Thursday, November 13, 2008

Sex Trafficking, Internet Brothels, and Changing Laws

The BBC reports on the arrest of a group operating in the UK and Thailand that was responsible for the trafficking, abuse, and enslavement of dozens of women. The trafficked women were forced to work as prostitutes, their services advertised via 'online brothels':
Nine people from Thailand have been jailed for up to two-and-a-half-years for their part in exploiting women who were advertised in "online brothels". They are thought to have made millions of pounds from women trafficked from Asia to the UK for use in the sex trade...

One of the women - advertised on the website as "Helen" - had been "bought" from her traffickers by a syndicate of two women and a man for £11,000 and then told she would have to pay her "bondholders" £30,000 to win her own freedom.

Brian O'Neill, prosecuting, said she effectively had to sleep with 300 men, at £100 a time, to buy herself out of a modern-day form of slavery.

While prostitution is technically legal in the UK, laws against soliciting, streetwalking, and brothels effectively make it illegal to sell sexual services, but not to buy them. The increase in trafficking cases might change the laws to put some legal responsibility on the purchaser as well as the provider:

Earlier this year the Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, announced plans to introduce legislation to outlaw paying for sex with someone "controlled for another person's gain"...

If it becomes law it would mean "punters" would have a legal obligation to ensure women they pay have not been trafficked.

An increase in trafficking cases has also prompted calls for massive reform of laws regarding the sex trade in the UK. One group calling for prostitution reform explains the challenge this way:

As explained above, the current laws tread an uneasy path between legality and illegality. Would it not be better in our enlightened society to decide once and for all "is there a place for prostitution in the 21st century"? This would lead to two outcomes:

  • We decide there is a place for prostitution in the 21st century and legalise all aspects of the "profession". In addition we help prostitution to become an acceptable part of society by incorporating it into education, health and politics.
  • We decide prostitution is largely an abuse of women (as was decided in Sweden). In order to protect women who have been forced into prostitution the law is changed to move the "blame" and illegality to the purchaser of sexual services.
Since I feel like I don't know what the best solution is, I'm curious to know other people's thoughts on how prostitution should be best regulated to prevent trafficking and abuse.


Kris-Stella said...

This is such a difficult topic and I keep fluctuating back and forth. On the one hand, I think that women should be free to sell sex if they choose to do so, and that framing prostitution as unacceptable is just a continuation of the virgin/whore dichotomy: no good girl would ever sell sex (because it somehow violates her soul?). But on the other hand, the reality of prostitution is nothing like the ideal of the free woman who chooses to sell sex. So I don't know what I think the best way to move forward is in practice.

I also once wrote a longer post on this: I still think all the arguments hold but I keep wavering re my own conclusion.

Habladora said...

You've written a very thoughtful post on this topic, thanks for sharing it. There are some interesting comments as well. I'm also interested in your idea that we're propagating the virgin/whore dichotomy by making any aspect of prostitution illegal. I hadn't considered it that way...

Anonymous said...

Tonight I was trying to explain to my friends why sex work shouldn't be illegal. It didn't go so well. I tried to convince them that making things illegal doesn't stop them from happening (people got abortions before the 60s and people still smoke a lot of marijuana). I tried to say how can a sex worker go to the police if they're doing something illegal? As far as choice or not, I don't want to punish people for something consensual nor do I want to punish people for something they got into that wasn't their choice. I know people say there's always another choice and if it were illegal more people might choose another choice but I don't sounds like America has enough sex workers.
How about we decriminalize (fully or not, I don't know), look at what situations make it more likely for someone to go into sex work and try to decrease how often those situations happen. How about we also give police officers extra training to make them more understanding of sex work and its risks.
I'm in Canada and our laws are like the UK. I just read an article saying our laws put women more at risk. I start to think if you're going to make it legal, why not let sex workers work in a less risky way?

Anonymous said...

Oh also, it amazes me how judgmental people are when they have never even talked to a sex worker. How much do you really know? I don't think their opinions are usually from research either. What we need in many cases I think is more action research where people actually go and talk to people affected by something like sex workers about how they got there and what they want and then seriously consider what they've said. Who knows about what they need better than them? But this is our problem. Do we ask people in poverty what would be most helpful for getting them out of poverty? Does the government ask woman abuse survivors what could've helped them leave more easily? I'm guessing no or not enough.

She-Ra said...

The problem it seems is that many people equate prostitution with sexuality- therefore if you believe women are entitled to alternative forms of income generation and not to be bought and sold you're anti-sex. Prostitution is not a job- no other profession has rape and/or murder as a possible outcome in the job description. When you have to sleep with up to 20 men a day, the majority of whom you would never opt to sleep with- this is not a choice and not a bout enjoying sex. Not to mention that worldwide the majority of women entering into prostitution is as young as 13- it seems sickening that we think that for those very girls turning 18 makes their abuse a choice. Women deserve better, we should be striving to make things better for all women and not resigning ourselves to the fact that poverty exists therefore this is the best we can do.

Kekla said...

What confuses me in discussions about prostitution is that the conversation always about the effects on women but never about the actions of male customers. Sex trafficking and forced prostitution of course are horrible, but we also seem to take for granted that, even if prostitution was legal, it would still be abusive to women. Isn't that in part because of the way men treat prostitutes?

Is there any way for prostitution to be legal, never forced on women, and not abusive? I wonder if this idea seems impossible because of the virgin/whore dichotomy (as kris-stella commented) or because it is hard to imagine men treating women who they are paying for sex with respect.