My belief in human rights is inseparably tied with my belief in individual autonomy and liberty. I cannot conceive how one can speak of human rights by denying individual choice. As I have said many times to people often too shocked to respond, in my view, liberty includes the freedom to do sex work. You have a right to prostitute yourself.
This is one of the cutting questions that cleave one kind of human rights campaigners from another. The other kind is undoubtedly impassioned about righting social ills that deny the best possible life to people — I have nothing but respect for their energy and dedication — but they work with very different starting assumptions. They reserve to themselves the right to define what are ills and what “best possible life” means, and in the name of human rights, work to lift people towards those goals.
I not only think this is too paternalistic, I see a huge irony between speaking of human rights and denying others the right to choose.
Recently, I found myself confronting and arguing against this other conception of human rights.
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It was at a conference on Human Rights and Gender Equality, held in Manila from 7 – 9 July 2010, and organised by the Asia-Europe Meeting/Foundation. One of the sessions was on the Philippine effort to combat human trafficking, and one of the five speakers in this session was Prof Aurora Javate de Dios, executive director of the Women and Gender Institute (WAGI).
De Dios’ presentation bothered me from start to finish. To show how serious the problem of human trafficking was, she provided statistics about the sales revenue of sex-related businesses, such as online pornography. To show an example of what her organisation is doing about it, she spoke about Men’s Camps, workshops in which young men are led to confront the horrors of prostitution, humanised in “what-if” scenarios with their mothers, sisters or girlfriends as prostitutes. She also used the term “sexual exploitation” in ways interchangeable with prostitution and pornography, and then by further extension, interchangeable with human trafficking.
It struck me that de Dios
(a) saw all prostitution and pornography as human trafficking, and
(b) saw only female victims and male predators.
I found this very jarring, especially after nearly three days of conferencing where participants wrestled with issues of gender stereotyping and freedom of choice regardless of one’s sex.
Come question time, I stood up to speak. I pointed out that she made rather sweeping generalisations that would only provide ammunition to critics of her organisation’s mission of combatting human trafficking, an objective I fully agreed with. Such generalisations I feared would only give reason to resisters to take issue with semantics and thus distract or delay worthwhile action against the real problem. One of those generalisations, I pointed out, was the conflation of prostitution with human trafficking when it was important to recognise the distinction between sex work and trafficked persons forced to provide sexual services. The other error was the essentialising of women as victims and men as predators.
On the second point, I reminded her that there was a significant male prostitution scene right here in Manila itself. A significant proportion, perhaps even a majority, of the buyers were elite and upper-middle-class women.
What I didn’t say because I wanted to keep my comments short was that just the very night before, I had gone to the Malate district of Manila with a Finnish gay activist, where we spent some time inside a male stripper bar (the picture below is of a different stripper bar). Both of us noticed that women customers outnumbered men. This was hardly the first time I’ve been in such a bar, so I knew that what we saw in that particular bar was not untypical. Nonetheless, the fact that we were in one bar just the previous night gave me full confidence that the scene continued to exist.
This simple observation of a male prostitution scene serving women contradicts the appropriateness of drawing a boundary between buyers and sellers of sex along gender lines. If at all one wants to draw a boundary, it would be much more accurate to draw it along class lines. Yet, here we have a leader of an organisation showing the world how confused they are about what they are doing. And this too in a conference dedicated to gender equality.
My example of male prostitution means that at best only one of her two assertions could be right, not both. Either:
(a) all prostitution was indeed human trafficking, but then victims were both male and female, which meant that essentialising females as victims and males as predators was false, or
(b) if essentialising the sexes was correct, then to say all prostitution equalled trafficking would be false, because then she would be also saying that male prostitution was not trafficking since males were predators, never victims.
In my view, both assertions were wrong. Human trafficking is not co-terminous with prostitution, let alone pornography, neither male nor female. There may be a lot of overlap, especially in female prostitution, but a distinction must be recognised between sex work and trafficked sexual exploitation.
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In reply, de Dios stood by her remarks. She insisted that all prostitution should be considered human trafficking, because evidence showed that there was such a connection in very many cases. Taking her point further, she then made what I thought was the most stunning statement: In her and her NGO’s view, there is no such thing as sex work. This term should not be used, she added. In support of her contention, she pointed out that under a UN definition, human trafficking is said to occur even if consent is given.
Immediately, another conference participant — I think she was from India — stood up to say she was not convinced: “I second what Alex said. It is important not to conflate prostitution with trafficking.”
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Later that evening, I mentioned this incident to a few other Filipino activists for lesbian and gay rights, and they said that they were familiar with her organisation’s very judgemental and moralistic stand. One said it got in the way of his HIV prevention work too. In HIV work, it is critical to remain non-judgemental in order to earn the trust of those we have to interact with, whether they are providers or buyers of sexual services.
While none of us, I’m sure, will condone human trafficking, it is important to be very clear what it is. De Dios was committing the error of over-inclusion and under-inclusion. Over-inclusion occurs when all prostitution is treated as human trafficking. More seriously, the essentialisation of the female as victim and male as predator makes an organisation’s work under-inclusive. Its starting assumptions will blindside them to male prostitution, when women buy sexual services from men, with the result that they are likely to miss or dismiss instances of human trafficking, if it were to occur on that front.
As for the UN guideline which de Dios cited, one must be careful what it really means. Basically, it says consent does not disprove human trafficking. In other words, it reminds us to be sceptical when someone says he or she is willingly doing whatever he or she is doing, because victims of trafficking are often compelled to deny that they are under someone else’s control; they are unable to tell us the truth. But the guideline doesn’t mean that the reply “No, I’m not a trafficking victim” should automatically be understood as “Yes, I am a trafficking victim” in an Alice-in-Wonderland way. It only means that a “No” should not be taken at face value as a “No”.
We have to look for other evidence whether human trafficking is taking place. If there is no other evidence that human trafficking is taking place, and the sex provider also says, “I am doing this willingly”, then we have to allow the possibility that he or she is indeed doing it of his/her own volition; that indeed this instance of sex work is by free choice and is not human trafficking. Banning the term does not eradicate the reality.
Consider another angle: Human trafficking also applies to cases where people are put into forced labour, or are tricked to providing labour without the promised employment rewards. Suppose we find some men working in shipyards, doing dirty and dangerous jobs, who have been trafficked into doing so. Does that all men working in shipyards are victims of human trafficking? Some of them will say, “No, we have chosen to do this work.”
Would de Dios then reply “But consent is immaterial according to the UN definition of human trafficking”? Once logic has crossed this bridge, one would be able to ban the term “shipyard work” and decree that everybody involved in shipyard work is a victim of human trafficking. You and I will know this would be ridiculous, yet it is exactly the same logic she and her organisation was applying to sex work.
What was actually happening was that underlying her work was a moral distaste against the commercialisation of sex. It was convenient to label all prostitution and pornography as human trafficking because it suited her moral agenda.
This is what I mean when I said there is a kind of human rights campaigners who reserve to themselves the definition of the ills they set out to save people from. They do not allow an element of choice to others to do the things they consider morally unacceptable.
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Moralism warps intelligent endeavour. This is true whether we’re dealing with teenage pregnancies, HIV prevention or human trafficking. Much otherwise good work is stymied and made controversial because there is a hidden agenda beneath it, usually driven by unspoken moralistic aims.
In combatting teenage pregnancies, they would insist we speak only of abstinence and never mention contraception. Why? Because the unspoken agenda is not teenage pregnancies, but the eradication of sex outside marriage. Ditto when some people argue that in combatting HIV, we shouldn’t speak non-judgementally about homosex, we shouldn’t remove the stigma or laws against homosexuality (an essential step for public health officials to successfully engage the gay community) because their agenda is not HIV prevention but a campaign against non-heterosexual orientation.
These moralistic aims can remain unspoken because large numbers of people implicitly buy in to it, to the extent that the contradiction between avowed aims and true underlying objectives is not even noticed. And when it is pointed out, those who do the pointing out are dismissed as ultra-radicals and as irresponsible people who want to see immorality spread, when in fact they are doing no more than stating the obvious: That teenagers will still have sex, men and women will still be gay and some folks will want to make a career out of providing sexual services, whether through pornography or in person. And every one of these are human rights.