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Critique of the AF's position on so-called 'trafficing'

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Critique of the AF's position on so-called 'trafficing' (a.k.a the sex work debate) by nic was originally publised at LibCom.org and is available here.

Regarding Notes on trafficking and Resistance … ‘Modern Slavery’

As an anarcho-communist recently arrived to London, I was incredibly disappointed to see the Anarchist Federation buying into the State’s position on sex worker ‘trafficking’ in Resistance No.92 (“200 years after its abolition: Slavery Today”). By doing so the AF has uncritically taken up an anti-worker and anti-migrant position that ultimately plays into the hands of both the State and Capital and isolates what is primarily a young female migrant workforce. It is unfortunately helping the State police a group of workers with which it should be showing its solidarity.

The AF position is laid out in several sections:

“Today people are still slaves here. They work in the sex trade, as servants…” (first paragraph)

“Trafficking of women and children to work as prostitutes is the most well-known form of slavery. The newspapers carry stories of how young women are lured away from their homes with promises of jobs, only to find themselves beaten into prostitution.” (second paragraph)

“Female victims are trafficked from Eastern Europe, notably the Balkans.” (UK government, cited in second paragraph)

“It is very difficult to escape. The slaves are often locked in, beaten and also shackled. They are told that, if they leave and the police find them they will be tortured and imprisoned. Often coming from a country where this frequently happens, it is all too believable. They cannot read or speak English and are extremely vulnerable.” (third paragraph)

Also, the image for the article is of a woman sitting on a bed with her head in her hands, clearly meant to be a ‘victim of trafficking’

It is a shame that the article, which draws a link between slavery and waged-labour, fails to make a labour analysis of sex work or migrant labour, and falls into an anti-sex worker and as a result an anti-worker and anti-migrant position, mirroring the rhetoric of the State.

The above quotes demonstrate a position that takes the victim status of migrant sex workers for granted. They are denied agency and cannot be seen as anything other than brutalised bodies. The fact is that this picture of ‘foreign’ sex workers chained to bedposts and being repeatedly raped is a fantasy. Overwhelmingly migrant sex workers decide to come to the UK to engage in sex work. It is however illegal to come to the UK to engage in this kind of work and so most turn to what sex workers themselves call ‘facilitators’. Current estimates from sex worker projects put the proportion of migrants in the London sex trade at 50 - 70% - a huge figure. Within this industry, the State has been undertaking a program of raids and deportations. And for all the raids and deportations (which is clearly the real motivation behind the raids) hardly any ‘real sex slaves’ have been found. ‘Trafficked victims’ do not exist in the narrow and problematic definition claimed by State. Sure there are people forced into sex – most of whom are not sex workers, nor engaged in the exchange of sex for cash. Focusing on so-called ‘trafficking victims’ obscures this, and obscures the actual motivations for intervening in a largely migrant industry.

The underlying basis to the trafficking debate is, I think, that all sex work is violence. That no one would willingly engage in sex work, or travel across borders to engage in sex work. And this is a problem precisely because it both hides the labour of sex workers (and the labour of sex in general) and it continues the stigmatisation of sex work, in effect contributing to the policing of sex workers (and accordingly, migrants).

Sex work is work. The ‘trafficing’ debate hides this fact. It is one of many occupations that exist under Capitalism. It is not a privileged moment of ‘male violence’, nor some kind of impure ‘commodification’ of a ‘natural act’. Sex is just one human activity that can become commodified. Sex has been and continues to be used and exchanged for both material and non-material goods and services by a whole range of people – from sex within marriage to flirting with the boss; to strippers to models; from sex for acceptance or status to sex for a wage. Sex is not a ‘special’ category of human activity – it is as much work as anything else. And it is important to recognise when and where it takes place as labour, whether it is waged or unwaged. Whether it is done by women, men or transgendered, for men, transgendered or women. Without this recognition we will not be able to understand sex work as it exists under Capitalism.

When it is clear that the majority of migrant sex workers are here to work, and that sex work is a form of waged labour, we can begin to see what role the ‘trafficking’ debate plays. It is there to control and regulate both the sex industry workers in particular, and migrant labour in general. The sex workers because its target is the criminalisation of sections of the industry – the breaking down of the industry into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ sections based on nationality and race. It aims to control and crimialise the migrant section of the workforce – the majority of it. This crimialisation has various negative affects – in wage levels, security, cost of migration, health, etc. It also sets up a distinction within the industry, creating a barrier to worker self-organisation and resistance. For the migrant population in general, it is yet another method to intervene in migrant populations and police their activities. And hence, has the same affects – it splits the various communities, creates negative stereotypes (i.e., all women from the Balkans are whores and only out for money), and creates the perception that the men from these areas are little more than savages who beat ‘their women’ and ‘can’t provide for their families’, etc. It creates a ‘social problem’ to be treated by policing methods – an ill of the social body that has to be cured. It contrasts a ‘good, decent, healthy body of workers from a good society’ against a ‘sick and damaged body of workers who come from a place without civilization, and who are destroying ‘our’ essential goodness’. It marks migrants in general, and sex workers in particular, as less than fully human, less that citizens and less than capable of full agency. And hence is anti-worker and anti-migrant in effect.

I hope that the AF will reflect upon its position on both sex work and the so-called ‘trafficking debate’. It is vital that the current rhetoric surrounding both sex work and trafficking is challenged, and that the State’s current program for the sex industry is challenged by the working classes.

In solidarity, nic