Wednesday, July 06, 2016

When good words go bad: The usurping of trafficking as a weapon against sex workers

Were I a cartoon character, I expect I'd have big red flags and maybe some small explosions coming out of my head these days after reading the Ontario government's news release this week about its big new anti-trafficking initiative.

I'm all for ending trafficking, of course. But the issue is increasingly emerging as some kind of stealth instrument for attacking people working in the sex industry, so I've learned to read every announcement of new anti-trafficking measures in a state of acute hyper-vigilance for what's really being said.

The Ontario news release offers some worthy examples of what I'm talking about. Scroll down to the "Quick Facts" in the release and you'll see this one:

"In many cases of trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation, trafficked persons may develop 'trauma bonds' with their traffickers, and may not view themselves as victims. As such, human trafficking is believed to be a vastly underreported crime."

Once upon a time, I would have read a paragraph like that and thought, yeah, that has the ring of truth. But having seen repeatedly just how expertly the movement that hates the existence of sex work uses the hot-button trafficking issue to whip up political support against the adult sex industry, I read it with a whole other set of eyes now. 

Let's consider "trauma bonds," for instance. That's a phrase coined 20 years ago by U.S. author Patrick Carnes to describe people who stay in exploitive relationships even when it's hurting them. It's roughly comparable as a term to Stockholm Syndrome, named for a 1973 bank robbery in Sweden in which several kidnapped bank employees grew emotionally attached to their kidnappers and even rejected help at one point so the kidnappers wouldn't get hurt. 

And yeah, those kinds of things exist. But when you're a jumpy sex-workers' rights type looking for where the next surprise assault is going to come from, you read a paragraph like that and see it as a weapon, the perfect tool for silencing sex workers still in the industry who might have something positive - or at least neutral - to say about their profession. It lays the groundwork to dismiss anything that a sex worker says in defence of the industry or his or her role in it as nothing more than the tragic thinking of someone too bonded to their captors to know how traumatized they are. 

It also lets trafficking be as big a problem as it needs to be for political purposes with no proof required, because we've established that it's "vastly underreported" and thus can't be judged on the seriously skimpy statistics that actually exist. It justifies vast sums and airy-fairy action plans for an issue that in Canada, represents 0.0004 per cent of the crimes reported annually in the country. (Sources here and here, but I did the math.) 

Add this to the fact that trafficking is already a crime in which authorities have the right to deem that you are trafficked even if you disagree, and you can see where this could go - especially in the hands of those who believe their right to loathe that sex work exists trumps the rights of sex workers to safer workplaces and basic rights. 

I browsed a lot of sites yesterday looking for hard facts about trafficking in Canada and the U.S., and came away unsettled by just how little facts there are in any of the discussions. Hyperbole and high emotion are the rule anytime that trafficking gets mentioned. When you get this many police initiatives, community groups, NGOs and government departments dependent on sustaining the trafficking narrative in order to keep the funding coming, the public conversation gets pretty dramatic, stats or not. 

I finally found some real numbers in the U.S. State Department's 2015 report on trafficking, which is way clearer about the figures on trafficking in Canada than anything I ever found among our own government's materials. As of 2015, there have been 85 convictions for trafficking-related crimes in the history of Canada, and one conviction - later overturned - under the Immigration Refugee and Protection Act. (Update as of July 7: Simon Fraser University Professor and researcher Tamara O'Doherty notes that  the majority of those convictions have not used Canada's trafficking laws, but rather the sex-work laws. The old "living off the avails" charge is now being publicly presented as being about trafficking.)

I'm a supporter of genuine initiatives that prevent and stop trafficking. Nobody should be exploited, abused, coerced or taken advantage of. If Canada is truly a "Tier 1" country when it comes to trafficking, let's address that. (Though I struggle to see how you could establish that with the scarce statistics that currently exist.)

But the word is being twisted. It's being stretched far beyond its boundaries to include people who are in no way trafficked, and hammered down tight over sex workers who dare to talk about rights rather than rescue. It has become a morality-based weapon to shut down any public conversation on sex worker rights by setting up workers as traumatized victims too messed up by their "captors" to be worth hearing from. 

Do I sound paranoid? Well, maybe you would be too if you'd seen for yourself just how fast and loose with the facts the anti-sexwork movement is, and how effective they are at convincing decision-makers to do the stupidest, most harmful things in the name of "ending demand" in the sex industry. It's a goal that no country in the world has ever achieved in the history of humanity, and it flies in the face of considerable research establishing decriminalization as the best approach for keeping sex workers safer. But hey, who needs research when you can have rhetoric?

This movement's moral judgment guides public policy around sex work in Canada and the U.S., increasing the risk of workplace violence for tens of thousands of Canadians. It denies them agency. The right to association, and normal interactions with police. Respect. A life without fear of exposure or arrest. Access to the basic tools of civil society such as small-claims court, employment tribunals, and human rights processes. 

So yeah, down with trafficking. But please understand that much of what passes for a discussion on trafficking these days is actually a calculated, highly emotional and very well-funded campaign that aims to make it publicly palatable to silence the voices of anyone in the sex industry who won't play victim. 

Further reading:


Michael Wheatley said...

An excellent explanation of the way the rescue industry and prohibitionists manage the narrative. Thank you.

e.a.f. said...

that was one great essay! thank you.

if people willingly go into the sex trade and see it as a viable alternative profession, who are we to say its wrong. What the sex trade does do is make some women independent and able to make a living outside the "normal" working situation. Like who is exploiting who and what. People working for min. wage year after year and not being able to make a decent living or some one who decides to use what they have to make their lives better.

of course as you write, it certainly has a number of groups getting funding.