The Rescue Industry

Kristof in Tahrir: Is that a brothel, or a KFC?

During the Egyptian Revolution, when the New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof was wandering Midan Tahrir giving the uprising his ponderous approval, I told friends that if Mubarak wanted to get at least one pesky journalist off his back, he need only give Nick directions to Clotbey Street — the capital’s ancient red-light district — and tell him there were girls who needed saving. Such is Kristof’s passion to rescue misused and trafficked women that he would have dropped everything to head there. And given that Nick permits no struggle for human freedom to go on without him, the revolt would surely have been suspended, and Mubarak would still be in charge.

Kristof is back, this week, with an attack on online advertising for sex work.  As always, his column starts with a moving personal story of a rescued woman, then moves without delay to assert this represents all prostitutes’ situations.   His target this time are the ads in Backpage and The Village Voice; he agrees with the largely-discredited Ashton Kutcher that these are fronts for trafficking.

Melissa Giri Grant and Maggie McNeill have already gone after Kutcher’s unsurprisingly unresearched claims, so there’s no need to do so here.  Kristof doesn’t even bother with evidence; he contents himself with writing, ‘While there are no reliable figures for human trafficking, the more we look, the more we find.” But his solution is invariable — raid! arrest! or in this case, censor! ban!  The online venues for sale of sex must be eliminated. Also predictable is the highly case-specific Marxism, which assumes that in this one profession people who sell their labor are reduced to inert commodities, while longshoremen or auto workers or New York Times columnists go on the market but retain full consciousness. Sex ads on the Web are “a godsend to pimps, allowing customers to order a girl online as if she were a pizza.” It’s hard, really, to see how Kristof takes an interest in political revolutions at all, since the only sphere of life where he allows any analysis of exploitation is sex.

Never mind that Web ads are in fact a primary way for individual sex workers to seek clients without the mediation of pimps. Never mind that banning them will only drive sex workers into hierarchical, and potentially hyperexploitative, structures of employment. Another consistent feature of anti-trafficking campaigns is their indifference to their own consequences. The moral purity of the campaigners is what counts, not the welfare of the “victims.”

Raiders of the lost tart: Salvation tweets

Anthropologist Laura Agustin has been a naggingly exact critic of Kristof’s for a long time, pointing out not just his errors of fact but the sheer trivializing vulgarity of his stunts, like live-tweeting a raid on a brothel. On the same day as Kristof’s latest column, she published a piece in Counterpunch, “The Soft Side of Imperialism.”  She draws the connections between the Sex Rescuers and other forms of a corrupted humanitarianism that justifies forcible interventions in the name of voiceless “victims.”

Welcome to the Rescue Industry, where characters like Kristof get a free pass to act out fun imperialist interventions masked as humanitarianism. No longer claiming openly to carry the White Man’s Burden, rescuers nonetheless embrace the spectacle of themselves rushing in to save victims, whether from famine, flood or the wrong kind of sex. …

The Rescue Industry that has grown up in the past decade around US policy on human trafficking shows how imperialism can work in softer, more palatable ways than military intervention. Relying on a belief in social evolution, development and modernization as objective truths, contemporary rescuers, like John Stuart Mill 150 years ago, consider themselves free, self-governing individuals born in the most civilized lands and therefore entitled to rule people in more backward ones. … Here begins colonialism, the day-to-day imposition of value systems from outside, the permanent maintenance of the upper hand. Here is where the Rescue Industry finds its niche; here is where Kristof ingenuously refers to “changing culture”, smugly certain that his own is superior. …

With justification firmly in place, the US Rescue Industry imposes itself on the rest of the world through policies against prostitution, on the one hand, and against trafficking, on the other. In their book Half the Sky, Kristof and co-author Sheryl WuDunn liken the emancipation of women to the abolition of slavery, but his own actions –brothel raids, a game teaching players to protect village women – reflect only paternalism.

What can I say? Read Agustin’s article. This is one of the central problems — curses — of the whole human rights field. Human Rights Watch used to proclaim itself a “voice for the voiceless”; I think it’s stopped, but the both the mentality and the language (which was used in Kristof’s citation for a Pulitzer Prize) persist in innumerable places. The truly victimized still have voices. They need to be listened to, not ventriloquized. The Rescue Industry only reveals the inflation of ego and the ignorance of history that infect the practice of human rights, at their most rhetorically weighted, their most emotionally addictive.

Sex trafficking: The numbers game

Maggie McNeill ties into the wildly fluctuating figures that Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore and their prohibit-prostitution acolytes use to push the idea that child sex trafficking is a massive crisis in the US. Drawing on the research of three intrepid reporters, she invites us to compare

the widely-touted “100,000-300,000 trafficked children” myth … with the police arrest records of the 37 largest American cities … [I]n the past decade there were only 8263 juveniles arrested for prostitution among them, an average of 827 per year (roughly 22 per city per year).  Even if one assumes that these cities together have only half of the underage prostitutes in the U.S., that still gives us fewer than 1700 per year.  Ask yourself:  Even considering the incompetence of police departments, which is more believable: that police catch roughly 5% of underage prostitutes per year (by my estimate), or that they catch only 0.27% per year? …

Not that any of this bothers Maggie Neilson, Ashton & Demi’s “celebrity charity consultant”; she told the reporter “I don’t frankly care if the number is 200,000, 500,000, or a million, or 100,000—it needs to be addressed.  While I absolutely agree there’s a need for better data, the people who want to spend all day bitching about the methodologies used I’m not very interested in.”  Presumably it would still “need to be addressed” if the number were 827, so why not just say 827?  Because, of course, that wouldn’t justify pouring millions down police department and NGO toilets instead of spending it on programs to help actual underage prostitutes (as opposed to phantom multitudes of “trafficked children”):  as the article explains, “…though Congress has spent hundreds of millions in tax-generated money to fight human trafficking, it has yet to spend a penny to shelter and counsel those boys and girls in America who are, in fact, underage prostitutes.  In March of this year…[two senators] introduced legislation to fund six shelters with $15 million in grants. The shelters would provide beds, counseling, clothing, case work, and legal services.  If enacted, this legislation would be the first of its kind…[it] has yet to clear the Senate or the House.”

Two points.

  1. These people throw around numbers like so much confetti.
  2. At what dreadful point in your life, with what emotions of numbness and accidie and emptiness, with what complete lack of direction and slack limpness of the will, amid what utter failure to believe that you can possibly find a useful niche for yourself or do anything that might even imaginably have an impact on the world for some evanescent good — in what hopeless rut of existential despair do you wake up in the morning and decide to become a “celebrity charity consultant”?

Listen to me, not the prostitute. I said: Listen to ME!

You can't say that here: the rejected billboard

The question of UK aid linkage concerns me because of what I’ve always taken as an issue basic to activist politics: representation. Who speaks for whom? Why should people in London be accredited as honorary consuls for movements thousands of miles away? Against the interwoven obstacles of distance, borders, money, and power, how can those movements make their voices heard?

The borders are psychological, not just political, and there’s as much silence in LA as London.

Mention “prostitution” in Los Angeles and you’re likely to hear of local hero Ashton Kutcher, who campaigns against any form of sex work as human trafficking. (On the other coast, he tried to get American Airlines to pull its advertising from the Village Voice because the latter ran ads for sex work: “Hey @AmericanAir are you aware that you are advertising on a site that supports the Sale of Human Beings (slavery)?”, ran a barrage of tweets.)

Meanwhile, when a sex workers’ rights project called SWAAY (Sex Work Activists, Allies, and You) tried to buy space around LA for a text-only billboard contending that consensual sex work is not the same as trafficking or slavery, nobody would sell. “Any variation of the group’s message was banned by Clear Channel, CBS, Lamar, Regency, Van Wagner, Avant Outdoor, LA Transit Authority, and Outdoor Solutions.” This week, instead, the group is running a mobile billboard, travelling the Los Angeles streets. (Trafficking in sex? No. Sex in traffic.)

It’s not as though those big communications companies are averse to controversial subjects — prostitution included. Clear Channel already runs this sensational anti-sex-work billboard, warning johns that the morally sterling LAPD will get them:

calling all cars: sex for sale

— as well as this militaristic ad against immigration:

CBS is perfectly fine with giving space to these anti-abortion messages warning of a genocide against black fetuses:

(Of these ads, one feminist historian said: “To use racist arguments to try to bait black people to get them to be anti-abortion is just disgusting.”)

St. James Infirmary, a San Francisco comprehensive health clinic run by and for sex workers, recently faced the same problems with its own ad campaign.

“Sex workers” is “not a family friendly term,” Barbara Haux, a CBS Outdoor senior account executive, wrote in a rejection e-mail to the clinic. The company said it would reconsider, but only if that phrase was not used.

In a statement to The Bay Citizen, a representative of Clear Channel Outdoor defended its choice not to run the ads, saying that local managers review all content to make sure it meets “standards of the local community.” …

The ads feature cheery photographs of local sex workers (from the shoulders up), their family members and health care providers, images that include a woman in a fur coat, a man with a dog and a couple touching heads. The tagline “Someone you know is a sex worker” accompanies the images.

“This is about humanizing us,” said Naomi Akers, the clinic’s executive director and a former sex worker who is one of 27 people photographed for the campaign. “We’re not just the stereotype of sexual deviant. We’re everyday people.”

The ads eventually appeared on San Francisco city buses.

stop that bus before it enslaves someone

Southern Africa is way more progressive than San Francisco.  Botswana’s ex-president Festus Mogae recently called for decriminalizing sex work (as well as homosexual conduct) to enable effective anti-HIV/AIDS campaigns. His words gave support to out and vocal activists pressing for liberalization across the region.

In response, the Botswanan press has begun featuring the voices of sex workers in ways that would appall California corporations. This article in the Botswana Gazette still tends toward the patronizing, but is far more honest than Clear Channel could stand:

These women in their thirties have become friends; Barbara from Zimbabwe is the bubbly one who says she has been a sex worker for about five years, having fled Zimbabwe in search of a better life. …

The police and nurses are their enemies; they say they are harassed by the police and nurses; sometimes policemen take advantage of them because they cannot report them because sex work is illegal. “The police are always after us; they arrest us, sometimes we sleep with them to let us go. Nurses will not treat us because they say we deserve to be sick because we trade in sex. Our job puts our health at risk and this means we seek medical attention more than any other individual due to sexually transmitted infections (STI),” said Pretty.

The women cannot open bank accounts to save what they earn. “Usually we spend the cash on cosmetics to beautify our selves so that we attract more customers,” Sethunya noted. …

The women want their trade to be legalised and fully support  president Festus Mogae’s call at the recent National Aids Council that prostitution should be legalised as a way to fight the spread of HIV/Aids. …

The Botswana Council of Churches with  Kgolagano Most at Risk Populations (BCC/MAPS), consisting of approximately 1000 commercial sex worker-members have already set the pace; they help the sex workers with advice and provide them with condoms to emphasise protection at all times. (BCC/MAPS) say they are willing to help the women to quit the trade, but would only be able to do so if they had money to help the women to start up new business that can sustain them….

The women, though, sound like they’d rather organize than quit: “The sex workers believe that decriminalisation of their work would help them to be organised, and afford them with protection from the law.”

After Demi, the demimonde

Ashton Kutcher seems intent on being the anti-Charlie Sheen. He hopes to start a movement against guys who buy sex. Not content with eschewing prostitutes, he wants every male to do so, and thus deprive sex work of its lifeblood of cash. His excess of virtue hasn’t prevented a split with Demi Moore, but it’s probably manna to his PR people.

Melissa Gira Grant discusses why his twittery campaign hurts, rather than helps, women.

Meanwhile an interview with a Canadian feminist deals, somewhat superficially, with her conversion to supporting decriminalization of sex work. Although the private sale of sex is technically not criminal in Canada, “communication in public for the purpose of prostitution” (among other ancillary acts)  is — leading not only to rampant prosecutions for personals ads, but to a general furtiveness about sidewalk whispers, and possibly some nervous discussions among buyers of TV time for the Conservative Party. The Ontario Supreme Court recently found this unconstitutional; the decision is under appeal.  Stephen Harper’s government wants to strengthen sanctions against sex work. The existing ban serves only to jail women and johns for the crime of speaking. Its sole advantage to the national interest is that it helps keep Charlie Sheen out.