June 18 - 25, 2009
Volume 43, Number 2165


p. 26

Scrutinizing the Sex Trade: Trafficking, 2010, and Prohibition

Sex workers' rights must be protected during sporting events. Chris Low photo
 Sex workers' rights must be protected during sporting events.
 PHOTO: Chris Low

Joyce Arthur

2010 sex trafficking a myth

With the 2010 Winter Olympic Games only eight months away, there is growing speculation that trafficking in women will increase significantly in Vancouver. A major new report lays these fears to rest by debunking the alleged link between a boom in sex trafficking and large sporting events.

The 150-page Human Trafficking, Sex Work Safety and the 2010 Games was commissioned by Vancouver Sex Industry Worker Safety Action Group. Warning that ill-informed assumptions about 2010 and trafficking may actually endanger sex workers, the report's recomendations focus on the real concern: that Games-related street closures and the planned security regime risk displacing sex workers into more dangerous and isolated areas. The report also notes community fears that street-level sex workers may be moved in an effort to "clean up the streets."

The report echoes the 2009 Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women report on sex trafficking and the 2010 Olympics, which found that "an increase in trafficking in persons into forced prostitution does not occur around sporting events." Further the RCMP's Cpl. Norm Massie has stated to the media there is no evidence to suggest there will be an increase in human trafficking during the Games.

In the moral crusade against prostitution, trafficking is often wrongly conflated with sex work, a position taken by the Bush Republicans, who refused to give funding to sex-worker and anti-trafficking organizations that support decriminalization of sex work. However, trafficking in persons involves the coerced movement of a person into a situation of forced labour, while sex work is the consensual exchange of sexual services for money.

The great majority of sex workers are not trafficked or controlled by "pimps." Most are in business for themselves or work through an agency, and most work indoors, rather than on the street, where it's far more dangerous. Conflating trafficking with sex work is wrong, and worse, can mask the real issues of violence and exploitation that occur within both trafficking and sex work. For example, victims of trafficking in other economic sectors, such as construction or farm work, are ignored in the moral panic over sex trafficking.

Sex trafficking is a serious crime, but a wide range of factors make it difficult to prevent or detect. Global estimates of trafficking victims are often no better than "guestimates" and can be grossly overstated, especially prior to large sporting events. An estimated 40,000 forced prostitutes were expected in Germany for the 2006 World Cup, but they failed to show up. About 20,000 forced prostitutes were anticipated for the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, but only 181 trafficked persons were actually reported in Greece for all of 2004.

Sex workers have the same right to travel and migrate as anyone else, but when they are wrongly labelled as trafficking victims, it leads to extreme human-rights violations. In many countries — including Canada — this means violent raids of brothels and the harassment, criminalization, detention and deportation of sex workers, most of whom are voluntary workers. A huge concern is that misguided enforcement campaigns take place with no input from affected groups, including sex-worker groups, trafficked persons, migrant workers, unions, and relevant labour sectors.

The tendency to focus on international trafficking also means that domestic trafficking is given short shrift. But forced migration from rural areas of Canada to the cities is an enormous problem for aboriginal women and girls, who live with the devastating legacy of colonialism and forced assimilation. According to the Native Women's Association of Canada, many are driven into domestic trafficking as a result of poverty, conditions on reserves, and abuse.

According to the SIWASAG report, the RCMP estimates that "600 women and children are trafficked into Canada each year for the purpose of sexual exploitation." Anti-trafficking initiatives are critically important, but grossly inflating the level of trafficking and treating all female sex workers asa trafficked victims does nothing to improve their safety — it only exacerbates their stigmatization and marginalization.

We must involve affected stakeholders and apply an evidence-based approach to preventing trafficking, rather than misrepresenting the issues with scare mongering, sexist rhetoric. Most importantly, our focus must be on ensuring the safety and full human rights of sex workers before, during, and after the 2010 Games.

  • Joyce Arthur is a cofounder of FIRST, a feminist group advocating for the rights of sex workers and the decriminalization of prostitution.

[ Download PDF: Human Trafficking, Sex Work Safety and the 2010 Games ]

Trisha Baptie

Prostitution isn't progress

The conversation that pits current prostitute against former prostitute, indoor versus outdoor, and drug-addicted versus Gucci-addicted has gone on too long. I have fallen into all of those categories. With female "choice" being the only side discussed, let's subvert that conversation and ask the root question: as a society, do we think men should be able to pay to sexually access women's bodies?

Do we really think that this is a sign of an egalitarian society?

One of the most "sex positive" things you can do is make sure men cannot buy sex, because the buying of sex is violence against women and is a direct deterrent to women's equality.

Women's silence about "consent" can be bought — I remember how much mine cost — and almost 100 per cent want out now. Allowing a minority of women in prostitution to argue "choice" on the backs of the majority who are outthere in a perfect storm of oppression, neglect, abuse, and human trafficking is absurd. Instead of offering them a hand to reach their full potential, we offer them up to feed the demand for paid sex while "choice" is argued.

Prostitution commodifies women's bodies: this is sexual and social subordination wherein all women are seen as a subclass of being. Tolerating prostitution affects everyone, because the inherent inequality in prostitution becomes a reference point for sexual and social relations that are not rooted in equality, fairness, or respect.

It isnot the prostituted women we must penalize, but, rather the men who demand access to them. Prostitution is the oldest form of patriarchal oppression, which is why we must hold accountable the men who pay for sex.

I remember working indoors and men calling in and ordering a woman: "I want a brunette, small boobs, round face, petite." You get the idea. How is it equality if women can be reduced to what amounts to ordering a pizza and picking the toppings? How are those men respecting, honouring, and valuing women?

What I remember about my years as a prostituted woman was how much I tried to find something empowering in what I found myself doing.

That by choosing who raped me, based on their ability to pay, I was empowered.

That by consenting to the abuse, I was free from it.

That by caving in to the demands of patriarchy, by working hard to look like what they wanted and talk like they wanted, when submitting to sex on their terms, for which I got money, that I had somehow bested them and was now in control of them.

But I was not, for I remember how much I flinched when they moved too quickly, how I would lie under them and in my imagination be anywhere else. How they always seemed to have a sob story for whey they needed to buy me, but my sob story of not wanting to be under them, not wanting to have them in my mouth, was never as urgent a need as theirs.

Saying prostitution will always be with us is cynicism and hopelessness.

Sweden, the global beacon of hope, criminalized the buying, pimping, and procuring and decriminalized the women in 1999. It has since seen a drastic drop in prostitution. Sweden is no longer a destination country for human traffickers. To gender-equality seekers, that is a country that says, "We value our women." Norway, Iceland, and Bulgaria have all followed Sweden's noble lead.

They also implemented exit strategies, adequate welfare, and a huge awareness campaign when the laws were implemented. I am a realist and I know it will be a hard transition period, but I find great hope in the fact that there are 10-year-olds in Sweden growing up in a country committed to mutual equality and opportunity.

To me, it is about legacy. No prostituted woman I know, myself included, wants her daughter to be a prostitute. We know firsthand that it devastates the mind, body and spirit.

So with every breath in me, I will work ceaselessly toward creating a world rooted in fairness and equality, one that values humanity. This will be done by stamping out prostitution, the world's oldest oppression, which is within our grasp.

  • Trisha Baptie is the executive director of Honour Consulting & Ministries and a founding member of EVE: Exploited Voices Educating.

[Vancouver 2009] [News by region] [News by topic]

Created: June 26, 2009
Last modified: June 26, 2009
CSIS Commercial Sex Information Service
Box 3075, Vancouver, BC V6B 3X6
Tel: +1 (604) 488-0710