Sex workers in east London are facing victimisation in more ways than one leading up to the Olympic Games. There is an unholy alliance between, on the one hand, the government-driven police ‘clean-up’ operation and, on the other, often well-meaning victim support groups. The harassment leading up to the games is opposed by, among others, sex worker cooperatives such as x:talk, the English Collective of Prostitutes and John McDonnell MP, who are all calling for a moratorium on the arrest of sex workers.
These arrests are based on the claim that big sporting events lead to an increase in trafficking for sex. However, there appears to be no evidence of this. Reports by the Swedish Development Agency, the German government, the Sex Work Education and Advocacy Taskforce (Sweat) and the Global Alliance Against Trafficking in Women all contradict the idea that trafficking for sex increases when major sporting events take place. In fact a report commissioned by London mayor Boris Johnson criticised the police for failing to find the expected victims of trafficking in the run-up to the games. Andrew Boff, the author of the report, Silence on violence, writes that the information gathered “demonstrates that police have been proactively raiding sex establishments without complaints nor significant intelligence that exploitation is taking place”.
The Christian Brothers Investment Services has garnered the support of Olympic sponsors, including major airlines, soft drink manufacturers, hotel and car companies to stop “the issue of trafficking from blighting this summer’s games”. The group has also written to the International Olympic Committee, claiming: “Some reports indicate that the potential for trafficking victims for the purpose of commercial sexual exploitation and/or slave labour increases at major sporting events.” However, as far as I can ascertain, this is nothing but an uncorroborated assertion. I can find no hard facts linking trafficking with major sporting events – organisations such as the Anti-Trafficking Alliance seem to rely on very flimsy circumstantial evidence from newspaper reports etc to support their claim that ‘targeted campaigns’ are necessary. There again, I suppose the ATA has to be seen to be doing something to justify its National Lottery funding.
In fact there is no evidence that large numbers of women are forced into sex work against their will, whether or not there is a major sporting occasion. In a letter to the Weekly Worker Heather Downs asks: “Who were the almost 2,000 (about five a week) women who contacted the specialist support Poppy Project” in relation to “trafficking into the sex industry”? But in 2008 the Poppy Project was accused of employing “unethical” methodology – its “mode of data collection and analysis” was “seriously flawed”. PP was accused of “conflating fears over trafficking with general prostitution” and Dr Belinda Brooks-Gordon of the University of London commented: “You can’t just churn out political propaganda and say it’s research.”
Despite the lack of evidence, allegations of trafficking – including sensational stories in the media about ‘thousands of prostitutes’ descending on the five Olympic boroughs – have led to demands that ‘something should be done’. This is similar to the myth that 40,000 sex workers would descend on South Africa for the 2010 football World Cup (for a start, where would they be accommodated?). But, disregarding the truth, the mainstream media provide a script for local residents wishing to complain about “soliciting, street drinking, littering and public sex acts” – a melange of undesirable behaviour which gives the green light for a clampdown, which began towards the end of last year. In November and December the Metropolitan Police arrested 21 women for loitering and prostitution. The ‘something must be done’ attitude also opens the door for vigilante groups in those boroughs to target sex workers, with women too scared to report attackers for fear of being arrested or harassed themselves.
Scotland Yard’s trafficking unit has received £500,000 from the government for its ‘clean-up’ drive. As a result there have been numerous raids on targeted premises (the borough of Newham alone has seen the closure of 80 alleged brothels), combined with the imposition of strict bail conditions and anti-social behaviour orders – in short the complete reversal of the previous police attitude towards sex workers. In reality this clampdown has nothing to do with trafficking.
For the sex workers themselves all this has created a climate of fear, forcing women to take more risks to avoid arrest – for instance, going underground or moving away from areas and resources they are familiar with. This atmosphere has been aided by the moral panic created by an alliance of faith-based groups and various NGOs, who see themselves as akin to anti-slavery campaigners. For example, the Liberal Democrat Christian Forum suggests: “Just as in Wilberforce’s day, we need modern-day activists who will mobilise their communities on this issue.” Items such as the BBC documentary, ‘Trafficked: sex slaves seduced and sold’, have fed into such campaigns.
The clampdown has been justified by the bourgeois commentariat’s portrayal of all sex workers as victims pure and simple: the choices that female sex workers make are regarded as forced upon them in every case. And clergymen – such as cardinal Peter Turkson, the head of the Vatican’s Office for Justice and Peace, no less, and archbishop Patrick Lynch of Southwark – have offered to use church resources to help the ‘victims’ (although when Turkson equates human trafficking, and by implication all prostitution, with terrorism you have to call into question the priorities of these people).
Sections of the left, while mostly opposing police moves against sex workers themselves, favour action against men who use their services. The Socialist Workers Party at least does not go along with that, stating: “… while prostitution exists we should support all attempts to make it safer for the women involved. This means challenging the hypocrisy of the government and the sexism of the society we live in.” But the SWP argues that sex work and the oppression of women have to be understood in the context of the capitalist family unit and the commodification of sex in the marketplace. As such it blames capitalism for normalising the sex industry, leading to a situation where women have no control over their own bodies. The SWP also believes that sex workers are all victims pure and simple.
It would be very easy therefore to see the SWP joining an alliance with the likes of the Liberal Democrat Christian Forum. And this is what it did when it was the main force within Respect, campaigning for the closure of lap-dancing and strip clubs in the London borough of Tower Hamlets back in 2006-07.
The communist response is different. We say that people who choose sex work – whether they are migrants or not – do so overwhelmingly because they have to make a living and pay the bills at the end of the month. As such sex work should be treated like any other work under capitalism, and the laws controlling it should be abolished, so that the problems associated with it that are currently kept under wraps by virtue of prostitution’s semi-legality – violence, trafficking and exploitation – can be exposed to the light of day.
What of ‘trafficking’? Many people pay huge fees to illegal gangs for the ‘privilege’ of being smuggled to the developed capitalist countries. Extortionate rates of interest are levied, adding to the debt of such migrants. Should the debtors default, the gangsters resort to blackmail, threats and outright violence directed against the migrants themselves or the families they have left behind. Measures to prevent them entering the country do little to deter the illegal trade, instead driving even more migrants into the hands of the gangsters and slave labour operators.
We should support the call for a moratorium on arrests, but go further. If the state did not insist on maintaining its inhuman border controls, there would be no illegal trafficking, and the current police clampdown would be seen for what it is. Communists demand the ending of all immigration controls. Every human being must have the right to travel, visit, live and work where they choose.
3 . Ibid.
4 . Weekly Worker Letters, May 24.
5 . ‘Big Brothel research “seriously flawed”’ The Guardian October 3 2008.
6 . Waltham Forest, Hackney, Tower Hamlets, Newham and Greenwich.
8 . Newham Recorder April 4.
9 . Ibid.
10. The Independent May 12.
13. BBC News, May 22.
14. The Tablet May 11.
15. ‘Prostitution: the government put women in danger’ Socialist Worker February 26 2008. The same phrases have appeared in other articles on the subject.
16. See ‘SWP puritanism’ Weekly Worker January 11 2007.
Weekly Worker 917 Thursday June 07 2012