This is part 2 of a three-part post. Part 1 is above.
The traffic in ”trafficking”: or, Nicholas Kristof rescues Nicole Kidman from a Paris brothel
Inhibitions over sex lead to a more encompassing problem: failure to acknowledge sexual autonomy as a guiding principle, as an integral concern of both feminist activism and human rights.
My first work with Human Rights Watch dates back to 1997, when, as a director at the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC), I researched and wrote a joint volume our two groups did on Romania’s sodomy law. It was HRW’s first full report on LGBT rights. At the book’s close, I included recommendations for Romania to repeal other laws repressing sexual rights, taking for granted that the analogies were evident. One was the criminalization of adultery. The legal reviewer at the Watch wrote in large letters on my draft: “Human Rights Watch takes no position on adultery, nor is it likely to.”
In ensuing years, I often felt this should be carved in stone above the reception desk, rather like “Abandon hope, all ye that enter here.” If you substitute consistency for hope, in fact, the two sentences say the same thing.
Why would you frown on jailing men for boffing men, but gaze benignly on the clink for those who copulate outside marriage? The answer had to do with a jittery reluctance to put sex at the center of one’s thinking about sex laws. It was easy to condemn sodomy laws as offending the equality, or the privacy, of gay people as a group. It was less easy to admit the provisions struck, much more basically, at an individual’s power to put her equality or privacy to one particular use: to have sex, consensual sex with adults, in a way the state didn’t like. Sodomy laws aren’t about equality or privacy, though they infringe them. They’re about sex. To campaign against them means taking on that fact, and affirming the right to have sex. A queasy uneasiness made this analysis difficult for the Watch; defending abstractions is one thing, but defending sex itself? This fed its fidgets over rogue, rutting individuals breaching the marriage bond. They weren’t even part of a self-defined group, Wedlock Warriors or Adulterers Anonymous, so what equality argument could possibly fix a distracting fig leaf over the ungarnished act?
The result was that, for years, while advocating for women who faced stoning for adulterous sex in Nigeria (for example), Human Rights Watch wouldn’t condemn the law itself: it would only say the penalty was disproportionate. I take partial credit for the organization’s finally assuming a position on adultery. A few days after I was hired as LGBT rights director, I pointed out the Nigerian absurdity to Ken Roth; and some time after, an invisible ukase saw the website language on stoning change.
Yet the same inconsistencies persist in other areas.
Think sex work, a realm where women (and men, and transfolk) around the world face brutal repression from governments, with no protection from violence in other quarters. HRW has done truly vital work documenting state persecution of sex workers: mostly through its Health and Human Rights Division, with some small contributions from my old LGBT program. But its full impact is stymied by HRW’s inability to arrive at a coherent policy on the criminal-law regimes repressing sex work. It can’t bring itself to say: Decriminalize.
One sign of the problems this causes is the presence of an article by Mark P. Lagon in HRW’s new anthology. What the hell is he doing there?
Probably you haven’t heard of Lagon. My own first encounter with him, back in 2006, was when he served as chief defender of one of the Bush administration’s most homophobic UN votes. This renders it doubly offensive to find him published in the book: not only does HRW’s anthology completely ignore LGBT people, it invites their opponents under its covers. (I’m sure the International Lesbian and Gay Association, which he falsely accused of pedophilia, will not be charmed to see HRW embrace him.)
Lagon brings bigger baggage than that to the assignation, though. In his last Bush gig, from from 2007-2009, he headed the State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons. This put him in charge of some of the worst policies the W. presidency carried out anywhere other than New Orleans and Iraq. Ann Jordan, an authentic expert on trafficking – she advocated against all its forms for years at Global Rights, before heading the Program on Human Trafficking and Forced Labor at American University – writes:
[T]he Bush administration, supported by the evangelical right-wing and some radical feminists, spent eight years promoting laws to criminalize prostitution and clients as the means to abolish prostitution and stop human trafficking into the sex sector. The ideology-driven approach is notable for the absence of any concrete evidence that it works. Proponents of such an approach have also failed to demonstrate that it avoids harming women or provides other livelihoods for those it aspires to help. It reduces all adults in the sex sector (even highly paid “call girls” and those working legally) to victim status and considers all prostitution to be a form of trafficking.
After leaving government, Lagon steered the Polaris Project, a right wing anti-trafficking group. SWAAY (Sex Work Activists, Allies and You) calls it an organization “fighting against improving conditions for sex workers, especially in the developing world.” And in the global North too: Lagon has led anti-free-expression campaigns to censor sex ads from Craigslist and other venues. Although he talks a pseudofeminist line from time to time, little about Lagon’s positions suggests sustained concern for women’s rights – or well-being. (As I’ve observed here, closing down sex ads eliminates one of the safest ways for sex workers to select clients. It puts them in danger by driving them onto the streets.)
From the perspective of those who value sexual autonomy and sexual rights, Lagon’s views are destructive and appalling. He’s a militant proponent of using the punitive extent of the criminal law to eradicate consensual commercial sex between adults. He piously descants of freedom, while demolishing the freedoms of others.
In government, Lagon did shift State’s attention slightly from a single-issue focus on sex trafficking toward addressing forced labor. But he avidly promoted, and still promotes, the Bush coterie’s main moralistic point: that all prostitution is exploitation, that sex work and sex trafficking are the same thing. As the administration helpfully explained in a “fact sheet“:
The U.S. Government adopted a strong position against legalized prostitution in a December 2002 National Security Presidential Directive based on evidence that prostitution is inherently harmful and dehumanizing … Few activities are as brutal and damaging to people as prostitution.
When an embarrassed Obama administration tried to back off slightly from this weird dictum, Lagon damned them in testimony before Congress. “Emphasizing that prostitution is not trafficking,” he told lawmakers, “is counterproductive.” What a cynic! He doesn’t say it’s not true: just not productive. Acknowledging that sex work can be freely chosen undermines his “abolitionist” goal, to hawk its unattainable utter eradication.
Lagon’s article for HRW says little that’s specific. It shares with most eradicationist arguments a deictic indifference to evidence, the equal of Ring Lardner’s immortal sentence: “’Shut up,’ he explained.” His main point is to paint the trafficked –or the “prostituted,” which is how he refers to sex workers in his other writings — as pure creatures of the passive voice, victims skinned of volition and humanity. (In the past, after all, Lagon has said that sex workers lead “nasty, immoral” lives for which they can’t be found “culpable” only because they don’t have the choice.)** Usually this kind of vague allegation-mongering wouldn’t make its way through HRW’s editing process. (The editors seem to have collapsed before the intransigent problem of Lagon’s prose, unable to correct either dangling participles or his false claim that Karl Polanyi was a Marxist.)
It’s impossible, though, not to notice three key things Lagon leaves out: He never defines trafficking. In his one stab at explaining it, he simply says, “Human trafficking is indeed about people being turned into commodities.” Of course, he sees sex as central:
Moreover when those ‘commodities’ are girls or women who are sold for their bodies’ sexual consumption, left, right, and center can agree this is an acute violation … At its heart, human trafficking involves groups of people being consigned to less-than-human or non-person status.
This defines nothing. It could be (and has been) said of any form of commodified labor in a capitalist society. Mark, go read Marx, or Mrs. Warren’s Profession! But it’s a bastard crib of socialism or Shaw, and it’s insidiously corrosive. No credible economist would so deliberately obscure how both trafficking and stigmatized work really work. Ann Jordan writes of the similar rhetoric of Siddharth Kara, a widely-read eradicationist and “poverty tourist”:
The most seriously flawed assumption he makes is to equate human beings — trafficked persons and sex workers — with commodities. His economic model treats women as passive objects that are pushed and pulled by exploiters using forced labor to lower costs to meet demand, and ignores the poverty, discrimination, and violence that compel women to make risky decisions. Adults who make rational choices from among limited options are actors who don’t fit a neat supply/demand economic model, and so they are factored out of the equation in order to situate trafficking as a commodity business.
Such broadbrush simplification is routine in sex work debates. Brandishing the “trafficking” term as a synecdoche for horror drives off serious thought. Fiona David, of the Australian Institute of Criminology, finds this rooted both in racism and in history:
[M]uch of the discussion today reflects and reinforces outdated stereotypes of Asian (or other developing world) women as passive, helpless victims, in need of rescue, thereby ignoring the reality of the difficult choices that these women might have made. I will note that present approaches to the issue strongly reflect the approaches that were taken to the issue in the nineteenth century, when European migrant sex workers were said to be victims of the “white slave trade.” Now, as then, interested organisations and the media are relying on what is really a “myth” of trafficking – a simplistic explanation for a messy and complex reality.
And the brilliant Gayle Rubin shows how views like Lagon’s draw on older, visceral fears about migration, race, and morals. “The constant conflation of trafficking and prostitution is neither accidental nor new. In fact, these contemporary confusions derive from the discourse about trafficking that emerged in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries.” The age of the anxieties doesn’t at all detract from the present fact that forced labor happens, in many forms. Yet it means we must analyze both presumed causes and proffered answers, to sort out superannuated prejudices from real solutions.
Lagon also omits any reliable figures about the size of the problem. This imprecision is epidemic in the trafficking panic. Ronald Weitzer, a sociologist who has studied sex work extensively in many countries, writes,
Interest groups, the media, and the U.S. government have given very high estimates of the number of persons trafficked each year into the sex industry or other labor arenas. In some instances, the numbers appear to be pulled out of thin air, as in a Washington Post editorial … declaring that “trafficking is understood today as a global phenomenon exceeding 20 million cases each year.” [emphasis added]
The US government’s figures for trafficking victims globally (including trafficking within national borders) oscillated wildly, between “2 to 4 million” in 2006 and more than 12 million four years later. No real evidence backs either number. In 2006, when the government tossed around a “600,000 – 800,000” figure for worldwide trafficking across borders, its own internal watchdog, the General Accounting Office, studied the issue and found
such estimates of global human trafficking are questionable. The accuracy of the estimates is in doubt because of methodological weaknesses, gaps in data, and numerical discrepancies. For example, the U.S. government’s estimate was developed by one person who did not document all his work, so the estimate may not be replicable, casting doubt on its reliability. Moreover, country data are not available, reliable, or comparable. There is also a considerable discrepancy between the numbers of observed and estimated victims of human trafficking.
That last difference, between the numbers bandied around and those actually counted, is especially disturbing. Look at the State Department’s 2010 estimates again: 12.3 miliion allegedly trafficked around the world. And how many concrete “victims identified” among those? 49,105.
Get out your calculator. That means only four-tenths of one percent of the people supposedly trafficked, from that heady 12m number, were actually identified as such. By State’s alarmist reckoning, this shows a failure of services. But what if it’s a failure of the math? What kind of insane statistician observes x number of victims, then “estimates” the total by multiplying this by 250? Surely many trafficked people are invisible to law enforcement. But 99.6% of them? It’s not just a matter of the tip of the iceberg we’re talking here. The anti-trafficking paranoiacs think like drunken sailors who infer an abysmal berg from a snowflake melting in the waves.
No one would claim the unreliable numbers mean trafficking is insignificant. They do mean, though, that we need investigations first, not intemperate persecution. Yet Lagon’s métier is neither facts nor figures. It runs rather, as with other sex eradicationists, to rhetoric and morals. Tellingly, the blog of Lagon’s Polaris Project seems to have abandoned trying to find any individual sex-trafficking victims at all. It’s turned to identifying fictional characters who may have been trafficked without the viewer’s knowing. These include Nicole Kidman’s role in Moulin Rouge (Nick Kristof, raid that movie now!), Verdi’s Aida, and Bizet’s tempestuous temptress. The blog says:
The character Carmen is a joy to sing because she is active and aggressive where so many female characters in opera are passive and abused. But even with this, Carmen had many other ways to express her sexuality without taking money for it. Perhaps she sold sex because she had to. We as a society need to decide if we should force anyone into that position.
This concludes our 10 week series of posts on human trafficking in musical theater.
You cannot make this nonsense up.
We are left with a set of farfetched claims about trafficking, claims that hardly lend themselves to evidence-based policy-making. The available evidence does not allow us to draw any conclusions about the magnitude of the problem. There are no reliable statistics on trafficking in any one nation, let alone worldwide. Even ballpark estimates are guesswork, given the clandestine nature of the sex trade. But precisely because the asserted numbers, trends, and proceeds cannot be verified, they can easily gain a life of their own and a veneer of credibility when repeatedly cited by the media and in government reports. And such grandiose claims certainly have shock value.
Alas, the vaunting claims and the plausible veneer are how Lagon makes his living. Armored in moral nostrums, armed with ersatz estimates and a manufactured aura of emergency, the brave protector of Carmen from the pimps is able to convince Human Rights Watch he has serious things to say about women’s liberation. Again, though, anybody can see his third omission: he has nothing workable to propose.
Lagon says his approach is “idealist,” not “materialist,” in solidarity with the old Bushite core constituency: the ideology-based rather than reality-based community. “It is true,” he admits to HRW grudgingly, “that the root cause of trafficking is poverty,” and
This materialist premise leads to the conclusion that fighting poverty broadly and creating economic opportunities is the solution … But we cannot just wait for the end of poverty. We need to act now and address the ideas that reduce women to second-class citizens … Of course, changing perspectives and cultures is enormously hard. [emphasis added]
This sounds cool. “Addressing ideas” is both a really long-term project – no irritating quarterly reports required — and cheap. We won’t be raising taxes on the 1% here! But it doesn’t feed anybody. For people who have actually been trafficked (and people who chose domestic work or sex work but want a job that will let them leave), neglecting the material conditions that made them vulnerable is a map of failure.
The Bush administration liked failure. That was one thing it was good at! Reporting on the “crusade against sex trafficking” for the Nation, Noy Thrupkaew tells of a USAID-supported Philippine NGO that, over two decades, “developed a rigorously holistic program for children in the commercial sex industry. It reaches out on all fronts–offering the families and children comprehensive psychosocial counseling, livelihood initiatives, microloans and tutoring and vocational training.” Their programs showed a high success rate compared to evangelical Christian projects. But why encourage “materialism”? Bush defunded them. Thanks, Mark.
In truth, Lagon aspires not to change minds but chain bodies. He falls back on the criminal law, that bluntest of instruments. His concrete call here and elsewhere is to criminalize demand, a project commonly named the “Swedish model” (not to be confused with “Stockholm syndrome,” though it reflects a similar confusion between captivity and freedom). This simply shifts state repression of sex from worker to customer (and everyone else around her). Laura Augustin, an anthropologist and expert on sex work who lives in Sweden, finds this “naïve” policy founded on a fantasy
that without a demand for commercial sex there will be no supply, ignoring the complicated ways sex-money markets work in cultures with different concepts of family and love, reducing a wide range of sexual activities to an abstract notion of violence and brushing aside the many people who confirm that they prefer selling sex to their other livelihood options.
It won’t end sex work; it’ll ensure it’s all underground. Two Swedish researchers discover no tangible decrease in commercial sex since the model strictures against clients took force. “The general estimate … is that sex workers have begun using other means [than public spaces] to find clients, and vice versa.” Meanwhile,
The most common and perhaps most serious complaint [from] sex workers themselves is that they experienced an increased stigmatization after the introduction of the Sex Purchase Act. … Sex workers object to the fact that they were not consulted in the making of the law. Since sex workers feel they are not able to influence their legal or societal situation, they feel powerless. And since the ban builds on the idea that women who sell sex are victims, weak and exploited, many claim that the law propagates stereotypical notions.
As Ann Jordan concludes, but Lagon implicitly denies, “To develop effective, evidence-based, do-no-harm policies, advocates and policy makers must work collaboratively with persons who may be helped or harmed by the proposed laws and policies.”
This leads to the question: Who most publicly treats women as commodities bereft of will? Answer: Eradicationist campaigners, who refuse to ask them what they want. Eradicationist videos rarely allow sex workers to speak. The women, Agustin comments, “are left in the background and treated like objects.” SWAAY says of Lagon’s last org, “By treating all sex workers as passive victims who can’t be allowed to make their own decisions, Polaris dehumanizes and objectifies us to serve their own conservative goals.”
Unfortunately, Human Rights Watch’s lack of a policy on the criminal penalties for sex work also leaves it lacking an “effective, evidence-based, do-no-harm” principle to inform its interventions. This makes it intellectually vulnerable to a doubtful character like Lagon trafficking its good name. But there are worse consequences. The silence damages a highly competent organization’s ability to achieve all it needs to in the field. There is no good reason to equivocate in defending people’s autonomy. But absent recognizing that criminal penalties for consensual sex are wrong, the group is left fatally hesitant about who its allies are and what it can demand abusive governments do.
Some years back, after speaking to sex worker activists in Cambodia, researchers urged a report on the devastating impact of a new anti-trafficking law passed there (at the Bush administration’s behest). Comments by HRW’s legal office on the preliminary proposal show how leery the leadership can be over suggestions that sex workers should own their sexualities:
We are not taking a position that sex work should be legal, and we have to be careful not to cross that line. We can make clear that sex workers have rights – just as undocumented workers have rights –that must be protected, and which enforcement of the law against those involved in abuse, exploitation etc should not trample on etc. – but we are not advocates for establishing a sex industry. …
Regarding the legal framework, the report is going to have to try hard to position itself as anti-trafficking and at least neutral on prostitution per se in order to have impact. The goals should be focused around how to better prevent trafficking, and not how to protect prostitutes from the law. …
We [should] challenge the basis of detentions of sex workers as not complying with international human rights standards on detention, not on the basis that they should not be arrested simply for sex work. …
Even looking down from the high balcony of years, I am still embarrassed by the reluctance to “protect prostitutes from the law.” The law is what they usually need protecting from. I’d just note one thing here. None of us ever asked HRW to be “advocates for establishing a sex industry.” A sex industry is established in every country, thank you, and it will flourish whether the Watch wishes or no. The line, with its nervous exaggeration, doesn’t reflect legal reason. It’s the language of fear: fear of the slippery slope and the corrupting precedent, fear of sex, fear that if you support the basic rights of sex workers to deploy their bodies you will find strip clubs under your desk by morning and a brothel in your refrigerator next week. Laura Agustin cites the arguments the state made in fighting Canada’s recent court decision commanding regard for sex workers’ rights. Decriminalization, lawyers claimed, would carry “irreparable harms to the public interest,” “more drug trafficking, violence, garbage, noise and traffic from johns,” rampant red-lightery, police “powerless to protect residents in vulnerable neighbourhoods.” In other words, Agustin says, “they are afraid of Change. They are fantasizing all the scary things that could happen, but they cannot provide any evidence that they will happen.” Similar anxieties inflect Human Rights Watch’s inability to come up with a policy respecting sex workers’ sexual rights.
The resulting report on Cambodia was a disastrous mess, one that alienated sex worker activists across Asia. Although focused on the anti-trafficking law, it couldn’t manage to condemn its key provisions. Andrew Hunter, of the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers, has declared on this blog:
The recommendations are shockingly inadequate, and internal arguments over them delayed the whole report until it was really too late for it to be of any use at all. We argue[d] and argued about recognizing sex workers’ right to livelihood, but to no avail.
The same reticence and insecurity will continue to erode HRW’s relationships with sex worker activists.
Indeed, The Unfinished Revolution shows a suspicious inability to recognize that sex workers can be activists for themselves. Consider this misleading sentence from its introduction:
Meena Seshu, the founder of the Indian non-governmental organization Sampada Gramin Mahila Sanstha (SANGRAM) is an example of a human rights defender who has used education in her organization’s efforts to prevent HIV/AIDS in the provinces of Maharashtra and northern Karnataka, particularly among sex workers who have a relatively high risk of contracting the disease.
I know Meena – even before she was an HRW awardee in 2004 – and this picture of the rights defender as elevated educator-from-on-high couldn’t be less accurate in SANGRAM’s case. The landmark NGO’s focus is empowering sex workers to protect their rights as sex workers, as well as beyond sex work. SANGRAM and groups that grew out of it (such as Veshya Anyay Mukti Parishad or VAMP, the Prostitutes’ Collective Against Injustice) helped start a wave of sex worker activism sweeping South Asia, with politicized prostitutes demanding decriminalization, legal protections, and workers’ rights. To watch a coven of empowered Indian sex workers slap down earnest white people who imagine they know better, check out this fierce VAMP video – in answer to a Western film that falsely claimed they were trafficked and coerced:
Message to HRW: Don’t mess with these folks.
It’s sad that a book like this fails to applaud these heroes and furnish them a platform. By contrast, when The Unfinished Revolution addresses the exploitation of female domestic labor, the chapter stresses domestic workers’ struggles for their own rights. But when it comes to sex workers’ activism, the anthology is silent. Instead, if sex is at issue, it falls back on tired, imperially tainted fantasies of victimhood and Western intervention. The book claims sex workers are deprived of agency; but it does the depriving itself.
Across South Asia, sex worker activism has reshaped women’s movements as well as ideas of the public sphere. Propped next to HRW’s anthology in my local bookstore was a collection on South Asian Feminisms. It had an entire section on “Feminism, Sex Work, and the Politics of Sexuality,” with analyses of sex worker movements from Bangalore to Bangladesh. Ha! You wouldn’t guess any of this from the HRW tome. And here’s the irony: the ivory-tower academics are more in touch with activism actually happening than the supposedly hard-nosed realists of human rights, who persist in denial. The former have to see things as they are; but the latter’s perceptions stay bound to an iron wheel of ideological presuppositions.
Where sex is concerned, HRW’s anthology succumbs to ideology, a compendium of suppositions. Its pages treat sex as danger. Quite correctly, the volume emphasizes sexual violence as one of the worst and most widespread rights violations targeting women. But it never stretches to acknowledge sex as also a resource and a right, as something plenty of women want, as a precious possibility that people – lesbians, prostitutes, adulteresses, “respectable” women – will fight and die for.
In reproductive rights, HRW has been pathbreaking, affirming abortion as a basic freedom before most “mainstream” groups would. But even then, there’s been reluctance to admit that women might seek contraception, or the legal power to end a pregnancy, not just for medical or economic reasons, but because they want to have more sex. And what about admitting those women are right to do so? As with sodomy and adultery, the question here drives down to bedrock: what are we talking about, when we talk about sex? How important is it, and why do people want it? Isn’t sex something you should have full power to enjoy, reject, revel in, even sell as you desire? I once heard one of HRW’s leading figures refer in a meeting to “sexual rights, which are a subset of reproductive rights.” Rick Santorum couldn’t more succinctly phrase his beau ideal of sex as purposive. But that’s simply not how most people fuck, live, or love – and certainly not how most sexual rights defenders see it. Human Rights Watch needs to accept and fight for sexual autonomy as part of personhood to be prized, a benefit and a universal entitlement and an end in itself.
Sex can be an arena of wounding vulnerability – frequently for women and trans people, often for gay men, sometimes even for straight males or others. It can also be a wellspring not just of pleasure but of independence and power, as Audre Lorde and many others knew. To stress the one aspect without paying homage to the other is to fling acid in one of its Janus faces, to deny the deep flow of freedom through one of the most elemental human experiences.
Of course, there are plenty of feminists as well as moralists, committed carers and anti-sex militants alike — within as well as outside the human rights world — who would doubt or disagree. Lagon’s positions, and the eradicationist approach, have supporters: powerful ones. And ample room remains for debate.
But there’s a basic ethic of human rights work: one should present the facts in full, not cherrypick them to fit one’s preferences. When Human Rights Watch’s book endorses Lagon’s views with no indication that they occasion massive controversy within the field of human rights itself; when it suggests that “traffickers” and “victims” (and “saviors”) are the only roles that prostitution affords, while deliberately ignoring the voices and advocacy of sex workers themselves who have laid claim to their rights as sex workers – all this isn’t just a gross failure to give the facts. It’s a failure of ethics.
Part 3 continues below.
** The statement appeared on Lagon’s blog at the Polaris Project in 2009, but seems to have been taken down since, after it aroused a small storm of indignation.