisations run by sex workers for sex workers, not to rescue organisations set on getting people out of prostitution. All parties involved in policies concerning sex work must emphasise respectful use of language and respectful attitudes towards adults in the sex industry, and adopt a zero-tolerance policy on slurs and belittlement.
Time and money should be invested in combating coercion, trafficking and abuse within the sex industry. Organisations must be held accountable when they fail to direct their resources responsibly and government funding must stop when organisations lie, continue to confuse sex work and trafficking or use money to bother and harass voluntary sex workers. Government should stop all funding of rescue industry, as they are currently one of the major human traffickers in the world and one of the leading causes of violence against sex workers.
Want to help victims of trafficking? La Strada International is a prostitution-neutral anti-trafficking organisation that actually aims to stop trafficking, not stop sex work.
Want to help sex workers? Please do so.