Sex Trafficking - Separating the Facts from the Bullshit

What is your understanding of the term “sex trafficking”?

The original definition, as recorded by Wikipedia, was “the organised movement of people, usually women, between countries and within countries for sex work with the use of physical coercion, deception and bondage through forced debt”.

Is that, more or less, what you thought it meant?

Following the U.S. State Departments “Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000”, the element of movement was no longer necessary, merely the element of force. Okay, so, still a completely awful situation for anyone to be in.

Then, the UK brought in an even tougher interpretation, with the The Sexual Offences Act of 2003, removing even the element of force: any adult who consents to have sex for money can be said to have been “trafficked” and anyone who in any way facilitates a willing prostitute is a “sex trafficker”.

This continually widening application of the term, and the natural confusion that ensues, has been hugely beneficial to those, worldwide, pushing for the abolition of prostitution. The majority of voters in most countries have a relatively realistic attitude to prostitution: it has always been an unfortunate fact of life but we all know that attempts to ban it have only ever succeeded in driving it underground and making life a great deal more dangerous for the most vulnerable women.

The only people motivated to energetically pursue the abolition of prostitution are those who perceive a holier goal than protecting women, those who feel that prostitution simply must be wiped out because it is sinful. The average voter, on the other hand, does not spend a great deal of time thinking about prostitution, would probably not go to a lot of trouble to protect the sex industry but has enough common humanity to baulk at the idea of policies that actively make life more dangerous for the women in that industry and, most importantly, has an innate distrust of religious nutters in all their many forms.

For that reason, a new generation of evangelical Christians have seized upon the opportunity to repackage normal, everyday prostitution as sex trafficking, taking advantage of the fact that the vast majority of people think that sex trafficking still means the forceful abduction and coercion of women. The real genius of pushing that line is that it is all but impossible for any politician or commentator to risk questioning an “anti-sex trafficking” position, for fear that they will look as if they are supporting the most brutal crimes against women.

The true measure of the abolitionists’ success is that, today, many self-proclaimed feminists, particularly those too young to remember how terribly criminalisation affected the most vulnerable women in the past, take the lurid stories and unsubstantiated claims at face value and add their voices to the calls for abolition, unaware that the decriminalisation of prostitution in countries such as the Netherlands, was a huge success and step forward for the rights of women.

In the case of Amsterdam, the religious right have had to be particularly smart: the city’s citizens have, traditionally, been inclined towards liberal social policies and had been somewhat proud of their international reputation for open-minded pragmatism. It is only thanks to a patient, persistent and continual reframing of prostitution as sex trafficking in Dutch political discourse that they have become ashamed of their unique record and there is a very real likelihood that the religious right will achieve their goal of pushing prostitution back underground. Destroying the world’s most famous tolerance zone, by any available means, would be a major win for them.

Amsterdam’s Red Light District had always been held up as an example of how much safer and manageable prostitution could be if you lifted it out of the back alleys and shadows: here, in a designated area, women could stand safely behind doors, with alarm buttons close to hand, and, unlike brothels, could choose whether or not to accept a customer. The law accorded them the respect of being adults with the right to sell their sexual services as they wished, with no need to worry about policemen or city officials extorting free services, and no reason to hide away in shame. Here, in an open context, they were far less vulnerable than on the streets, removing the need for the “protection” of a pimp. Any women who was over 18 and a citizen of the European Union could pay a relatively small amount of money to rent a window for the night, with no need to share her earnings with a brothel owner and no pressure to work extra shifts or to accept clients she felt wary of.

Of course, prostitution has never and will never be without its problems and it is not the sort of business that people with plentiful options generally choose. No matter how tough you might think you are, sharing your intimate space with strangers will wear down your spirit like nothing else and, although you can say no to guys who are drunk or obviously crazy or an ethnicity you are not comfortable with, you can never really tell what a client will be like until he is in the room, lying on top of you. Problems occur: if you walk around the district for long enough, you are quite likely to here an alarm go off and you might well see a small mob of prostitutes angrily cursing the rule-breaking client as the police lead him away.

Each girl stands in her own window/door, but you will notice that these doors are clustered close together; usually, three, four or more doors are part of the same house, with each leading back to a small room with a bed and various tool of the trade. These tiny rooms are usually partitioned with thin plasterboard walls and all have another door leading back to a shared area containing a shared bathroom and, usually, a small kitchen. These small rooms give the illusion of privacy but, in reality, the girls can hear a lot and, as such, are able to keep a close eye on one another. If a client becomes aggressive and the prostitute cannot reach any of her alarms, a shout or scream will prompt one of the other girls to hit their alarm and come running to her aid, stiletto heels brandished to cause maximum damage, and a mixture of private security and police arrive minutes laters. This is probably the dumbest place in the world for a drunken tourist to cause problems.

Of course, sadly, that proximity does not always stop terrible things from happening: in 2009 a prostitute was stabbed to death on Oudzijds Achterburgwal and, in 2005, one on Barndesteeg had her throat slit. You hear things like that and, of course, your first instinct is to want the whole lousy industry to disappear. On further thought, however, you realize how many more would die every year if you dispersed the hundreds of prostitutes in the Red Light District among a variety of badly-lit backstreets throughout Europe, where customers drive them away to who knows where, where rival prostitutes attack them for violating territory, where policemen trade sex for turning a blind eye, where pimps demand money for the right to work “their” street and where streets thieves prey upon them, knowing that they cannot report the crime.

As bad as the Red Light District is, being pushed underground and working on the streets is far, far worse. It is worth remembering that the victims of serial killers are overwhelmingly street prostitutes: Peter Sutcliffe in the UK, “guided by God”, killed 13; the deeply religious Gary Ridgeway killed 51 in Washington State; Joel Rifkin, a devout Jew, killed 17 in New York and Robert Hansen killed 21 in Alaska. It is disturbing to realize that the devout Christians most passionately attacking the Red Light District and pushing prostitution back underground are sending women back into the arms of equally devout killers.

Sadly, they have already pretty much won their fight - be sure to read our article “Catch it While You Can: Amsterdam's Vanishing Red Light District”. Today, if you survey a random selection of Amsterdammers of all backgrounds, genders and ages about their opinions on the Red Light District, most will faithfully repeat the allegation that it is infested with foreign organized criminals and sex traffickers. That perception has been successfully sold to the people and, once such an emotionally powerful fiction has been embedded as fact, the real facts no longer matter but, just to close out this article, I will mention the massive police raid launched in April of 2011, with the express purpose of finding all these trafficked women. 157 women were detained and interrogated at length … but not one single case of trafficking or coercion was uncovered and that is in line with every other major sex trafficking action: the mysterious lack of sex trafficking victims.

That is the problem with the sex trafficking myth - politically, no one can question it, but it makes absolutely no sense: if you were abducting women and coercing them into prostitution, why would you choose to place them in the mostly publicly viewable form of prostitution in the world? Why, furthermore, would you take them to a city in which there is massive hysteria about sex trafficking and incredible pressure on the authorities and activists to find just one woman willing to reveal that she was trafficked?

In fact, there was one woman who came forward anonymously, at the politically perfect time, the Autumn of 2011, with harrowing tales of the four and a half years she was forced to spend in Amsterdam’s main Red Light District, coerced into having sex with over ten thousand men. Using the pseudonym “Patricia Perquin”, her best-selling novel became the final nail in the Red Light District’s coffin, with the mayor of Amsterdam citing it as a major motivation for his determination to close the Red Light District down. Sadly, by the time her identity as disgraced former journalist and serial liar Valerie Lempereur (known as Daniel before his sex change) was revealed, the damage was done - it is an amazing story, be sure to read our article “Valerie Lempereur - the Woman Who Destroyed the Red Light District”.