Anthropologist criticises raids “rescuing” sex workers

April 22, 2012

In an Istanbul conference room of sex workers and women’s rights experts, a black and white silent film sparks waves of laughter.

Instead of the likes of Charlie Chaplin, the film’s star running across the screen to upbeat music is a woman escaping police as they raid a bar for sex workers. After chasing her in circles, the police arrest her, only for her to return to the bar again anyway.

But laughter is absent in the room during the next short clip – a short film purportedly showing a real raid on sex workers.

The visible distress of one of the women who is arrested in the clip, the loud banging of their hands against the bus into which they are carted, sobers the mood in the session at the biggest women’s rights conference in the world.

One speaker at the session, Laura Agustin, an anthropologist and author of “Sex at the Margins,” criticised what she calls a “rescue industry” that she said often unnecessarily removes women from sex work.

Governmental and non-governmental agencies often do sex workers more harm than good by removing them from this work, she argues.

“Now they don’t have the livelihood that they had, this makes no sense at all,” she said at the International Forum of the Association For Women’s Rights In Development (AWID).

While she does not contend that some women are forced into sex work, she argues that most sex workers are not “incredibly enslaved.” The term “sex slaves” is used too widely to describe women in the industry, she said.

“There are large amounts of money that go into these programmes to rescue people who in many, many, many cases do not want to be rescued,” she said, adding that many women choose sex work as a preference to jobs such as domestic work.

“We’re talking about the ability to recognise that someone else can make a different decision from your own about her economic or mental or emotional empowerment,” she added. “That if you want to rescue someone you need to know very well first what it is that they want before you rush in to help them.”

At the other end of the spectrum, others argue sex slavery is rife. Such as Siddharth Kara, author ofSex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery.”

There were 28.4 million slaves in the world at the end of 2006. Of these trafficked slaves, 1.2 million were sex slaves, he said in an interview on Columbia University Press’s website.

A 2009 report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimated that sexual exploitation accounts for as much as 79 percent of human trafficking. Victims of sexual exploitation are predominantly women and girls.

But trafficking, too, is a word used too broadly, Agustin said. Many women forcibly removed from the sex industry had consented to their work and so don’t need rescuing, she argued. Many women in the industry are part of what she prefers to call “undocumented migration.”


In her blog – The Naked Anthropologist – Agustin points to the words of Empower Foundation, an organisation in Thailand fighting for the rights of sex workers:

“We have now reached a point in history where there are more women in the Thai sex industry who are being abused by anti-trafficking practices than there are women being exploited by traffickers,” the foundation said in a report it released this year.

“We are forced to live with the modern lie that border controls and anti-trafficking policies are for our protection,” it added.

“We have been spied on, arrested, cut off from our families, had our savings confiscated, interrogated, imprisoned and placed into the hands of the men with guns, in order for them to send us home… all in the name of ‘protection against trafficking’.”

Being a sex worker is a matter of choosing the best option on the menu in your life, one woman at the session tells the room:

“At a restaurant you get a menu and you look at all the options before you pick out your selection, according to your preference,” she said.

“Some restaurants have a huge menu and some only have a few dishes – either way the process is the same. Vegetarians may not understand when you choose a steak, and others may not understand when we choose to do sex work.”

Echoing Agustin’s views on raids unwelcomed by some sex workers, were the words at the close of the black and white silent film:

“We hope that’s the end,” it read.

Picture credit: Sex workers smile during the all India conference of entertainment workers in the eastern Indian city of Kolkata February 25, 2007. REUTERS/Parth Sanyal


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