We are excited to have the following guest post from Georgina Perry. Georgina has been the service manager for Open Doors, a clinical, case management and outreach service for sex workers in City & Hackney, Newham and Tower Hamlets in the UK since 2003. Open Doors is a multi-disciplinary team of development and clinical practitioners, dedicated to improving the health and wellbeing of street and off street sex workers in East London.
Georgina has worked in the field of community health development since the early 90s, developing services for a range of ‘at risk’ populations in the UK and internationally. She has worked as a consultant for numerous humanitarian and development NGOs combining service development, research and public health skills to promote access to health and social care services for the most marginalised.
For the last three years I’ve been living in something of a parallel universe. A strange and often frustrating experience in which I have been relegated from a professional considered knowledgeable in her field, to a noisy troublemaker, determined to rail against received wisdom. I’ve had the data I assiduously collect, analyse and make public quoted back to me by law enforcement agencies, the media and NGOs but with clumsy interpretations skewed to strengthen a particular rhetoric, newspaper story or bid for funding and presented in such a way as to disregard the detailed analysis we provided of our service users, their demographic and how, where and why they work in the sex industry in London.
Indeed, as the 2012 London Olympics drew inexorably towards us, the whole of the UK suddenly became an expert on my job. It was a fascinating, frustrating and illuminating experience. One that has left me cynical and at times speechless at the sheer effrontery of those who stood to gain from talking up a story that, put simply, is not, has not and is unlikely to ever be a reality.
But let me go back a stage and give you some context. The service I run is based in the East End of London. We work across three of the Olympic host boroughs and offer clinical, case management and outreach support to sex workers who live and work here. Every year we support over 1000 sex workers (mostly women, some men and transgender). Our service exists because although in the UK it is not illegal for adults to consensually transact sex, virtually every action that supports this activity (advertising, working with other sex workers, organising customers, money or premises) puts people in the sex industry on the wrong side of the law and results in a group of individuals, who are often unsure of their rights, criminalised by the work they do and stigmatized by the services that should be supporting them.
By providing free and confidential access to health care, advocacy and support, we are able to assist people in the sex industry when they need us to do so. We offer a service where sex workers do not face moral judgements or anti-prostitution ideology and where they know that they will have a team working hard on their behalf to navigate the increasingly complex legislative rules on access to health care and social support in London. Between the 10 members of our multi-disciplinary team we have over a century and a half of experience in this type of clinical and advocacy role. There is no circumstance or situation that we have not been required to manage, and this includes working with women who have been trafficked for sexual exploitation.
And so when, 3 years ago, the 2012 Olympic juggernaut began rolling into town and the first spate of meetings were organised to agree on some of the potential risk factors associated with the Games, it became apparent that the most eager to hitch their wagons to the charabanc were the anti-trafficking NGOs. At this stage, there was still a belief that the Olympic project could be a cash cow and that whence it came, resources would follow. Those early meetings included a veritable smorgasbord of charities, media representatives and law enforcement units, all determinedly talking up the ‘inevitable’ spike in forced prostitution and sex trafficking that was going to happen as the Olympic vehicle lumbered into the East end. Each representative would speak at length on how ‘without a clear anti-prostitution strategy, specialist units, targeted media campaigns and trained experts on standby to rescue and rehabilitate’ London 2012 would be shamed by the legion of sex slaves brought to the capital to service the tide of rampant sports fans hell-bent on buying sexual services during the summer of 2012.
This was all news to me.
At the beginning I was invited to the meetings. I listened, open mouthed to the stories recounted of dozens of sex workers, chained to radiators, drugged into submission and sold into the hidden underbelly of the East London vice scene, and I thought – ‘But how could we be missing them?’
Of course we had for years met and worked with women whose situation would fall under the Palermo Protocol definition of trafficking for sexual exploitation. But in the past decade, so much excellent academic and field work has been produced about this ‘phenomena’ that, coupled with my own experience of running services internationally and in the UK, the hysterical picture being painted during those meetings was at complete odds with the more nuanced understanding held by those of us working with sex workers and trafficked individuals.
And so I used to speak up. I would describe what we saw and who we worked with. I would talk about the numbers of trafficked women we supported (usually from 5 to 10 a year), the number of sex workers who were not trafficked (the majority) and the kind of support that they required of us. I would make the point that to conflate trafficking with sex work did nothing to help either the genuine victims of trafficking or support people in the sex industry who face constant legal challenges and social stigma. I would argue that far from helping victims of trafficking, the actions proposed at these meetings would drive the sex industry away from mainstream support services, preventing people from seeking help unless they were ‘rescued’ and that as a result we would see increased violence against sex workers and impunity for those who perpetrated that violence.
Those of us working in the field called for a proportionate response in terms of resources directed at these endeavours, media attention paid and experiences reflected upon – otherwise a media circus, hungry for any story it could attach to the 2012 Games would result in licentious journalism; disregarding other forms of human trafficking and perpetuating sexual and racial stereotypes around prostitution.
These meetings were usually split three ways: those of us who day in, day out, worked within the sex industry and called for an evidence base to support whatever actions were to be taken; those who were concerned about addressing vulnerability and exploitation, but felt that the case of the 2012 Olympics was probably being overstated; and those whose ideology and political, financial and organisational futures were vested in the trafficking and ‘increased prostitution’ rhetoric they espoused.
Although I continued to be invited to the meetings and made numerous requests to present (all of which were ignored), the process became exhausting and time consuming. At one meeting where an impassioned presentation described the expected influx of sex workers and trafficked individuals for the Olympic Games as ‘akin to the movement of people in war zones’ I realised that to challenge the prevailing mindset of those involved would be for them to accept that the emperor wore no clothes; that the 2012 sex trafficking hysteria had so captured the imagination of the media, politicians, public and law enforcers that this particular Hollywood movie had to be played out – even if it was eventually to empty seats.
In the meantime, life in London continued. A specialist police unit was awarded £600K to focus on finding and rescuing victims of sex trafficking. Included in their role was the training and support of local borough police units to increase the numbers of brothel closures. In 2010, the implementation of the UK Crime and Policing Act plus the brothel closures in the Olympic host boroughs meant that the disruption for sex workers in London had become intolerable. Of course, the sex industry didn’t go away. Instead, it (as we knew it would) simply stopped contacting services to support them. Getting access into flats and saunas for sex worker support services became more and more difficult. And worse, when women were robbed, or beaten, or raped by criminals, they were too frightened of the police’s reaction to them as sex workers that these serious and vicious crimes went unreported.
A two-tier notion of victimhood became apparent in London. A ‘real’ victim was one who was trafficked or involved in prostitution against her will; she would accept being rescued and was willing to cooperate with the police or anti-trafficking agencies. A criminal was a prostitute who, regardless of the law and prevailing moral attitudes, continued to sell sex and came to the attention of the police if she tried to report a crime against her, resulting (more often than not) in the examination of her behaviour, finances and relationships to such an extent that to report a crime – however serious– was simply too much of a risk.
Over time at the prostitution/trafficking meetings we saw the rhetoric change from the description of measures aimed at ‘anti-trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation’ to ‘anti-prostitution’. And as the recession bit deeper and local authorities and funders wanted a clear bang for their buck –and how much more impact can you get than the bonafide rescue of a trafficking victim? – we began to see a divergence of funding from services aimed at working within the sex industry to challenge inequalities and provide treatment care and support to initiatives aimed solely at ‘rescuing’ women forced into prostitution.
Yet, regardless of freedom of information requests made to the police and anti trafficking agencies, the reality of quantifying the numbers of sex trafficking victims linked to the Olympic Games proved to be increasingly difficult. All we could do was continue to release our data – data that demonstrated a decreased number of sex workers in contact with services; data that did not show any increase whatsoever in numbers of women coming to London to sell sex during the Olympic period, or numbers of women trafficked for the same. But by this time, the juggernaut had nowhere else to go but forward. Trafficking, Prostitution and the London Olympics became the hot topic for conferences, media articles and reports. Each one failing to conclude anything in terms of absolute numbers and equally failing to address the collateral damage that was being perpetrated on the sex workers of London; nevertheless, they continued to reiterate that just because there was no proof, this didn’t mean it wasn’t happening and so pre-2012 actions could and should be justified.
Doggedly, we continued to reiterate our calls for evidence, continuously highlighting the parallel issues arising from ongoing and poorly thought through police action, and describing what services on the ground were actually seeing.
Then, something happened that changed the whole landscape completely; something so obvious that, when it happened, the impact felt on the hyperbole, hysteria and rumour surrounding the sex trafficking debate was palpable. The key organisation driving the agenda for years using its powerful media influences, lobbying its cabal of influential politicians and applying its considerable institutional resources to promote its anti-prostitution agenda through its anti-trafficking activity, lost its main source of government funding. And suddenly, the momentum was lost. Without the fuel of cash to drive ideology and rhetoric, and in the face of clear evidence of the damage faced by people in the sex industry, the ‘experts’ began to drift away; there were fewer media stories, less bellowing about the links between the Olympics and prostitution. In fact, by the autumn of 2011, the London Metropolitan police even released the following statement:
In preparation for the Olympics the TPU [Trafficking and Prostitution Unit] has created a dedicated team funded by the Migration Impact Fund (Government Funding) to combat all areas of trafficking and prostitution on the five Olympic Boroughs. The team is comprised of SCD9 funded officers and three fully funded posts from the Migration Impact Fund. [The Met unit SCD9 human exploitation and organised crime command, created in April 2010, is responsible for investigating trafficking. In 2010 – 2011 the SCD9 budget is £7.3m] The funding for these three officer posts will cease in July 2012. This team works closely with TP BOCUS to tackle both on and off street prostitution and continues to advise in planning and delivering covert solutions to tackle the criminality. The intelligence currently held does not support any increase in prostitution in the Olympic Boroughs and actually shows a decrease in some locations. The TPU are continually monitoring this situation.
Specialist Crime Directorate 9: update report
Date: 13 October 2011
Of course, no one apologised. There were no salacious media headlines stating ‘How the London 2012 Olympics is not responsible for an increase in either prostitution or sex trafficking’. No one made any attempt to explain where the hysteria and the rhetoric had come from, or why. But by the end of 2011 it had simply ebbed away. The non-media story that had become a story, and a cause no less, had suddenly stopped piquing the collective media imagination, and was instead replaced by stories relating to ‘Olympic brothel closures’, sex worker safety and the social cleansing of host boroughs.
And so, as the last of the celebratory fireworks fade into a late summer sky and London waves goodbye to the Olympic family, where does this leave us?
I’d say that we are currently picking up the pieces, and that it is going to take us a long time to restore sex worker faith in institutional support. Where once the relationship between sex worker services and clients was good, it is now broken. We are now viewed with suspicion as ‘do-gooders or enforcers’. Where once sex workers may have felt it possible to report crimes against them to the police, there is now a dangerous and distrustful environment in London with crimes going unreported for fear of unwanted repercussions.
The Olympics and sex trafficking discourse was simplistic. It created a ‘mythology’ and set of ‘magic bullets’ that too many people, without question, bought into. During the scramble for resources in recession-hit UK, ‘experts’ were flown around the world and resources were apportioned towards some quite exceptional hand-wringing and draconian social cleansing. It is likely that certain individuals ensured contracts as advisors for future mega-sporting events, and it was evident that others hoped for post-Olympic honours.
But did any of this help genuine victims of trafficking? I would argue not. New data from the organisation that was awarded the National Referral Mechanism contract to support victims of trafficking has provided an opportunity to discuss where and how individuals come into contact with support services. The brothel closures that were deemed so important to the success of anti-trafficking measures in London have little impact when most women trafficked for sexual exploitation are sold through closed community networks and never end up in the brothels where the majority of sex work is conducted. This information is readily available, and has been for some years, and yet, like all evidence surrounding this episode, was resolutely ignored because it did not fit the inherent anti-prostitution agenda.
Human trafficking is too serious to become cynical about. But make it into an ideological and political football and the end result can be exactly that. Let’s hope that the analysis of London 2012 means that the same mistakes are not replicated elsewhere in the world. Because if memories are short, rhetoric long and budgets forthcoming, all I can say is…
‘Rio – you have been warned!’
This article is an excerpt taken from a paper to be presented at the October 2012 ‘City Health Conference’ to be held in London, UK.www.cityhealth.org.uk