Adam pointed me to this review in the New Statesman by Brendan O’Neil of “Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry” (Foyles, Amazon) by Laura María Agustín. Here is the core of the review:
Agustín points out that some anti-trafficking activists depend on numbers produced by the CIA (not normally considered a reliable or neutral font of information when it comes to international issues), even though the CIA refuses to “divulge its research methods”. The reason why the “new slavery” statistics are so high is, in part, that the category of trafficking is promiscuously defined, sometimes disingenuously so. Some researchers automatically label migrant women who work as prostitutes “trafficked persons”, basing their rationale on the notion that no woman could seriously want to work in the sex industry. The Coalition Against Trafficking in Women argues that “all children and the majority of women in the sex trade” should be considered “victims of trafficking”. As Agustín says, such an approach “infantilises” migrant women, “eliminating any notion that women who sell sex can consent”. Ironically, it objectifies them, treating them as unthinking things that are moved around the world against their will.
The reality is very different, the author says. Most migrant women, including those who end up in the sex industry, have made a clear decision to leave home and take their chances overseas. They are not “passive victims” who must be “saved” by anti-trafficking campaigners and returned to their country of origin. Rather, frequently, they are headstrong and ambitious women who migrate in order to escape “small-town prejudices, dead-end jobs, dangerous streets and suffocating families”. Shocking as it might seem to the feminist social workers, caring police people and campaigning journalists who make up what Agustín refers to as the “rescue industry”, she has discovered that some poor migrant women “like the idea of being found beautiful or exotic abroad, exciting desire in others”. I told you it was controversial.
One of Agustín’s chief concerns is that the anti-trafficking crusade is restricting international freedom of movement. What presents itself as a campaign to protect migrants from harm is actually making their efforts to flee home, to find work, to make the most of their lives in often difficult and unforgiving circumstances, that much harder. She writes about the “rescue raids” carried out by police and non-governmental organisations, in which even women who vociferously deny having been trafficked may be arrested, imprisoned in detention centres and sent back home – for the benefit of their own mental stability, of course. It used to be called repatriation; now, dolled up in therapeutic lingo, it is called “rescue”.
For all its poisonous prejudices, the old racist view of migrants as portents of crime and social instability at least treated them as autonomous, sentient, albeit “morally depraved”, adults. By contrast, as the author illustrates, the anti-trafficking lobby robs migrants of agency and their individual differences, and views them as a helpless, swaying mass of thousands who must be saved by the more savvy and intelligent women of the west and by western authorities.
It’s fascinating stuff and goes along with what I’ve previously said about prostitution:
[Slavery] aside (and that’s what people trafficking is – slave trading), you cannot simply save or rescue a prostitute. It is not a problem, if you consider it one, to be tackled. It is not something that you solve, once and for all. Prostitutes are people like everyone else and like everyone else, they think on the margin and respond to incentives.
In that entry I labelled human trafficking as slavery and I stand by that. Nevertheless, it would appear from Agustín’s work that the scale of the trafficking problem may be smaller than we commonly believe.