“Media handling of these incidents reproduces stigma with variation according to local conditions. The mainstream Swedish press did not mention that Eva-Maree was an escort, because to do so would have seemed to blame her and blacken her name. In the case of a series of murders in Ipswich, England, the media’s relentless talk of prostitutes led the victims’ parents to request they use the term sex workers. A number of dead women on Long Island, NY, were discussed as almost “interchangeable – lost souls who were gone, in a sense, long before they actually disappeared” (Robert Kolker, New York Times, 29 June 2013). A woman murdered recently near Melbourne, Australia, was called “St Kilda prostitute” rather than “sex worker” or even, simply, “woman”, in a place where the concept of sex work is actually on its bumpy way to normalization. I’m talking here about the mainstream, whose online articles are reproduced over and over online, hammering in the clichés.
Editors who append photos to articles on the sex industry use archetypes: women leaning into car windows, sitting on bar stools, standing amidst traffic — legs, stockings and high heels highlighted. Editors do this not because they are too lazy to find other pictures but to show, before you read a word, what the articles are really about: women whose uniform is the outward sign of an inner stain. Similarly, when writers and editors use the clichéd language of a “secret world,” “dark underbelly,” “stolen childhoods,” “seedy streets,” and “forbidden fruit,” they are not simply being sensationalist but pointing to the stigma: Here’s what this news is really about – the disgusting and dangerous but also eternal and thrilling world of whores.”
Last time I’ll quote from this article, promise—”Prostitution Law and the Death of Whores” by Laura Agustin in Jacobin
This is what I enjoy about following her on Facebook—no lurid language in a media story about sex work goes unchallenged
I also really like this part:
Abolitionists talk continuously about prostitution as violence against women, set up projects to rescue sex workers and ignore the dysfunctionality of much that is conceived as “rehabilitation.” Contemporary abolitionism focuses largely on the rescue of women said to be victims of trafficking, targeting the mobile and migrant women I mentioned earlier, who are now completely disappeared in a narrative of female victimhood. Although much of this goes on under a feminist banner, colonialist maternalism describes it better.
Murders of sex workers are appallingly frequent, including serial killings. In Vancouver, Robert Pickton killed as many as 26 between 1996 and 2001 before police cared enough to do anything about it. Gary Ridgeway, convicted of killing 49 women in the 1980s-90s in the state of Washington, said, “I picked prostitutes because I thought I could kill as many of them as I wanted without getting caught.” Infamous statements from police and prosecutors include the Attorney General’s at Peter Sutcliffe’s 1981 trial for the murder of at least 13 women in the north of England: “Some were prostitutes, but perhaps the saddest part of this case is that some were not.” He could say this because of a ubiquitous belief that the stigma attached to women who sell sex is real – that prostitutes really are different from other women.
Everyone wants this thing called research to prove one position or another, but it can’t. Even if there were enough funds to do massive studies with a range of methodologies and amazingly objective researchers, the target is impossible to define and pin down. It’s the same problem as with numbers, the fact that the subjects of interest are operating outside formal networks. Of course you can have small ethnographic studies that provide real insight into particular people at a certain time and place, but those studies cannot prove anything in general. And certainly not about legal regimes, as in the quarrel over which causes more exploitation.
Over a very long period we may come to understand the effects of a regime like the Dutch, but it is too early now. I did research in Holland amongst people concerned with how the policy was working in 2006, when it was already clear that offering regulation only brought part of the sex industry into government accounting. Businesspeople interested in operating outside the law continued to do so; many escort agencies and other sex businesses refused to register; migrants not allowed work permits came and worked anyway and so did people facilitating their travel and work, and, in many cases, exploiting them. None of which proves that the whole system ‘increases trafficking’. You cannot even coherently discuss an increase in trafficking when there are no baseline figures to compare with. On top of which agreement about what everyone means by the wordtrafficking simply does not exist. This goes for both the Dutch situation and the Swedish – claims about trafficking going up or down cannot be proved.
Her research cuts through the usual moral hysteria and emotionality invoked by the idea of trafficking to radically revise discussions about migration and sexual labor. Both her blog (linked above) and her book contain rational assessments of an unfair world in which people exercise choice even when they have limited options; where citizens of developing countries, like citizens of developed countries, have an urge to see more of the world; and where a single story cannot usefully articulate the experience of multiple, diverse human beings. When it comes to her approach, she explains, “I am disposed to accept what people tell me, and believe in their ability to interpret their own lives.”
the point is that there can’t be numbers for the people being talked about here, who don’t register anywhere when they cross borders and who work off the books. I don’t think the Voice’s article will affect anything because previous ones didn’t – theVoice was not the first – or perhaps in the US but not elsewhere: been there, done that.
Shortly after I began to do formal research I understood that numbers are not obtainable for undocumented migration. I have reviewed several statistical methods that claim to make realistic estimates but am unconvinced, like many other scholars. However, the belief in numbers is a tenet of our time, and people can’t be persuaded that the correct data do not exist somewhere. The idea is that if we could know how many of every type of person there is we could somehow achieve justice for everyone – well, I don’t believe that, either.
But I also think it’s not useful to take debunking-talk to the point of talking about myths, as though there were no serious problems with migration. The conversations that are avoided through arguments about numbers are much harder: finding new kinds of migration policies and new visions of the so-called formal-informal economy divide.