First published on my Cliterati column on 1/2/14.
“If we want anything from outside like sweets, chewing gum or magazines or phone credit we have to give hand job or blow job to security,” reveals Molli Desi Devadasi. But she’s not talking about a prison. Molli, now a UK-based sex worker, was “rescued” by an anti-prostitution NGO while employed as a sex worker in India. She tweets the truth of what happens in these NGO-run rescue centres, and her revelations inspired the Twitter hashtag #notyourrescueproject which gained publicity recently.
“[I]f you want telephone credit you must suck NGO worker…often the women NGO workers call us bad names and tell us we are bad,” says Molli. Molli was “rescued” while visiting friends; when the police raided, she was taken along with them. Raids can involve beatings and sex workers’ collectives are trying to protect the rights of sex working women. Molli cannot reveal which NGO detained her as the NGO could come and find her, which she says would be dangerous for her.
But how do the detained girls manage to escape? “You can escape by bribing security during festival times to let you out so you can disappear in puja crowds and because all NGO bosses have holidays so no one will know exactly when you escape. NGO will then say you did not escape but your family collected you. You can agree to pay someone to pretend to be your auntie to collect you from NGO for money but all money has to be paid back with interest from sex work. You can complete sewing training and agree to marry but really you agree with one boy to give his family the NGO sewing machine and then you run away. You can jump from window but this is dangerous. Sometimes NGO boss will sell you to miscreant and then you have to pay back even more money…Sometimes after foreign visit the NGO will let you go once they have the foreign money and if their is no court case or FIR registered about you.” Molli escaped by hiding her phone, getting phone credit by sex and calling friends who gave money to security so they would let her out.
So the NGOs rape the sex working women and extort money from anyone trying to rescue them from detention. This begs the question of just how these NGOs got their hands on the girls in the first place. “When you are under safe custody order they give you to a rescue centre or you go into the prison so you can be kept as witness, so the original reason for rescue centre is actually to keep you to be witness. Now rescue centre says it wants to give you moral life so it trains you to sew, except we all know how to sew already ! Sometimes they have sewing machine training but often the machines are broken. There are bars on all windows and often we are not allowed to go in garden in case we escape. We have no lawyers so the NGO has complete power over us. At night we are locked inside and sometimes the night watch is drunk so if there was fire we would all die.” The detainees of this Mumbai rescue centre were also raped, “terrorised” and kept in unhygienic conditions.
This problem of “rescue” is global. Dr Laura Agustin, author of Sex At The Margins: Migration, Labour Markets And The Rescue Industry (she also has this blog), coined the term ‘rescue industry’ to describe the issue. There’s a lot of money to be made with sex workers’ bodies. The Irish anti-prostitution org Ruhama Agency is funded 14.4 million euros per year by the taxpayer (not counting funding from two other Government departments and of course public donations) despite helping just 241 women in its busiest year. The fact that the Ruhama Agency ran the infamous Magdalen laundries in which ‘fallen women’ were abused for years is obviously just a minor detail when you’re, like, rescuing women from ‘exploitation’. The rescue industry is lucrative, especially for larger organisations with an international reach; many are funded by US conservative Christian organisations.
“People who want to ‘rescue’ sex workers don’t fully understand, or are even interested in understanding why someone would choose sexwork as work,” says MxLaudanum, a genderfluid sex worker in the UK who works as a woman. “They have a hard time even acknowledging sexwork AS work, and feel that for someone to be a sexworker, that they must have fallen on very hard times. Whilst that might well be the case for some of us, it isn’t for all of us. Even in the former, sexwork grants freedom to many, gives the opportunity to get people out of financial dire straits, and often once they’re established, give them a really healthy financial status…it’s an added bonus to a ‘vanilla’ job, and for some it’s a full time thing.” And that reason, says Laudanum, “is nobody’s business but a sexworker’s own.”
Just to be clear, sex workers are not arguing that there are no negative points to sex work. Supporting sex workers’ rights doesn’t mean supporting the sex industry. Soldiers aren’t against world peace, Snowden wasn’t in love with his job at the NSA, and the kid behind the counter in McDonald’s isn’t a cheerleader for the catering industry. Sex workers want to be safe. That’s pretty much it. They campaign not for legalisation, but for decriminalisation and specifically for the New Zealand model of decriminalisation to keep them safe.
So rescue might be a waste of time, but is rescue really that bad for Western sex workers? “[A] sexworker’s life could be utterly destroyed…You’re taking away their money, their network of friends, family and clients, their self esteem, their status as a wage earning person, their ability to pay tax (yes, sexworkers pay tax, I do!), their ability to feed their family,” Laudanum alleges. And what would happen to her if she was rescued? “I would personally have no other income, because I am disabled in an invisible sense, and I am also a full time carer for a person who also cannot work. If someone were to ‘rescue’ me, they would take away my entire life’s stability.”
UK law defines people who migrate to the UK to find work in the sex industry as “trafficked” – even though they spent their own money to come here of their own free will. This wildly skews trafficking statistics as every migrant sex worker is classed as a trafficked person. As Laudanum says, “Many ‘rescuers’ like to assume that foreign sexworkers MUST have been abused and trafficked, and pay even less attention to them than white western sexworkers. The same can be said within other margins, for example transwomen, disabled people.” Just before the London Olympics, there was a spate of raids by police in the name of rescing victims of sex trafficking- despite the fact that police knew that there was little risk of sex trafficking, and as it happened sex trafficking did not explode because of the Olympics. Even the massive anti-trafficking operations Pentameter One and Two failed to find a single trafficking victim. But rescue in the UK is nothing compared to what happens elsewhere, where “rescued” women are detained against their will by rescue organisations and raped, as Molli reveals on Twitter. “I spoke on phone to rescue centre Girls in Kolkata and they say ‘Please let us go free’…the police finger all girls for best pussy,” she tweeted. Ms Laudanum’s view is that “when the people you’re supposed to be rescuing are raped, beaten and mentally tortured by the organisations you hired to strongarm them into submission, something is very wrong.”
But aren’t a lot of anti-prostitution women feminists? They feel that the sex and adult industries bolster the patriarchy by objectifying women. But Laudanum doesn’t think it’s as simple as that. “ANYONE who behaves the way anti-sexwork prohibitionists do towards sexworkers, is categorically NOT a feminist. The whole point of being a feminist (amongst MANY things), is to first and foremost defend and support a woman’s right to do what she pleases with her body, mind, and voice…If I want to sell sexual services, I will do so. If I want to fight for my right to sell my labour, I will…The anti-sexwork movement isn’t just non feminist, it’s MISOGYNISTIC.”
Sex working people of all genders face a lot of stigmatisation and marginalisation because of their careers. Molli reveals that “Sex work girls are treated different from orphan or other children as we are considered very bad influence.” Laudanum says “Our existence as happy, consensual and productive sexworkers, is denied…We highlight cases of abuse, harrassment and murder, and it is somehow our own fault because we are sexworkers…We have organisations who fight with us against the hatred of anti-sexwork prohibitionists, but you can be sure they’re not government funded.”
Outing is frequently used against sex workers. Journalist Eamon Dillon used covert surveillance equipment to secretly record a woman and outed her on YouTube as a sex worker, calling her “Scary Poppins”. Why? Because she had two other jobs as a babysitter and a cleaner, and he wanted to frame her as being dangerous to children just because one of her jobs happens to be sex work. Sex worker activist and editor of the Harlots Parlour blog Laura Lee was driven out of her town after being outed on social media. A child molester was accepted by the same community. Teacher Melissa Petro was fired for sex work in her past, while sex worker activist and designer Douglas Fox was outed in the press and found that the owner of the rag was on the panel when he complained. “One of the biggest fears many sexworkers have, is being outed if they’re working secretly,” explains Ms Laudanum. “We can lose everything, even our lives…Brianna Gardner, a twenty-two year old American woman of colour, was shot in the head in Chicago. Paige Clay, a twenty-three year old American transgender woman of colour, also shot in the head. Eva Maree, a twenty-seven year old Swedish woman, stabbed to death. Tania Nicol, Gemma Adams, Anneli Alderton, Annette Nicholls, Paula Clennell.”
“It is heartbreaking to learn that one of the biggest issues sexworkers face, is white middle class feminism,” MxLaudanum claims. With some aspects of feminism endangering them (the European Women’s Lobby want the harmful Nordic Model to be made Europe-wide, and many feminists support and campaign for the Nordic model and criminalisation) it’s no wonder that some sex working women and sex worker allies don’t want to identify as feminist (though some do). “If a woman is working as a sexworker, she can’t POSSIBLY enjoy it, and must need someone to come and rescue her from it…when the world listens to white middle class feminism the most, of whom routinely ignore ALL NON sexworker feminist margins, just exactly where do you think that leaves sexworker feminist margins?”
So, fellow non-sex workers, what can we do to actually support sex workers, instead of endangering them with our “help”?
“Listen to us, take us seriously, understand that we’re human beings, recognise that we are sexworkers for many reasons. Start here: http://www.nswp.org/ ”