Conflating sex work and human trafficking


Well, that was awkward.

While sharing the stage with Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, I asked our top banana why he was so dead-set on criminalizing the sex trade.

Awkward, because Mr. Abbott’s country has run a pretty successful experiment with legalizing the industry.  It’s prostitutions and johns all the way down, down under.

In a hand-wringy monotone, Stephen Harper said of sex work: “They are not harmful because they are illegal.  They are illegal because they are harmful.”

Hard-hitting stuff, otherwise.

He paraphrased Peter MacKay, in introducing the legislation: “international studies have shown that full decriminalization and legalization ultimately resulted in higher rates of human trafficking for sexual exploitation.”

They mean Australia and, actually, it’s not true.

A very small number of studies have suggested that legalization ups the level of human trafficking, but there’s been a dearth of evidence to say it conclusively.

There’s also a pretty compelling theory going that, given our increased amount of attention paid to human trafficking, the reporting is improving, but the incidents aren’t, necessarily, increasing.

There’s also some serious Western saviour delusion. Somaly Mam, an international “hero” in the fight against human trafficking, was exposed to have made up large sections of her backstory.  Allegations, published in Newsweek, include that she cajoled other women to lie about their experience.  She ran one of the world’s most feted anti-trafficking groups that laid the basis for much of the West’s legislation, including Canada.

Then there’s an obvious logic to the fact that legalization should help combat human trafficking — once traffickers lose the ability to hang the laws over those being trafficked, and once sex workers are no longer criminalized, shouldn’t it be harder to do?

In any case, in Canada, the RCMP have estimated that 600 to 800 people are trafficked into the country, and as many as 2,200 are trafficked through Canada, en route to the United States.

If those numbers seem high, it’s because they are.

A UN study found that was no more than 1,058 victims of human trafficking in Cambodia, widely regarded as one of the worldwide hotspots for trafficking.  That was in 2008, and it’s expected that the number is even lower, now, according to the Newsweek report.

The RCMP seems to be saying that there is a bigger problem in Canada — despite there being only 35 charges laid.  How does that square?

See, our Criminal Code — thanks in no small part to rabid anti-human trafficking activist Joy Smith — basically says that anyone brought into the country on false pretences, through threats, or by confinement, is a victim of human trafficking.  Gauging statistics on inter-provincial trafficking is guesswork, at best. (“If a pimp drives his girl from Halifax to Moncton, is that trafficking?” a friend once posed to me.)

But even if we just look at exploiting those coming into the country, it’s complex.  Not all of those cases, for example, are related to the sex trade.  Many are linked to domestic work — maids, cooks, babysitters, the like.  Many others involve immigrants coming into this country, only to find that the money that they were hoping to make was not so readily available.  As such, they end up in a massage parlour.  Not ideal, but certainly not being led at gunpoint.

Then you get into more theoretical issues: do mail-order brides count?  Arranged marriages?

So not every one of those cases involve women chained in a basement — which is where our minds immediately go when we picture human trafficking.

Certainly, this is a problem.  Women and men — including children — are being exploited.  Those extreme cases do exist.  But some of the histrionics surrounding the problem haven’t matched up to the facts.

That might sound harsh, but that’s essentially the realization that the world came to over the inflated problem of human trafficking around world sporting events.  The Americans led the charge to eradicated the apparent influx of trafficked women around the Olympics and World Cup.

One study notes: “Despite incomplete empirical evidence, the 2004 Athens Olympics, 2006 World Cup in Germany, and 2008 Beijing Olympics indicate that international concerns about world sporting events leading to drastic increases in sex trafficking may be exaggerated.  Similarly, research suggests that differing approaches to prostitution policies have little effect on sex trafficking in general and at world sporting events in particular.”

There’s also no real evidence that Australian policies have correlated to an increase in human trafficking.  In fact, one study found that the cases tended to be isolated, and not linked to any broader criminal activity.

So when Harper stood there and awkwardly defended his government’s posturing on the prostitution bill, the Australian Prime Minster’s beady eyes flickered back and forth.

Australia’s system has been a bit muddled — states have approached legalization to varying degrees, to different levels of success.  New Zealand, meanwhile, went for a simpler approach.  I wrote about it here.

Abbott and his cousins in Wellington have come under fire for allowing human trafficking, thanks to their legalization systems.  The Americans have certainly charged that, repeatedly.  That appears to be where MacKay got his remarks from.  However, there isn’t a lot of facts to back up the allegations.

In New Zealand, the government has not managed to bring a single criminal case against human traffickers.  (However, there are a few stories where criminal charges were not proceeded with, and one where a woman sought civil remedy.)  In Australia, the problem appears to be no more rampant than here at home.

Nevertheless, convention in this discussion goes: Australia bad, Sweden good.

However, Swedish police readily admit that human trafficking still exists in the country, even with the so-called Nordic Model that they invented.

Certainly, some of the worst states for trafficking — like Russia — also maintain the most criminalized regimes.

So it remains so utterly confounding that the Conservatives can keep up this poorly-supported charge that decriminalization leads to human trafficking.

Especially when Tony Abbott was standing right there.

Right there!



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Follow Justin Ling on twitter: @Justin_Ling


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