The wall of silence on sexual exploitation

Controversy swirls around Amnesty International’s celebration of their new policy on prostitution, which calls for the decriminalization of pimps and johns. Pimps, johns, and sexists around the world are celebrating, which is telling. Punternet and the many other john forums out there give insights into what Amnesty have helped to legitimize: Stories of bruised and battered women, attempted assaults, underage girls being solicited, women being harassed by pimps during sex, women crying and dissociating during sex, women being choked and gagged until they vomit (which is deemed “good service”), young Indigenous and homeless women solicited with food, and how “third world poor is key” for punters.

None of this comes as a surprise to those who have long been fighting to speak out about that abuse. Rachel Moran is one such activist — a sex trade survivor who has worked for decades on behalf of survivors, speaking out about the industry. Moran was 15 years old when she found herself homeless on the streets of Dublin. After several months in state care facilities, she was forced to turn to the sex industry. Violence became an everyday reality and funerals of her friends and associates were a regular occurrence. Moran says she was not trafficked, but like the group of teen girls she worked with, she was exploited because she was vulnerable, and was abused and traumatized. According to trauma research, Moran’s experiences are the hallmark of the sex trade.

Although stories like Moran’s are less popular than the “empowered sex worker” narrative, hers is not an uncommon one. And the situation is even worse throughout the global south. It’s estimated that 70 per cent of single men travelling to Asia are going to seek out sex. Thai and Indian estimates show around 40 per cent of the Asian sex industry is made up of children. Research shows that market continues to grow as johns falsely believe younger girls are STI-free. Yet, to an outside observer following the media coverage of Amnesty’s “sex work” policy, one would be forgiven for thinking that sexual exploitation is the exception rather than the rule.

In this case, Amnesty International is backed by a stronghold of so-called feminist and progressive media who support decriminalized pimping and punting — activities inextricably linked to sexual exploitation and trafficking. The policy has been publicized as being about decriminalizing those in prostitution, but there is a vast difference between those working in the trade and third parties profiting from it. With an estimated 50-80 per cent of the sex trade being pimp-controlled in places like the US, their policy has serious ramifications for many countries.

Amnesty claims to understand that many in the sex trade work under coercion or force, but that hasn’t stopped them from rebranding pimps and brothel keepers as legitimate managers and businessmen. Amnesty claims this will stop the trade from going “underground” and ensure law enforcement can identify exploitation, but this has hardly been the case in locations like Germany where “aboveboard” liberalized legislation has backfired. Exploitation, trafficking, and violence have flourished in the legalized German industry. Amnesty’s policy goes against significant bodies of research as well as EU policy and it has been condemned by hundreds of anti-exploitation groups across the globe.

Amnesty argues their policy is based on their own research, but this process has been deemed questionable.

Simone is an Indigenous Australian woman who has worked in the sex industry and is director of a survivor-led non-profit organization called NORMAC (Nordic Model Australia Coalition). Simone says Amnesty’s study was carried out retrospectively with a selected sample. And while it was touted as “independent” there were links found between Amnesty advisors and brothel owners, uncovered during the Northern Ireland Committee of Justice hearing. Moreover, many groups listed as consultants, including SPACE International, say negligible consultation occurred and constituency challenges were ignored.

Amnesty concedes the policy was a “hugely complex” and difficult decision, yet they showed no concern for women like Simone and Moran when they clinked champagne glasses over their new policy “success.” Their celebrations come as a painful kick in the teeth to those who have fought for decades to have their stories heard. It would appear that Amnesty and their media allies have worked to silence victims of sexual exploitation, treating their abuse as a peripheral side note rather than a fundamental feature of the industry.

Speaking out about sexual abuse or exploitation usually takes victims years, often decades. Not only because of the pain and trauma of recounting their stories, but because survivors of sexual abuse often have to fight cover-ups and silencing tactics, especially when political or criminal connections are involved. For the more than 30 million people in situations of exploitation worldwide, the majority of whom are sexually exploited, there is a stark lack of concern from media, research shows. Surprisingly, this lack of concern too often comes from those who decorate themselves as progressive or feminist.

This is well evident in the Australian “feminist” media — Daily Life, for example, refuses to consider sexually exploited women’s perspectives on Amnesty’s policy. Instead they ran an article calling anyone opposed to the Amnesty policy “white, privileged, and wealthy.” Strange, given a UK man who runs a brothel claims he drafted the policy… And this isn’t the first time Daily Life has shown a tendency to ignore exploited women.

An article entitled, Would intervening with adult advertising actually stop sex trafficking?” examines the Backpage.com marketplace, which cancelled online payments for ads after it was discovered that a number of girls were sex trafficked through their site. The article avoids the issue of sex trafficking entirely, failing to mention what it involves, who it happens to, where it happens, and why.

In fact, in review of Daily Life’s publishing record, there are more than 400 articles dedicated to feminism, 400 articles related to Tony Abbott, and less than 10 articles on sexual exploitation or trafficking. Similarly, Australia’s feminist outfit Destroy the Joint, hosts hundreds of online discussions, yet has effectively avoided the issue of sexual exploitation entirely. On the rare occasion a survivor of sexual exploitation has spoken up, Destroy the Joint has touted them as “creepy.”

When a feminist publisher pitched Daily Life, suggesting an alternative perspective on Amnesty’s policy, including Simone’s voice, they refused. When the BBC invited Amnesty to debate activists, including Moran, they refused. “Listen to the sex workers”Daily Life advises. Presumably, just not the millions who are exploited… A twisted collusion appears to be occurring between the sexual exploiters of the world with so called liberal feminist organizations, all who seem to want sexual exploitation to remain out of sight and out of mind. Moran has long fought the misogynists who want her silenced. Now she must also fight the so-called progressives.

While the “feminist media” is blacking out stories of sexual exploitation, what chance do victims have of ever being heard? This wall of silence allows exploitation and abuse to flourish unnoticed and unabated. If Amnesty and their supporters truly want to bring exploitation out from underground, they need to start by listening to the victims they have been long avoiding.

Laura McNally is a psychologist, researcher, author and PhD candidate. Her doctoral research examines the political and social implications of global corporate social responsibility. She is the chair of the Australian branch of Endangered Bodies and provides social commentary on issues related to gender inequality.

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