Juno Mac is a “sex worker”. She has a lot to say. In a talk given in London last year, Mac gives a frank account of her experience, delivering myriad insights into the workings of the “sex industry” and which laws should or should not be passed to ensure both her protection and that of her colleagues.
This is obviously a welcome development. Primary witness accounts are incredibly valuable to anyone with a general interest in the truth, let alone professional researchers and academics. But is she correct?
Mac is symptomatic of a movement attempting to enforce blanket decriminalisation of “sex work”. Citing her membership of the English Collective of Prostitutes (a curious group in that one doesn’t have to be a prostitute to join it) she endorses a policy of liberalisation aimed at curtailing some of the more egregious elements of the “trade”, primarily violence on the part of “clients” and societal/legal exclusion.
Such arguments have become increasingly popular among elements of the left in recent years, often by those with a habit of ignoring countervailing evidence and attaching themselves to the latest political “fad” that allows them the prestige of appearing controversial. Indeed, taking such a pioneering attitude to previously taboo subjects may seem very risqué, something that will no doubt get you a great deal of attention and raise some eyebrows amidst those pesky conservatives. Surely that alone is worth it?
Only, of course, if you’re irritatingly shallow in your analysis. This is the problem. The analysis on offer is shallow. Mac’s argument is incorrect and setting herself up as a spokeswoman for “sex workers” everywhere is just dishonest. “Sex work” is not just any other form or work, nor is it broadly endorsed, celebrated or viewed as “work” by the majority of those caught up in it. They are not calling for Mac’s reforms. They simply want out.
Let’s get into some statistics. Mac claims she is “bringing a message from all over the world.” Fair enough. Yet a recent study of “sex work” – one where researchers did indeed speak with people across the globe – contradicts her claims quite decisively. Rather than eagerly taking the opportunity to advocate for decriminalisation, eighty nine percent of those consulted simply wished to exit the industry altogether.
This isn’t a small number of people either. The research involved interviewing over eight hundred and fifty individuals in a grand total of nine countries, from South Africa to Canada. As well as the vast majority wishing to escape their predicament, over seventy percent of respondents recounted incidents of physical assault, with sixty three percent claiming to have been raped. Seventy five percent had experienced homelessness, with another sixty eighty percent suffering from PTSD. Just thirty four percent spoke favourably of any attempt at legalisation; the rest viewed their situation as something to escape, not tinker with.
Even those operating in countries with a more “liberal” legal approach close to Mac’s view of decriminalisation reported repeated incidents of violence. Respondents in Holland are case in point, with sixty percent having experienced physical assault, seventy percent verbal abuse, and a full forty percent claiming to have been physically forced into the “trade” against their will.
A separate study reported similar findings. Around half of those interviewed cited violence as their primary concern, with over twenty percent recounting incidents of being assaulted by “clients”. Additionally, a sizeable minority of Dutch prostitutes are suspected of having begun work whilst still below the age of sexual consent.
What’s more, local authorities were said to be aware of a distinct link between the Dutch sex industry and criminal groups, citing human trafficking, specifically, as a reoccurring and persistent factor. According to one analysis, Holland’s legalised brothels now constitute a veritable “magnet” for trans-national trafficking operations.
Mac also speaks glowingly of accounts of decriminalisation in New Zealand. Yet this is also problematic. Accounts from a former decriminalisation advocate paint a different story, one where New Zealand’s sex industry is monopolised by pimps, with hyper competitive/exploitative working conditions in abundant evidence.
Violence directed against prostitutes also remains a consistent factor. Human trafficking, particularly of indigenous children, also endures as a facet of New Zealand’s political landscape, with the country remaining a destination point for forced labour, sexual servitude included.
Mac seems to be at pains to avoid such details. In fact she attempts to manoeuvre around them, dismissing any and all concerns by calling for legislation targeting the “specific abuses” of traffickers rather than the “sex industry” itself.
This is problematic for the simple reason that a huge proportion of trafficking victims are caught up within the industry she seeks to legitimise. In fact, legalised prostitution has been shown to actually INCREASE rates of human trafficking as criminal groups respond to heightened demand and reduced risk. Mac fails to mention this.
Even outside of the predations of trafficking groups, prostitutes themselves are habitually subject to myriad forms of abuse, even when operating within an ostensibly “decriminalised” environment. To somehow draw a line in the sand and attempt to separate the violence and coercion evidently inherent in such an industry from a hypothetically (and illusory) legitimate “trade” is quite a curious position to take.
Mac also makes a common mistake, at times conflating people smuggling with trafficking. There is a difference and as somebody setting themselves up as an authority on such matters, you’d think she might be aware of such a difference.
Indeed, people smuggling can appear as a relatively benign (although technically illegal) activity. In exchange for a cash payment, a smuggler will transport an individual across national borders. Upon completion of this task, the relationship between the smuggler and smuggled person generally tends to end. Trafficking can include similar activities, but always involves either deception or coercion with no parting of ways once the destination has been reached. Forced labour, of one type or other, is the end result.
This may seem pedantic. Yet the difference is important. People smuggling involves a sizeable degree of consent, at times proving deeply beneficial to the person being smuggled (escaping from a warzone springs to mind). Trafficking, whilst utilising what may appear as similar methods, is always an act of predation, with violence and exploitation a means to an end. For Mac to conflate the two is problematic.
Trafficking is also a murky subject. At times dismissed as a “moral panic” (presumably the use of the word “moral” means it doesn’t really matter) research on trafficking often runs into a plethora of problems, in part because the practice itself is markedly clandestine and difficult to detect. What’s more, some sources have reported issues with gleaning statistics from law enforcement agencies, as local authorities may be either unaware or unconcerned with the extent of the problem.
In some particular cases the authorities themselves have been discovered to be involved with trafficking groups: a Russian investigation in 2010 exposed multiple police officers for having abducted migrant labourers before selling them on to third parties. Whilst this is an extreme instance, it does go some way in highlighting the difficulties in exposing the severity of the problem.
We do have some estimated figures to go on, however. Somewhat conservative estimates from the International Labour Organisation point to some twenty one million trafficking victims, specifically, with around four and a half million of those operating within the sex trade. In the European context the ILO estimates that most trafficking cases involve sexual exploitation, something that you might presume would be of immediate interest to Mac and co.
The situation in Germany is directly relevant here. Like Holland, Germany has experimented with myriad decriminalisation measures in recent years, often being lauded as an example of “progressive” reform. The truth is a tad different for anyone who bothers to look. Rather than constituting a success story for a somehow legitimate sale of human bodies, Germany constitutes one of the primary points of destination for human trafficking in all of Europe.
Not only this, but researchers have decisively linked Germany’s “liberal” position on the sex trade to a marked upsurge in human trafficking flows. I’ll say that again; liberalised prostitution has caused a discernible rise in human trafficking in Germany.
This is no casual exaggeration or “moralistic” outburst. Simply looking to the relevant research should ease any worries about what I’m saying. It doesn’t require too much thought to ascertain that traffickers will ultimately both follow the money and reduced risk, responding to an expanding market and fewer legal hurdles in order to deliver their “trade” to a plethora of willing (and legally unrestrained) customers. Simply put, decriminalising the “sex trade” creates a ready and distinctly lucrative market. Traffickers react accordingly.
Take a look at the origins of those caught up in German prostitution, specifically. In addition to those born and raised there, we’ve got people from all over the former Eastern Bloc, such as Poles, Ukrainians and Russians. A similar mix can be found in Holland, where local researchers have also alleged that those “illegally engaged” (as in those suspected of being trafficked) are quite often from the nations of the former USSR, a trend apparently replicated across much of Western Europe.
It’s this point in particular that is of significant interest in explaining the factors behind not only “sex work” but human trafficking itself. This is a distinctly unfashionable topic that many, Mac included, would no doubt like to avoid. All the same it, it matters.
The “End of History” and the Rise of Modern Slavery.
It is no secret that the break-up of the USSR was accompanied by policies that smack more of sheer predation than sound politics. Whilst trumpeting their apparent victory in the Cold War, many western pundits failed to observe the calamities taking place in the former Eastern Bloc across much of the 1990s. What is directly pertinent to the current situation is how such events were, at times, distinctly gendered in nature, with many former Soviet women falling prey to both dire poverty and international human traffickers.
It’s not hard to see why. Poverty has already been well documented as a causal point in prostitution occurrence. Mac herself is quick to admit that economic privation was behind her decision to take up work in a brothel. She’s hardly alone. What is clear is that in the Soviet case the sudden appearance of mass trafficking was predicated on a raft of western-inspired reforms that shattered the old state economy and plunged millions into hardship.
The statistics speak for themselves. Between 1995 and 2000, around half a million former Soviet women fell prey to traffickers supplying the “sex industry” in multiple different nations. To say this was accompanied by economic and social chaos would be an understatement. From 1992, Russia’s industrial output began a prolonged depression, decreasing by around fifteen percent, followed by twelve percent in 1993 and an additional twenty percent the year after. In just six years since the disbandment of the USSR, Russia’s productive capacity had shrunk by around forty percent of its 1991 total.
An increasingly predatory economic climate also ensured that capital flight increased exponentially, peaking at fifty billion US dollars per annum in 1998. Cash payment of wages went into marked decline, with panicked attempts to withdraw a vastly inflated currency from circulation prompting collective wage arrears to exceed sixty billion roubles by mid-1992.
The impact on the individual citizen was extreme. In addition to mounting unemployment and social dislocation, some ninety percent of consumer goods and around eighty percent of industrial items were decoupled from state pricing ordinances. Endemic economic chaos ensured, in some instances, that products in the shops rose to around five hundred percent of their original value. The early 1990s thus saw a swift collapse in living standards, something arguably unlike anything seen over the course of much of the twentieth century.
Unsurprisingly, those classed as living in poverty increased across the entirety of the former union, from 120 million in 1990 to 150 million by 1999, with the central Asian republics being hardest hit. Additional research undertaken in 1998 revealed that thirty six percent of the Russian population (fifty three million persons) were having trouble obtaining sufficient goods to meet “basic survival needs”.
In Hungary, similar measures aimed at removing state subsidisation came into effect, prompting sudden price hikes that, in industrial produce in particular, reached as high as eight hundred and thirty percent of previous figures. Just as in Russia, this process was directly associated with objectives prompted by the IMF, with fiscal stabilisation being considered a priority to the extent that previous state credit, welfare and public utility expenditures were uniformly cut, with devastating consequences for employment and social well-being.
Health services were hit hard. Poland stands as a prime example, where citizens found their share of expenditure on medical care leap from eighteen percent in 1991 to forty six percent by 1993. Senior citizens or those formerly in receipt of a state pension found themselves unable to cope, with spiralling inflation further impacting upon living standards as real wages declined considerably across myriad nations, from Lithuania to Romania to Poland and the Czech Republic. In the case of both Romania and Bulgaria the impact of such reforms was truly striking, with around fifty percent of the total population falling into poverty by the mid-1990s.
Such deprivation did not fall equally on all parts of the population, however. Whilst not for a moment discounting the experience of men (Russian men in particular endured a marked decrease in life expectancy across this period, from around seventy years in the 1980s to fifty eight years by the early 1990s) at times women appear to have been singled out, particularly when it came to the burden of unemployment.
It’s thought that around seventy to eighty percent of Russian unemployed in the early part of the 1990s were female, a figure that declined somewhat by 1995 to a still disconcerting sixty eight percent. Indeed, as late into the decade as 1997 it still appeared that the bulk of Russia’s unemployed were female citizens, with women also constituting the majority of the “hidden unemployed”, that being those officially in work yet consistently denied proper remuneration.
According to academic Wendy Rhein it was the “effects of economic transition” that were responsible for the “abhorrent conditions in which women now find themselves”, with ninety percent of the unemployed in certain deprived regions being women. In some instances this appears to have reflected the way Soviet industry had developed, with women workers heavily concentrated in certain sectors of the economy, such as textiles, itself an area particularly afflicted by lay-offs and closures from the early 1990s onwards.
A study carried out in 2002 found that sizeable gender differentials in terms of economic deprivation existed in Bulgaria, Poland, Slovakia and Romania, with Poland arguably being the most egregious case. In the case of Moldova in the late 1990s, women were thought to be three times more likely to lose their jobs than men, a disconcerting prospect given that fifty eight percent of the total population were thought to be already living below the poverty line.
How such phenomena may persist is a complex question. What appears to be the case is that, with the initial decline in economic activity in the context of the transitions to market economies, reduced employment opportunities have intersected with pre-existing paradigms pertaining to gender inequality, ultimately exacerbating female unemployment and adding a distinctly gendered connotation to poverty.
Additionally, the curtailment or outright denial of previously beneficial welfare policies aimed at greater gender parity (state provision of child care is a case in point) has been said to further worsen the situation facing women in the post-Soviet environment, reducing chances for either poverty alleviation or consistent employment.
How does all this tie into human trafficking and the “sex trade”? Given that trafficking has been repeatedly found to intersect with economic deprivation it doesn’t take too much thought to link the deplorable situation of the 1990s with a veritable upsurge in trafficking activity. Simply put, people were and are attempting to escape poverty, at times falling victim to bogus offers of work elsewhere and becoming ensnared in the sex industry which some are so eager to endorse. The result is tragedy on a vast scale.
Again, statistics may be of help. As of 2001 some one hundred and twenty thousand women and children were being trafficked into Western Europe per annum, many of them hailing from the former Warsaw Pact nations. Given that we’ve already ascertained that laws which legalised the sex trade have been proven to create a friendly environment for traffickers, it seems there is a direct relation between the situation in the former USSR and the proliferation of modern slavery within an expanding European “sex trade”. The statistics, not to mention sheer number of victims, would seem to prove that.
True to form (and very predictably) Juno Mac doesn’t engage with any of this. In fact she avoids the whole sorry episode detailed above altogether, skipping over geo-politics, history and economics in favour of setting herself up as a representative for “sex workers” across the globe.
Yet she’s not alone. The message of “decriminalisation” of the sex industry has fallen on receptive ears, with the “human rights” group Amnesty International now endorsing such a scheme. Even in celebrity politics it seems to have found an echo, with the increasingly incoherent Jim Jefferies having recently endorsed “legalised prostitution” (in the process brazenly lying about human trafficking in Australia) as a means to apparently improve his liberal street cred. It’s a depressing scenario.
There are some grounds for optimism, however. As long as the proponents of decriminalisation insist on putting forward such evidently flimsy arguments it’s generally not too hard to refute them. An example is Mac’s futile attack on the “Nordic Model”, specifically, claiming that it has done nothing to aid the situation facing prostitutes and presumably should be wound up. Naturally, she ignores the fact that such a system has curtailed human trafficking to some degree, reduced the total number of women having to resort to “sex work” and also, according to some sources, lessened the number of violent crimes directed against them. So much for that.
All the same, the arguments in favour of decriminalisation are likely to persist. From what has been seen, the proponents of such a policy generally do not seem to care too much for what is actually true. Their method is one of selectivity and partisanship, often sensationalising and personalising their arguments by denouncing those who disagree as “prudes”, “moralists” (?!) or, strangely, “whorephobics”.
Outside of such hysterics, however, we have the unfashionable reality that proves that prostitution intertwines with gendered violence, psychological trauma, rape, slavery and impoverishment. Decriminalisation does not assist in combating such maladies. If anything it makes the situation worse. This is all verifiable. All you have to do is get past the hype and take a look. The myth that an industry predicated on deprivation, exploitation and endemic abuse can be reformed into passivity is just that, a myth.
Daniel Read is a UK-based journalist specialising in human rights and international affairs. He originally studied journalism at Kingston University, London, prior to obtaining post-graduate degrees in both human rights and global politics. He blogs at uncommonsense.me and tweets at @DanielTRead.