“White Slavery”: Sex Trafficking In The UK Press (Part 2)
Way back in the primordial mists of 2007, I was hastily writing a dissertation for my Gender Studies Masters. I didn’t know it then of course, but that same dissertation would later turn out to be actually almost quite useful.
What I was writing about was UK press representation of trafficking for sexual exploitation. Or rather, misrepresentation. There were also some heady cultural studies bits about nations and bodies and identity and stuff, but the heart of the 15,000 word beast was some research showing that the key elements in coverage of so-called ‘white slavery’ in the 19th century were all present and correct in current newspaper coverage of sex trafficking. I summarised some of that in my previous post.
Some recent articles, and an exciting conference on the same subject organised by the Central American Women’s Network (at which I was invited to speak, eek) have put this cheery topic back on my radar. After talking to people studying the same issues today, it seems that nothing much has changed since 2007, and in fact the situation has got worse.
Discourse (yes, I said it, I went there! And in the fourth paragraph too!) around sex trafficking is dominated by a single story which has been repeated so often it has become a cliché, despite its distressing content. You probably know it: virginal 15 year old Albanian blonde is promised a job as a waitress, or maybe even kidnapped, and when she arrives in the UK she is beaten and raped and forced to work as a prostitute.
This is real. It does happen. And amazing but severely under-funded organisations like the Eaves Housing Poppy Project can tell you about it, because they spend every day picking up the pieces.
The trouble is that this single story obscures the complex interrelationship of migration, trafficking, and the national and international sex industry, and the many and various routes of women into exploitation. It has helped to establish a set of criteria for ‘legitimate victimhood’ for women who have been trafficked, which excludes a huge number of serious cases and obscures the wider problems faced by women in the sex trade.
As an example, a 2007 headline in the Sunday Express screams “Influx of sex slaves hits UK”. We are told that the Home Office is “struggling to cope with an influx of women immigrants who are being forced into prostitution”. However, several lines down we find the kernel of news the article has grown from: “Home Office figures about to be published will claim that 4,000 new foreign women join the UK sex trade every year.” The categories of migrant women working in the UK sex trade and victims of sex trafficking are collapsed into one without any word of explanation. In fact it is unknown how many of these women have been forced into prostitution. It is unlikely to be 100%.
Because the media, the police, the government and – sadly – a number of campaigns have focused so narrowly on kidnap and involuntary prostitution, migrant women working in the sex trade can find themselves unable to access services when their human rights have been abused. As an example: consider a woman who willingly enters the UK sex trade, but finds that she is forced to hand over all her earnings to her pimp, has no ability to refuse customers and is prevented from leaving. That is slavery, whether she comes from Thailand, Moldova or Bromley.
By conjuring a moral panic based on a discourse of innocence, border violations and kidnap, the media, government and police fail to engage with the risks and problems surrounding ‘domestic’ prostitution. This means that many women working in prostitution continue to be failed by a State that does not offer them protection.
There is another damaging side effect of the repetition and emphasis on this story at the exclusion of all others. If the measure of whether a woman is a ‘sex slave’ or not excludes many or even most women in that situation, it becomes simple enough for people to say there is no problem.
And it seems that by following the version of sex trafficking peddled by the press too closely the police are at risk of missing countless vulnerable women. I was pleased to see an alternative, more informed narrative in this otherwise dismaying recent article about a report criticising the Met for their hamfisted policing of trafficking for sexual exploitation, which seems to consist mostly of raiding brothels and asking women if they’ve been trafficked. The report (“Silence on Violence”) is worth a read, even though it was produced by GLA Conservatives.
Disappointing then that the next day the same old story was being told in the same paper. It’s a moving account of a terrible experience endured by a courageous woman, and I applaud the Guardian for covering the issue and for closely consulting the excellent Eaves Housing Poppy Project. But we need to tell some of the other stories too, or women will continue to be measured against it and found to be less of a victim than they should be.
- Note: In my dissertation I drew heavily on the work of Jacqueline Berman. It’s also worth checking out her draft paper Trafficking in the Illicit: From Trafficking in East and Central European Women to the Biopolitical Management of Migration.