The inaugural Trust Women Conference was held in London recently, supported by the Thomson Reuters Foundation and the International Herald Tribune. I was invited to speak on a panel entitled ‘how to put the anti-trafficking business out of business‘ with people who address the issue of sex trafficking including infamous abolitionist, Ruchira Gupta.
In the days leading up to the conference, Gupta had issued a series of media offensives upon sex workers which began last weekend with an attack on peer educators in the Indian press. Liz Ford, who is the Deputy Editor of The Guardian’s Global Development section and an apparent abolitionist sympathiser, appeared at the conference only to provide an outlet for Ms Gupta’s unfounded characterisations of women engaged in sex work. Ford falsely claimed in The Guardian that Ruchira Gupta is an ‘activist for sex workers‘. I presume this was a device to undermine any authority derived from my self-disclosure as a sex worker, on the panel discussion that followed these defamatory stories.
Ford published two articles based upon the same interview with Gupta, which made horrifying and illusory allegations about sex worker activists; in particular those who attended the Sex Worker Freedom Festival in Kolkata earlier this year. She called attendees “pimps and traffickers” . Gupta spoke using the usual alarmist and disempowering rhetoric that abolitionists tend to employ, invoking terms such as “brutalised”; “raped”; “invaded”; “used-up at 30″ to describe sex work. Predictably, she suggested the need for even more punitive measures against people associated with the sex industry and more funding to combat the problem from “the grassroots”. It’s illuminating to see what two Harvard undergraduate donors thought about Ms Gupta’s ‘grassroots intitiatives‘ in 2010 after visiting one of her sites.
The sensible shoe award for most stigmatising headline of 2012 goes to…..
Liz Ford of The Guardian!
“Life of a sex worker: disease, abortion,
debt bondage and death – video.”
One wonders how Ford would react to publicly being labelled a ‘pimp’ or a ‘trafficker’ or whether the woman has any sense of decency at all. What an absolute, unmitigated nerve!
Still, the most shocking claim came to be when Gupta uttered the words, “the average age of a prostitute in India is between 9 and 13“. This alarming statistic was framed in the context of globalisation and the egregious effects of neoliberalisation policies which she claimed was driving demand for prostitutes that are younger and younger. I mused about where she might have pulled that figure, other than out of thin air. I promptly concluded that she was conflating two figures that abolitionists throw around a lot: the oft-quoted and oft-debunked figure that the ‘average age of entry into prostitution is 13‘ and the research Melissa Farley did in Aotearoa (New Zealand) where she claimed that the ‘average age of entry into prostitution for Maori women was 9.’ In this instance however, Gupta was not even claiming an ‘average age of entry’. No Siree. This was the average age of a prostitute in India!
What was most striking about the psychological warfare waged upon me by these two somewhat influential women, was how readily prepared they were to employ violent tactics in order to discredit and isolate me from the conference proper. They did this by colluding to proliferate untruths about sex workers; by characterising sex workers involved in the HIV response as ‘pimps and traffickers’ and the rest as people who are “deeply damaged”. Their conduct was coercive inasmuch as they have enough power within patriarchal catacombs such as the mainstream press, to be able to use it in a cynical way to issue their message. Not only did they use the press as a vehicle to spread their ideology, but it was also a systematic attempt to discredit me, as an activist in APNSW, in the mind of anyone who might have viewed those stories prior to hearing what I had to say to the conference.
The logic seems to work as follows: if you have ever worked in the sex industry and you are unwilling to announce that the experience utterly destroyed your life and robbed you of a sense of self, you are suffering from some kind of disorder. Let’s call it ‘Stockholm Syndrome’. You have become so accustomed to the ‘brutalization’ of having accepted money for sex, that you consider brutalization to be normal. Spectators who haven’t suffered ‘death by Powerpoint’ by this stage, must remain alert and remember that these are not the voices of sex workers you are hearing. They are storytellers in the business of telling fictional stories. Coincidentally it is men and women like Ms Gupta who are in possession of the solutions for the poor funding stream that is ‘women & girls’ who are unfortunate enough to fall within their purview and be categorised as “trafficked”. And there are a lot of men in the ‘slavery expert’ business. Knights in shining armour abound.
Another noteworthy aspect of the Guardian video is when Gupta iterates that the point of the Trust Women Conference was to focus on the “demand” side of prostitution as a way to fight trafficking. Here, she and Liz Ford are informing Guardian readers about the primary focus of the conference even prior to the scheduled panel discussion on what the most effective interventions to fight human trafficking might possibly be. The International Herald Tribune did not cover the “women for sale” day in such a pre-determined light and they organised the conference.
The kind of maltreatment I received from Ford and Gupta used to be solely the provenance of the ‘old boys club’. This is a slightly more sophisticated incarnation of that; where the abuse is being perpetrated by women against one woman (but who is the only representative of millions of sex working women allowed in)… And it is being done in the name of Feminism. The most ironic aspect of their strategic alliance is that The Guardian Global Development section is supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation whose programmes for sex workers in India are the subject of constant malicious attacks by Ms Gupta and her organisation Apne Aap. She also calls them pimps and traffickers. How fortuitous for Ms Ford that she can heave her ideological cake and eat it too. Talk about biting the hand that feeds you.
On the panel, Mexican journalist and winner of the Trust Women Award, Lydia Cacho spoke about ‘ending demand’ for prostitution and the success of the program she runs in Cancun, sensitising boys between 14-18 to not become clients. The Body Shop guy basically covered for his employer L’oreal, the second largest chemical company in the world which has been accused of greenwashing and has a demonstrably atrocious history of animal rights abuses. He called for ‘human trafficking-free’ labeling that guaranteed trafficked-free products. The Not for Sale guy talked about social marketing initiatives in what appears to be an ethical (Christian?) capitalist scheme that produces soups and juices to sell to sex workers and “vulnerable women”. He stated that he had half a million dollars in pledges for this venture and a call for matched funding of that figure became one of the inputs from our session. I stressed the need for empirical data on human trafficking and the importance of a consistent definition of terms used in relation to trafficking and the need to gain some clarity before we talk about ‘best practice’ interventions on human trafficking.
Lawyer Karen Silverman, the only panelist with whom I vaguely connected on a human level, iterated the importance of broadening the discussion on migration rights, citizenship rights and labour rights. Although she was approaching the issue from a different perspective, it was refreshing to be in the company of someone who wasn’t just focused on getting a piece of the Anti-trafficking Pie. She also highlighted the fact that many trafficked women are held in custody for long periods of time and that we need to devise strategies to address this problem.
I was the final speaker on the panel and began by explaining that the advent of the anti-trafficking industry has resulted in an increase in violence against sex workers. I stated that the impact of criminalisation had driven sex workers underground, making them prone to violence, increased health risks and coercive treatment from others. I went into some detail about the regularity of human rights abuses that are occurring in arbitrary detention settings in Cambodia, such as the Somaly Mam Foundation and her organisation AFESIP as reported to sex worker organisations in Cambodia. I stated that these abuses were catalogued in a Human Rights Watch Report from 2010. I warned people consuming human trafficking narratives to be wary of statistics that are quoted and to question the quality of anecdotal information received. I went on to speak about the recent revelation in the Cambodian press that a high profile story being regurgitated in the mass media had been proven to be untrue. Long Pross is a young Cambodian woman who is being touted by Somaly Mam’s Voices for Change program as a victim with an unimaginably horrendous history of being trafficked as a child and having her eye gouged out by the brothel owner. Her story has been exposed as a complete fabrication by an investigative journalist who interviewed a string of people involved, including Long Pross’ parents; the surgeon who removed her eye and the tumor she developed at age 7 ;and the Cambodian anti-trafficking Police whose records revealed that no complaint had ever been filed in relation to this woman being trafficked as a child.
I stated that Long Pross had appeared with celebrities such as Meg Ryan and Susan Sarandon on reality tours they conducted in Cambodia promoting the Somaly Mam Foundation. I stated she had appeared with Hillary Clinton and on Oprah as the “Face of Slavery” and that her testimonial had been profiled on Half the Sky.
At this point the moderator Tim Large politely interjected and apologetically informed me that we were running short of time and that we would now have to turn to Q&A and develop our inputs for the Conference Call to Action. I may have broken some unwritten protocol by mentioning Half the Sky from the panel, especially as Nicholas Kristof & Sheryl Wudunn are on the advisory board for Trust Women,and also because he had spoken on the video that introduced our session. The overarching point I was trying to make was that it is crucial for journalists to confirm every piece of information they receive before sending it to print. I wanted to point out how easily such fabricated narratives can proliferate into the mainstream consciousness if reporters do not exercise caution.
The point at which truth-in-reporting intersects with the profit motive was illustrated quite plainly with the swift end to my presentation. I was trying to convey the importance of the human rights aspect and emphasise that responses to trafficking must be based in truth. There were a couple of exceptional moments during the conference when empassioned women spoke about their experiences, but I did not feel I had witnessed a lot of truth-telling in these two days. I did not appreciate the way many of the issues were framed, such as the Arab Spring with more than a hint of anti-Islamism or the focus on the atrocious behaviour of people from the Global South – Female Genital Mutilation, Forced Marriage, When culture clashes with Law. And of course, Women for Sale. There was little mention of the role Colonisation or Western Imperialism play in the global profile.
During the reading of the Conference Declaration, I was following the official twitter feed on the big screen and saw quite a few positive tweets about my presentation including a two from the Trust Women rapporteur. They disappeared within an hour. Thankfully we have activists in the movement who are vigilant and one diligent observer from $carlet Timor managed to save a few .
Afterwards, a high-ranking journalist approached me and expressed shock at my allegations of impropriety in relation to Half the Sky. I told her there were journalists in Cambodia working to expose the violence of the anti-trafficking industry because it has become a significant problem. She asked me if I knew that Mr Kristof was a Pulitzer prize winning journalist to which I nodded and she added that the Trust Women conference had been inspired by the stories contained in Half the Sky. She asked me had I read it. I said ‘no’. She promised to send me a copy. I told her I would forward the requisite articles that formed the basis of my allegations about the fabricated victim-narrative.
When Ruchira Gupta says that the traffickers are becoming wise and “outsmarting us”, I take that as acknowledgement that she recognises there is something authentic about the sex worker movement- a truth. I think she recognises that we are building something special, having discovered our power as autonomous individuals and as part of the vibrant tapestry of resistance that forms our global solidarity movement. Responses to trafficking must be based in truth, not conflations or exaggerations or imaginings or outright lies. The UN is beginning to recognise the magnitude of the dilemma, as are many journalists and hopefully this awareness will expand into a larger context.
It was strange to sit on a panel with someone for whom your very existence is a threat. In asserting that the sex worker movement is a self-determination movement, I am informing the likes of Gupta and her abolitionist ilk, that perhaps they are not relevant to our context. There is no place for them in our lives or as part of our stories. If sex workers can do it for themselves, those white saviours and their grateful cohorts don’t have an industry to build around us. And that’s probably the best outcome for all- especially those who have been trafficked.
It is sex workers who are subverting the patriarchy, not the gun-ho protectionists who imagine freedom to go only as far as being “equal” to men. Ours is the feminist project. Ours is a huge global movement that is led by women. And as long as sex workers are at the table engaging in the discourse, we will continue to provide inputs that cannot be ignored.
Sex workers are not the problem. We are part of the solution.