Sex Slaves and Discourse Masters – original but sometimes frustrating exploration of sex work issues

Writing this weekend in the Guardian, Kira Cochrane notes a surge in new feminist books, but complains, I think fairly, that “much of it repackages longstanding arguments”. The problem is there are new, radical ideas out there, but they are often wrapped up in much academic argument that fails to reach the mainstream. That’s not necessarily a criticism exactly of their authors – they are writing academic books, the kinds of things that they need to do to keep up in these “publish or perish” days of universities, but it’s frustrating that popular debate keeps retreading the same ground, in part as a result.

Take, for instance, Jo Doezema’s recently published Sex Slaves and Discourse Masters: the Construction of Trafficking. Her basic tale is of two parts: first, she looks at the “white slavery” panics (primarily in Britain and the US) in late Victorian times and extending early into the 20th century. She then looks briefly at the international developments between then and the present, which saw a loss in interest in the issue matched with a dramatic swing in the direction of international agreements, before moving on to a detailed account of the negotiations around the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children, in which she was involved as a sex-worker advocate, in which she finds echoes and shadows of that original white slavery myth. She concludes with a frustratingly brief epilogue that considers ways forward, specifically ways to “reinscribe” the white slavery myth and find more productive ways of looking at women’s (and men’s) involvement in the sex industry than through the simplistic prism of consent.

Much of this is straight account and analysis, but it is also wrapped up in a lot of heavy theoretical weaving about the nature and inter-relationship of myth, narrative and ideology, from Althusser to Zizek, Levi-Strauss to Barthes. I understand why as an academic Doezema would do this (on the right day I can almost enjoy the word-play), but the book I’d rather read from her, based on her studies and experiences, would be rather more focused on the women’s issues, rather than the academic ones.

I’ve heard many sex workers and their advocates speak, and discussed the issues with some in quite some depth, but one of the key practical points I got from this account was just how much sex workers, globally and historically, have found and regarded the state and the police as the problem, not the solution, which helps to explain why the Network of Sex Work Projects, for which the author worked, had real problems in deciding its approach to the Protocol negotiations. They, understandable, didn’t want more regulation, more state and supra-state interferences, since their experiences of that are almost universally negative, but they also wanted to lobby to ensure that the harms were minimised.

From the Victorians onwards, “rescued” sex workers have either had to be beautiful (by definition), naive, frightened young country girls who’ve simply been victimised, or hardened, dissolute, dangerous city women who are simply a threat to society and need to be locked up – no nuances allowed. Doezema writes: “A curious phrase from the inaugural resolution of the New York Female Moral Reform Society, one of the female anti-vice societies, and dedicated to converting prostitutes and closing brothels in New York City, encapsulates this ambivalence. ‘Resolved: That the licentious man is no less guilty than his victim.’ The notion of the ‘guilty victim’, oxymoronic as it may sound to our ears, expresses perfectly how these feminists (and others) struggled to harmonize their moral impulse to condemn a woman’s loss of virtue with sympathy for her fall, as well as a desire to make men share the guilt. ..Certain feminist desires to protect vulnerable girls – primarily working-class and immigrant girls – took shape through a disciplinary desire to control ‘wild’ tendencies.” (p. 99)

The drive to eliminate “vice” was, as Doezema’s historical account shows, closely related to broader campaigns for “moral reform”. William Coote in Britain in 1911 set up the National Vigilance Association, which campaigned on an aggressive attack on the sexual behaviour of young people. The drive against “white slavery” was a powerful legitimising and recruiting device, even though the increasingly repressive turn eventually led the campaigner Josephine Butler to resign her membership. So drives to tighten controls on female sexual behaviour, and indeed other female freedoms, have gone hand in hand with anti-prostitution drives – and have been very much directed by middle-class “reformers” against the Other – primarily working class, immigrant and those from ethnic minorities. That’s then, and now:

“During the white slavery era, restricting immigration was seen as a solution to the problem. Today’s policies differ little in form or intent. The potential for discrimination in anti-trafficking policies was recognized by the High Commissioner for Human Rights in her note to the Crime Commission: ‘ …anti-trafficking measures have been used in some situations to discriminate against women and other groups in a manner that amounts to a denial of their basic right to leave a country and to migrate legally. … anti-trafficking measures to protect ‘innocent’ women are being used to counter the supposed threat to society posed by ‘bad’ women.”


It’s telling that parallel negotiations saw the Trafficking Protocol being discussed in parallel with the Protocol against Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea and Air, which assumes that the knowing subjects it addresses are male – “trafficked women are assumed to be duped victims; while smuggled men are assumed to be knowing agents in their own movement.” And not only are women not granted agency, they are also grouped in with children – both lesser, vulnerable groups that are treated together.

This has profound implications for women’s opportunities. Doezema says “Article 9 of the Trafficking Protocol, concerning the prevention of trafficking, requires states to undertake campaigns to warn potenitial victims of the dangers of trafficking… these campaigns focus on warning women of the sexual dangers away from home and hearth. Videos and pamphlets directed at ‘vulnerable’ young women portray in graphic detail the likely fate of those who dare to migrate.” (p. 126)

I’ve known sex workers and former sex workers to become very, very angry when encountering abolitionists who say the only way forward is to end their industry. And Doezema explains the origins of that emotion very clearly when exploring the attitudes of CATW, the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women. “(Kathleen) Barry constructs the ‘injury’ of sex in prostitution in the following manner. Prostitution is considered always injurious behaviour because the sex in it is dehumanizing. However, the sex takes on this dehumanizing characteristic because it takes place within prostitution. In this neat, sealed construction there is no place for the experiences of sex workers who claim their work is not harmful or alienating. For Barry and CATW, the motion of a prostitute who is unharmed by her experience is an ontological impossibility: that which cannot be. This is the ultimate exercise of power: to deny sex workers their very existence, to insist that they cannot be…. a member of CATW recently characterized prostitutes as ’empty holes surrounded by flesh, waiting for a masculine deposit of sperm’. … What CATW feminists most want of sex workers is that they close their holes – shut their mouths, cross their legs – to prevent the taking in and the spilling out of substances and words they find noxious.” (p.137-8)

Much of this debate ultimately revolves around consent. Many anti-prostitution activists have argued that it is impossible for a sex worker to genuinely consent, due to the difference of power relationship between her and the client. Doezema backs Sullivan (which led me to this interesting article), in saying that this argument relies on a non-existent ideal – there are power relationships in every sexual and other contact between human beings. But as the author argues, this complexity is ignored not just in the debate about the legitimacy of prostitution as work, but also in the incredible tangles negotiators (and others) have got themselves into when trying to define the difference between “forced” and “voluntary” prostitution.

So how to get beyond this? This is the framework that Doezema offers, one that I wish she’d made more space to explore:
“These challenges are encountered in trying to replace, or reinscribe, the subject of the trafficking myth, the ‘suffering body’ of the female prostitute; to change the focus of our concern from the vulnerable subject (capable of being hurt) to the desiring subject whose primary requirement is not passively confirmed ‘rights’ but a political arena conducive to the practice of freedom. This replacement or reinscription will necessarily involve overcoming the voluntary/forced dichotomy, and the concept of consent implicated in it, which the myth of trafficking both depends on and propogates.” (p. 175)

She hints at some dangerous, potentially incendiary, approaches: “The move of taking sex work out of the free/forced framework may be able to incorporate the postured which are more familiar to us ‘insiders’ but have often sat uneasily with the version of politics we argue for to the outside world: the embracing, seeking, enjoyment of ‘transgression’ versus the ‘it’s a job like any other’ official line, and of the fault line between ‘sex work’ as work and ‘sex work’ as identity. It may be a move for sex work politics analogous to the queering of gay rights politics, with similar opportunities for political action.” (p. 176)

Practically, Doezema says, change is already happening, particularly through linkages with migrant organisations and links with groups representing workers in the informal economy. “It is through these processes of building solidarity, exploring commonalities and initiating joint political action that the spectre of the white slave will finally be laid to rest.”

That’s a big ask after more than a century in which she has been at the centre of debates around prostitution. But there is a sign of hope in that in the past three decades or so sex workers have started to find and be able to present an organised voice. They’re always dreadfully under-resourced, compared to the funds wielded by forces of moral conservatism, particularly churches, that seek to control women’s sexuality as a way of controlling society. But the sex workers’ advocates have powerful arguments – and arguments that are increasingly finding their way into print, as in this book. But we do need presentation of the arguments in a form that is accessible and clear, particularly directed to the many feminists who want to do the right thing for sex workers, but often don’t get the information they need to make an informed decision about their position.


  • feminist reader
    July 26, 2010 - 9:51 am | Permalink

    I am curious that you seem not to know about a book that has much readable, practical material about the issues described, which has sold steadily for 3 years and whose author blogs on these issues in a way most of us find extremely helpful several times a week. I’m talking about Laura Agustin’s Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry, from Zed Books. I can’t understand either why her Border Thinking appears nowhere on your long blog rolls if you claim to be interested in this subject!

  • July 26, 2010 - 12:16 pm | Permalink

    Hi Feminist reader,

    I know the book well and used it for a paper that I wrote for the Journal of Green Economics on sex work (PDF).

    I didn’t, however, know that the author blogged – will add it to my blog roll now.


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