Via this entry at Harry's Place, I came upon a column in the Washington Post, "Soccer With a Side of Slavery," written by Katherine Chon and Derek Ellerman, the co-executive directors of the Polaris Project. To say the piece is flawed would be an understatement, but this is less than surprising, given that it was based on a false premise to begin with.
The Polaris Project—like various other NGOs such as the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women and Shared Hope International—is ostensibly dedicated to eradicating human trafficking. Ostensibly, because in practice, the rhetoric and activities of such groups focus almost entirely on prostitution; any mention of trafficking occurs in a single breath with prostitution, and every effort is made to foster the perception that the two issues are, for all practical purposes, one and the same. The following passage from the column illustrates my point:
The traffickers and those who benefit from sex trafficking promote an image of women freely choosing to be involved in prostitution, making huge amounts of money at it and in general having a great time. It is the "Pretty Woman" myth, which many apparently like to believe in order to justify their inaction or ignorance on the issue.
Note: "the issue." Singular.
But as our organization, Polaris Project, and many others like it that work every day with people in the sex industry know, this image does not reflect the reality on the streets and in the brothels for a majority of women and children.
In fact this is a world where violence and psychological abuse by the pimps, traffickers and customers are nearly ubiquitous. Research has shown that those who are prostituted face a 62 percent chance of being raped or gang-raped, a 73 percent chance of being physically assaulted, and a chance of dying that is 40 times greater than that of the average person in their age group. There is nothing "pretty" about the sex industry for the majority of people it victimizes.
Here we have several more assertions presented as fact. The first is that, while those who are trafficked are victimized to a greater extent, all prostitutes are, by definition, victimized. The second—though I acknowledge this is more implied than stated outright—is that the majority of prostitutes are trafficked. Again, the object is to create the perception that the difference between sex trafficking and prostitution is merely one of degree, instead of their being two distinct (albeit related) issues.
This effort is strengthened by the frequent use of the term "economic coercion." Prohibitionists, especially those of a more left-wing bent, argue that prostitution is never truly entered into freely, because those who do so are driven ("coerced") by the need to provide for themselves and their families. This is arguably true, but insofar as it is, it applies not just to prostitutes but to anyone who exchanges their labor for monetary compensation; in other words, anyone who takes a job in order to house, feed and clothe themselves and their families is a victim of "economic coercion." That being the case, what makes prostitution any different from any other unskilled labor with less than pleasant working conditions, such as food service, domestic cleaning or retail, except for being significantly more lucrative than $5.15/hour?
The authors' claims regarding the "'Pretty Woman' myth" and the degree to which it is accepted are also highly dubious. It is unclear how traffickers would go about promoting this image; organized criminals are not known for being overly communicative with the general public. And certainly no proponent of legalizing the sex trade, myself included, subscribes to the idea that the "Pretty Woman" (formerly the "Happy Hooker") image applies to any significant portion of prostitutes. One of the standard arguments in favor of legalization, and one well supported by evidence, is that it will facilitate "harm reduction"; this carries the implicit acknowledgement that the potential for harm does exist.
Then there is the matter of the cited statistics. Anyone with an ounce of critical thinking ability knows to be distrustful of any sentence which starts with "research has shown," especially when no citation is given as to the studies supposedly being referenced. From a Google search based on the numbers given, it appears the most likely source of the data is a study titled "Prostitution in Five Countries: Violence and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder," which was published in Feminism and Psychology in 1998. The anti-prostitution, excuse me, anti-trafficking lobby excels at producing scary-sounding statistics to bolster their case, but the studies tend to be biased, in that the subjects surveyed consist of those who contact "drop-in centers" or the police; in other words, precisely those prostitutes who have problems. As an article from 2004 in The Economist put it, this is analogous to "assessing the state of marriage by sampling shelters for battered women." An examination of the actual content of "Prostitution in Five Countries" shows that this study is no different:
In San Francisco, we interviewed 130 respondents on the street who verbally confirmed that they were prostituting. We interviewed respondents in four different areas in San Francisco where people worked as prostitutes.
In Thailand, we interviewed several of the 110 respondents on the street, but found that pimps did not allow those they controlled to answer our questions. We interviewed some respondents at a beauty parlor which offered a supportive atmosphere. The majority of the Thai respondents were interviewed at an agency in northern Thailand that offered nonjudgmental support and job training.
We interviewed 68 prostituted people in Johannesburg and Capetown, South Africa, in brothels, on the street and at a drop-in center.
We interviewed 117 women currently and formerly prostituted at TASINTHA in Lusaka, Zambia. TASINTHA is a nongovernmental organization which offers food, vocational training and community to approximately 600 prostituted women a week.
In Turkey, some women work legally in brothels which are privately owned and controlled by local commissions composed of physicians, police and others who are 'in charge of public morality'. We were not permitted to interview women in brothels, so we interviewed 50 prostituted women who were brought to a hospital in Istanbul by police for the purpose of venereal disease control.
Emphasis in bold mine. The study's finding that 92% of respondents "stated that they wanted to leave prostitution" loses some of its sting when approximately half the sample population was contacted at facilities intended to assist prostitutes in getting "off the game" or deal with problems likely to affect prostitutes. (Besides, if you were to conduct a survey of supermarket check-out girls, busboys and maids and ask them whether they'd rather be doing something else for a living, I'm sure you'd get a high percentage of positive responses as well.) But this particular study suffers from bias not just with regards the sample population. The introduction explicitly states:
We began this work from the perspective that prostitution itself is violence against women. The authors understand prostitution to be a sequela of childhood sexual abuse; understand that racism is inextricably connected to sexism in prostitution; understand that prostitution is domestic violence, and in many instances -- slavery or debt bondage; and we also understand the need for asylum and culturally relevant treatment when considering escape or treatment options for those in prostitution.
In plain English, the study was based on a predetermined conclusion, and was conducted for the purpose of gathering data to support that conclusion. Evidently, insofar as Feminism & Psychology practices peer review, it selects its reviewers on the criterium of willingness to pervert the scientific method to political ends.
A final point that should be made regarding "Prostitution in Five Countries" concerns the legality of prostitution in the countries in question. At the time the "study" was published in 1998, both the selling and purchasing of sexual services was (and still is) illegal in California and Zambia, and had been illegal in South Africa until just the year before (making it likely that many, if not most, of the respondents had been operating illegally for at least part of their careers). In Thailand, then as now, the selling of sexual services is technically illegal, though in practice, prostitutes are never arrested; purchasing sexual services is legal, provided the vendor is of legal age. In Turkey, as stated, prostitution is legal only through government-licensed brothels; however, illegal prostitution does occur. Please bear this in mind, as I shall refer to it later in this post.
Back to Chon and Ellerman:
Exacerbating all of the factors described above are the legalization of pimping and of the buying of commercial sex. [...] Unlike the success seen in countries such as Sweden, with its policies that decriminalize prostituted women and children but criminalize the buyers and controllers, failure has been the hallmark of the social experiment of full legalization.
That last claim in particular lacks credibility, since no country has actually implemented full legalization of prostitution. As a result of concessions made to opponents of liberalization, even those countries with the most liberal prostitution laws—such as Australia, Germany and, famously, the Netherlands—the sex trade is subject to a higher degree of regulation than any other commercial activity. For example, prostitutes are required to register with the authorities, or brothels cannot operate legally without a license from the municipal government (which is typically reluctant to issue them at best), and even those parties who attempt to operate above board remain subject to frequent, none-too-friendly, inspections from the local vice squad; more so than illegal operations, since the legal ones are easier to find. It is tempting, therefore, to side-step the bureaucratic hassle by operating illegally, but once one does that, one becomes vulnerable to predation by organized criminals. Nevertheless, according to a 2002 article from (again) The Economist, the Dutch policy towards prostitution—aimed at making sex work "just another job"—"has made it easier for the police to drive illegal immigrants out of the business" and has also been effective in forcing out organized crime to a greater extent than most other countries. To claim that the legalizing of prostitution (and related activities) has met only with failure in suppressing trafficking is an utter fabrication. Likewise, the prediction that liberalization would exacerbate the uglier phenomena associated with prostitution has been discredited, and to suggest otherwise is simply mendacious.
Similarly, the assertion that Sweden's policies have been a success has little basis in truth. Sweden famously passed a law in January of 1999 outlawing the purchasing of sexual services. Its supporters, both in Sweden and abroad, have touted it as an effective but humane approach, claiming that it targets the demand for prostitution while sparing its supposed victims (the law was passed as part of the Violence Against Women Act). Success has been claimed on the basis of estimated decreases by municipal police forces and social services in the number of prostitutes active in their jurisdictions; for example, the Stockholm police's prostitution task force estimated that the number of women regularly selling sex in the city dropped from around 250 prior to 1999, to between 50 and 100 in 2004.
Petra Östergren, a Swedish anthropologist and social commentator, has made a thorough analysis of the Swedish government's claims, has laid out the evidence contradicting the Swedish government's rose-tinted view. The first problem with the claim that Sweden's policies target the exploiters while protecting the exploited is that the 1999 law is not the only law on the books concerning prostitution; there is an earlier law, to which Östergren refers as "the law against procurement," which "renders it illegal to work indoors, work with others, to profit from the sexual labour of others, and advertise." While this law has had one positive effect, namely to put most pimps out of business, most of its effects are detrimental to the well-being of sex workers.
Because they cannot legally rent a work space, prostitutes must either hide their activities from their landlords, or submit to "rent pimps"—landlords who charge extortionate rent in exchange for not reporting them to the police. Rendering the services in the open (e.g. in a car, alley or park) is probably illegal as well, and certainly no fun in a Scandinavian winter, and going to a location of the customer's choosing is potentially hazardous, should the customer turn out to be a Swedish equivalent of the Green River Killer. Due to the legal restrictions, sex workers cannot, for example, collectively open a brothel (since they cannot work with others) and hire some security, or even an accountant (since these persons would be "profiting from the sexual labor of others"). As Östergren notes, it is extremely difficult for sex workers to develop a normal family life; it is illegal for any steady partner to receive money earned through prostitution, and should a sex worker have children, she runs the risk of being declared an unfit parent by the court and having the children made wards of the state.
The 1999 law has done little to improve matters. While the number of people seeking to purchase commercial sex in Sweden has dropped, Östergren's interlocutors state that the customers most likely to be deterred are the more law-abiding ones, while the more abusive customers have remained. And because there are fewer customers, prostitutes are in less of a position to turn any down, even those seeking activities which are perverse or high-risk (such as unsafe sex). Prostitutes who are abused by customers are reluctant to go to the police, because customers will shy away from any sex worker known to have reported a john, thereby depriving her of her income. Where in the past police were able to successfully prosecute pimps and abusive customers on the basis of testimony from other customers, this has become significantly harder since customers are no longer willing to come forward, lest they themselves be arrested.
In practice, then, Swedish policy has been, and remains, to eradicate prostitution primarily by making prostitutes' lives as hellish as possible. Apologists might argue that this is simply "tough love," doing what is necessary to compel sex workers to leave the trade, but such an argument only works if one regards prostitutes themselves as willing actors. This is, of course, in direct contradiction to the dogmatic assertion that prostitutes are victims of the sex trade. Accordingly, the Swedish model might be characterized as inconsistent, but due to the mileage the government seeks to extract from its purportedly humanitarian attitude, it is better described as hypocritical.
In addition, there is abundant evidence to indicate that claims of its success in reducing prostitution and trafficking are vastly overstated. Östergren cites reports from the National Council for Crime Prevention (Brottsförebyggande rådet), National Board of Health and Welfare (Socialstyrelsen), and the National Police Board (Rikspolisstyrelsen), all of which concluded that, while street prostitution had dropped, "there is no evidence that prostitution was lower overall. Instead hidden prostitution had probably increased." In an address to the Taipei Sex Worker Conference in 2001, Rosinha Sambo, a Portuguese national living in Sweden, described how she, and others like her, resorted to the expedient of conducting their business in neighboring Norway during the week, returning to Sweden on weekends. Sambo also asserted that, with prostitution in Sweden being driven further underground, Russian organized crime was making inroads, bringing trafficked women—many of them underage—with them.
Returning to "Prostitution in Five Countries," the findings of that study similarly fail to indicate that more stringent controls are effective in eradicating prostitution; of the 475 respondents, the two largest groups by country, constituting over half the total number, were interviewed in jurisdictions where prostitution was illegal at the time. In addition, consider the following statements. From the US State Department's Country Report on Human Rights Practices for Zambia for 2005:
Women from the country were trafficked within the country and to other parts of Africa and to Europe, and the country was used as a transit point for regional trafficking of women for prostitution. Traffickers fraudulently obtained Zambian travel documents for their victims before proceeding to other destinations. During the year there were reliable reports that women were trafficked to the country for commercial sex work.
From the Polaris Project's website:
An estimated 17,500 foreign nationals are trafficked annually in the United States alone. The number of US citizens trafficked within the country are even higher, [...]
It is evident that tighter controls on prostitution do not bring about the eradication of trafficking. This comes as a surprise to no-one with a modicum of common sense. History shows that criminalizing any industry only serves to drive it into the hands of professional criminals, who, unhampered by any social conscience, have no qualms about causing the nastiest side-effects if it will result in increased profit. Alcohol Prohibition produced bathtub gin, outlawing gambling produced nobbled horses and fixed football games, the "War on Drugs" produced crack cocaine and crystal meth, and criminalizing prostitution has produced "lover boys" and the aforementioned Green River Killer. And in each of those cases, organized crime has thrived. The unpleasant truth is that demand for vice cannot be legislated out of existence, and where there is a demand, a supply will rise to meet it. The best any government can do is to regulate the supply in a manner which curbs the excesses associated with that vice, and the only way to achieve that is by legalization and regulation.
So why are organizations like the Polaris Project, CATW, Shared Hope International, etc. so obsessed with anti-prostitution measures? Simply put: because they are. That is to say, their efforts are, first and foremost, directed at criminalizing commercial sex because the idea offends their personal morality. But evidently this argument has been faltering in the face of increasing acceptance of the notion that what consenting adults get up to in private is nobody else's business. To circumvent that objection, the prohibitionists have taken to advancing the idea that prostitution necessarily involves at least one party who is not consenting. Hence, the emphasis on the trafficking angle, which has the added advantage of imparting a veneer of humanitarianism over what is essentially an exercise in self-righteous, moralistic paternalism. It also offers an opportunity for a bit of self-aggrandizement; after all, why risk being compared to the Anti-Saloon League when you can compare yourself to the Underground Railroad?
It is a matter of grave concern that the "prostitution equals trafficking" line has been taken over by the Bush administration, which is in a position to impose it on NGOs, international organizations, and even governments of other countries. Trafficking is a serious matter, and it needs to be fought, but the approach advocated by groups like the Polaris Project is misguided. At best, it will form a distraction from the business of actually taking action against trafficking; at worst, it may create a climate in which trafficking would increase. The worst part of it is that, given that their case consists entirely of fabricated data and demonstrably false assertions, that people like Chon and Ellerman know this, and yet persist in their efforts.