Demand: Clients who want to know who’s free

I receive requests from clients asking how they can distinguish between coerced or trafficked sex workers and those more or less freely on the game. Given all the anti-demand and hate-men projects around, it’s a fair question. And, obviously, sensible clients don’t want to be told to just ask the sex workers themselves. Some say that they have met women they believed worked voluntarily, but afterwards it turned out they had been forced into it.

It’s easy to snicker at re-education projects like Johns’ Schools and say what seems obvious, which is that anyone who gets picked up while negotiating with a worker in the street probably just turns to another area of the sex industry, such as the Internet or indoor venues like massage parlours. And I don’t want to exaggerate, as some might, the significance of clients who help rescue people in trouble, but I did write about this once long ago: They Speak, but Who Listens?

The UK’s Home Secretary has proposed legislation not criminalising all buying of sex – the so-called Swedish Model – but only the buying of services from people ‘controlled for another’s gain’, which I wrote about in the Guardian recently in The Shadowy World of Sex Across Borders. And which, I learned yesterday in Copenhagen, is the Finnish Model.

In this context, I would like to come up with some advice to clients. I’m wondering what other working people advise, since I tend to think that any client genuinely worried about this should stop paying human beings for sex and move onto some other form of commercial pleasure. Why? Because, as I write ad infinitum, it is vexingly difficult to distinguish levels of will and choice, except at the extremes of the continuum where pure freedom and pure slavery supposedly exist.

And it is perfectly true that sex workers may lie about or exaggerate their happiness in their work in order to get custom, or be afraid of telling anyone the truth, since that might lead them into trouble if they are found out.

So what do people think?

Laura Agustín

33 Responses

  1. I have to say that I don’t pay much head to non workers’ ideas about how our business ought to be conducted because you aren’t having to avail yourselves to these hurdles/barriers. And many of us have already dealt with these issues and won’t be broadcasting what we do because we don’t have the right to equal protection.

  2. Laura wrote: “I’m wondering what other working people advise, since I tend to think that any client genuinely worried about this should stop paying human beings for sex and move onto some other form of commercial pleasure. Why? Because, as I write ad infinitum, it is vexingly difficult to distinguish levels of will and choice, except at the extremes of the continuum where pure freedom and pure slavery supposedly exist.”

    I have some problems with this quote for a few reasons. First, you suggested that clients with concerns about sex industry workers being forced or coerced should move onto some other form of commerical pleasure, yet there are also people who are forced and coerced in to nonsexual commercial industries. In terms of the comments of it being difficult to distinguish between levels of will and choice, I think that’s true even outside of prostitution. Any choices we make, we do so under the circumstances and conditions we’re in. That’s true inside and outside of prostitution.
    In terms of how can clients tell if a worker is coerced or forced, or working consensually, I think the best thing is for them to conduct themselves in a way that makes the worker feel comfortable opening up to them, not just come flat out and ask this because if a somebody is forced, they won’t necessarily come flat out and say this if they aren’t comfortable with the client. Also, this could be offensive to consensual sex workers if the client just automatically assumes s/he si forced. If prostitution were decriminalized, then clients and other sex workers would be able to report cases that they have reason to suspect could be forced prostitution without fear of incriminating themselves and sex workers would no longer have to flee persecution and thus be more vulnerable to traffickers. So, if clients are serious about fighting forced labor in the sex industry, I think it is important to join in the fight to decriminalize prostitution.

  3. I’m a bit confused. Are you looking for advise on how to suggest to a client that a worker might be one who is coerced into the work?

  4. sexworkeradvocate wrote: “So, if clients are serious about fighting forced labor in the sex industry, I think it is important to join in the fight to decriminalize prostitution.” Yeah, absolutely this ought to be their position but we can see from prop k that it was not their position. They are predominately concerned about maintaining theirs as well as the other third party boss structures of which anything besides decrim supports.

  5. I think this is a very helpful post Laura, thank you.

    I think clients can seek out the most desirable partner the same ways that we seek out the most desirable clients- seek references and referrals. There are many many women working currently who are vocal about rights and safety. They’re visible, they’re the people that clients who are inclined to care should be seeking out.

    And as far as clients actually doing something to fight coerced sex, I have to agree with other commenters that they need to be contributing to our organizing efforts. They need to be supporting our efforts to be vocal in these trafficking/coercion debates. And soon they’re gonna have to come out of the closet, just like we are having to do.

  6. Perhaps I should have clarified that I am not talking solely about the United States. In the UK, Sweden and many or most other countries, individuals working on their own are not prohibited from selling sex. This can add up to the kind of persecution you are familiar with here, however, when they work for an agency or club, but their own work can be called decriminalised. Therefore buying from that individual is also legal.

    The current abolitionist move around the world is to criminalise the buying of sex (even when the selling is legal, which I know sounds mad). This legislation is being debated in many countries, and as a matter of fact was advocated by on 2 December in a Huffington Post article called Break the Chains of Modern Slavery: End Demand.

    So the movement to stop prostitution by ‘ending demand’ might well become more active or at least more visible in the US. I think it will, as the trafficking scare increases and trafficked women are more and more often called slaves.

    The movement amongst some clients is to ask people like me and others in the sex workers’ rights movement for advice on how to distinguish between free and forced workers. Presumably some of them are interested in activism and some not. Does that make it clearer, Alexa?

  7. The whole idea that clients are now concerned with the age and level of consent of the person they hire for sex is one of the most ridiculous and disingenuous statements I’ve ever heard. This has never been their main concern nor will it ever be. For clients or anyone else to looking to a ‘movement’ of people who don’t have full access to negotiate in any capacity our own labor and own safe work condition, is an insult to injury. I mean come on, the movement is predominately made up of women who’s non sex worker counter parts in America make 76 cents on the dollar. What have clients of prostitutes done to right that wrong in America let alone across the globe? The question is a completely ruse regardless of whose asking it. Just like the whole trafficking discourse. And those of us in the industry recognize that. So now sting operations will include ‘underaged prostitutes’ decoys to get more convictions off of CL to fund poverty pimp pet projects. BFD. Gees, no wonder its so hard to get workers involved in the ‘movement’.

  8. The question is valid because clients are human beings. They are not “other.” They do care about the well-being of the person they’re with because most of them are normal people.

    I’d like to think that ALL of my clients would be horrified if they were paying someone who was coerced. Granted, they’re middle-class men — but that is a large segment of the market in the US (okay, due to the recession, maybe not as large as it was a short time ago). Most of these men aren’t even comfortable dealing with an agency and don’t like girls who are pimped. Few of the men I saw in the brothel were aware that the brothel took 50% (those who found out didn’t really like it — they wanted to pay ME, not an establishment).

    They’re also far more paranoid than most of the sex workers they see and realize that reporting something truly bad would put them in a spotlight they don’t want (I’ve seen this in action). So again, it comes down to changing the laws or creating an anonymous tipline for clients.

    I do think we need to educate clients on the movement. Fighting for our rights protects theirs too. And even if they don’t want to be “out” they can certainly support the movement with money, fostering important connections (like political or legal introductions) or donations of services (like a client-owned print shop).

    XX

  9. My experience is that agencies are the one’s who are looking at workers’ IDs. I wouldn’t be supporting the idea that clients have access to workers IDs without equal protection in place. Even the San Francisco massage permitting process recognized that putting workers real names on display for all to see would put those workers at risk and didn’t mandate that.

    If a client said something about all the money going to me when he found me in a whore house, I’d know that he’s completely full of it. We say whatever we need to say to get the money out of them: I go to school, I support my whole 12 person family with the money you are giving me…bla bla bla. And they say whatever they need to say to get the best service; Your pictures don’t do you justice…bla bla bla.
    Also, my direct experience is that the clients who act concern about coercion are the same one’s who are always hustling down the price, force the time constraints, ask for additional services they didn’t pay for and try to get out of using the safety device. And the workers who are so concerned about ‘trafficking’ are the ones who’ll exchange body fluids and take less money. I will not be spending my time changing laws to accommodate the client’s ability to call the cops on workers with an anonymous tip line. What if the clients doesn’t like our service or we decided not to service him and decided to drop a dime on us? We can see how well the SF department of public health’s anonymous hotline has worked for workers. Very few have called over the years. And it didn’t involve changing a law to create it. And we can see from the lack of client support for prop k, that clients are comfortable in their third party boss position and limiting work options for workers as in further criminalizing agencies, benefits the clients access to unprotected services for less money. Hello.

  10. Thanks for opening this discussion, Laura. I was interviewing some folks while I was in Europe about their work on trafficking issues in an attempt to bring a more complex analysis to both the sex worker rights movement as well as the trafficking situation (and discussed your book on several occasions)…

    Anyway, one of the folks I interviewed talked about some NGO’s who worked with clients in an attempt to find trafficking situations. At first, this seemed like another good argument for decriminalization – that it would make it easier for people to support folks in really bad exploitative situations.

    However, she described situations where clients were able to then get together and share information about the cheapest, the youngest, workers they could find. I could see this happening, in the annoying way in which certain message boards do facilitate and support some poor client behavior.

    On the other hand, these are not all clients. I also have really great clients who are concerned about the safety and happiness of workers. And I occasionally get questions about how to recognize/deal with coercive situations…clearly, like in all populations, there some people who genuinely care about the issue, and who also want to know the difference between my situation and coercive situations.

    I think its good that we think of ways to strategize with our clients, because, it seems clear to me that the Swedish model, or the U.S.’s John Schools are creating stressed out (and therefore less safe clients). And we need to be able to make really clear points about why this is so…just as we need to engage and work as allies against all situations of exploitation (such as debt bondage, as well as discriminatory immigration laws).

  11. That’s a really tough question about how to know who is working consensually and who isn’t because there are not just a simple ‘laundry list’ of characteristics that clients can rely on to distinguish between who is working consensually and who isn’t. All I know is that the criminalization of prostitution encourages nonconsensual and exploitative conditions and makes it harder to report these. I realize that there are clients who have reported cases of nonconsensual prostitution, but clients may be less likely to report such cases if they could be arrested or subject to public shame campaigns, such as their identities being posted online, in newspapers, or on billboards.

  12. I agree with SWA, especially about the clients hesitation in reporting suspected cases of coerced prostitution.

    From a practical perspective, I suspect one thing that might tip a client off would be a workers’ inability to speak English (or whatever the native language is where the client happens to be), at least to some degree. If you can’t speak the local language, it’d be hard to truly understand what you’re getting yourself (broadly spoken) into. Certainly not a positive indicator, but perhaps indicative of someone not freely participating. With the prevalence of trafficking and the likelihood that the trafficked person is from another country (at least, here in the U.S. and probably other western countries).

    Other signs might include significant bruising, a worker who appears to be looking over her shoulder continuously, or someone expressing visible distress with the work.

  13. Since most of us here are active sex workers, educating our clients about the benefits of supporting sex worker rights is always a step in the right direction. It’s something I need to do more of too.

    After education/awareness, it’s imperative to change the laws to allow anonymous reporting of possible abusive situations. The laws currently in place do not help the real victims and they don’t aid anyone concerned about possible victims. No one seems to be in a big hurry to change that, though.

    As for the whole discussion-board mentality — don’t get me started! Yeah, it’s a segment of the market — bigger in some cities than others. My current answer is to make sure girls have to the tools to not have to deal with this mindset (as much as possible).

    Decrim certainly won’t chase these men away but it certainly would make it easier for girls to not have to rely on them for business. I have seen these boards fostering crime and coercion and because of the current laws — no one goes to the police. To me, successfully changing the laws would make SUCH a difference in so many ways.

    XX

  14. Another risk to reporting suspected cases of nonconsensual prostitution under the criminalization of prostitution is that if it turns out the person is working in the business consensually, s/he would be outed to law enforcement and could be arrested. If the person has been trafficked across international borders, this person could still be deported if s/he refuses to testify and the trafficker(s). Thus, perhaps community based approaches could be better in some ways than going to law enforcement. Juhu Thurkal, a lawyer and former excutive director of the Sex Workers Project in New York, wrote that other sex workers are doing more to help people who are trafficked than the law enforcement raids are. It’s posted online in an OSI report.

  15. Sorry for the typo. I meant to say that if a person has been trafficked across international borders, this person would still be deported if s/he refuses to testify against the trafficker(s).

  16. Racially profiling people around their ‘apparent ability to speak English’ is not a rights based approach to address the clients’ sudden concern to identify coercion because of an impending change in the laws that will liable them for something beyond their control. The ‘movements’ saying; ‘that only rights can correct the wrongs’, has to be the approach, not this move to become further involved in the nanny state of the dominate culture of which the clients have benefited in creating and maintaining.
    Asking the wrong question will get you the wrong answer. Misidentifying the problem has consistently been the ‘movements’ main problem. We’d be better off spending our time transmuting our own classist, racist slave owner mentality at this point by educating ourselves on how to apply the labor/worker rights approach to our situation so we have some thing to offer clients and other workers. The later being the one’s who have limited access to their labor regardless of our country of origin and/or our documentation status. Clients aren’t having their labor rights and access to equal protection under the systematically undermined by the current laws like we are. We can’t give something we don’t have. Besides, clients have yet to take action and fully exercise their legal rights to challenge the constitutionality, civil and human rights violations that they submit themselves to by participating in the scheme of the diversion programs. I found it interesting that only men who’ve been thru these schemes, here in San Francisco, were the ones to partake of the ‘clean slate’ programs offered by the state of California to have their records expunged, not the workers.

  17. Additionally, this whole business of making the customers responsible to for identifying who’s coerced or controlled by another when workers don’t even have the right or responsibility to hire support staff is oppressors of prostitution; a primarily womens way of working, current attempt to ensure that poor conditions prevail in the sex industry.

  18. And another thing, clients ought to be spending their time opposing these proposed bad laws from a workers rights approach instead of wasting time asking the wrong questions that only address protecting their own ass.

  19. Amongst the millions of clients there is diversity too. Not all are idiots, creeps or pawns of the state. Some are worried about taking their pleasure in the wrong place, and ask about it, and that is valid. Although, as I originally said, I tend to think there is no formula that will guarantee them a guilt- or anxiety-free experience.

    Level of language and culture skills will not indicate who has travelled against their will. Migrants who didn’t know where they would end up until the last minute don’t learn languages ahead of time: they might get a good opportunity in the UK but it might be France or Greece. A piece I wrote some time ago about this different kind of cosmopolitanism might be enlightening: http://www.nodo50.org/Laura_Agustin/leaving-home-for-sex

    Thanks for all the responses!

    Laura Agustín

  20. I’m really appreciating the comments from those who are actually trying to have a productive conversation about this. Thank you!

    All sorts of different men are clients. One of the most consistent things I’ve seen in my clients is that they don’t want to be with anybody who doesn’t actually want to be there. Male desire is not inherently evil or oppressive. Those who pay for honest services are actually more reasonable than those who expect it for free IMO. They tend to want to know that they are helping somebody out, that they are providing care to me as mush as I am providing care to them- and they are!

    Helping pay off a travel debt or contract debt may be one form of providing care. People are making consensual agreements to travel for sex work all over the globe. What I’ve learned from these people’s stories is that the labor conditions/civil status and economic manipulation are far more problematic than any of the actual sex work.

    Clients need to understand this. There are a number f vulnerable points that we have when we are criminals, being classified as an illegal worker only compounds the problems. If clients are truly concerned about forced labor, they have to look at it as a labor issue across many industries, not just the sex industry. Where do they buy their groceries, have their cleaning done, buy their clothes, etc.

    The sex industry carries far more of the labor exploitation weight than most consumers (including SW’s) want to acknowledge.

  21. Karly, I see on the swop-usa website there was an event called Sweet School for Johns . How was that, anything related there? Laura

  22. Hi Laura,

    I can’t speak from experience, I wasn’t involved and have never attended any of the mock School for Johns. It seems, in concept, like a fantastic idea- a school that teaches a man how to be a good client and get exactly what he wants for his money without anybody having to be compromised.

    My impression about the actual logistics of organizing is that this is not a group of people who are anxious to sit in a room together and have these conversations. It’s a private matter and privacy is indeed one of the services that the financial transaction most serves IMO. So I think it was difficult for them to get that project off the ground.

    Perhaps a handbook for clients that can be accessed privately on the web would be most beneficial. Mark Perkel did something like this a few years back. It needs to be updated and given more perspective from workers, but it’s a good place to start. I think he may welcome inquiries and would certainly give permission to use the material if he were asked nicely and given proper credit:

    http://sex.perkel.com/escort/index.htm

    Any other links to similar resources that people are aware of?

    Laura, this is a subject that as a worker has been of interest to me for a few years. I’d be interested in contributing to any projects or solutions that are developed as a result of your inquiries. Please feel free to contact me directly. feminist.escort [at] gmail.com

  23. I was not referring to the original schools but the one run by Swop-usa a couple of months ago:
    http://www.schoolforjohns.com/

  24. Yes, that’s what I was referring to. They did it once in 2007 and a handful of people showed up. SW’s did panels on etiquette for finding and booking a session, a lawyer spoke on legal issues. They tried again earlier this year but I think there wasn’t very good turn out. Which is why an online resource would be better than in-person trainings.

  25. The website says it was to be held Saturday, September 20th, 2008, 11 am- 4 PM

    I have asked Carol L about it.

  26. I hate to be the one to tell you this, but men who buy sex don’t give a rat’s ass whether you are trafficked or not. In fact, a fragile, scared, underage (or barely legal) girl is way hotter than some militant middle-aged wrinkle queen yelling about her sex worker rights. You all are kidding yourselves. The whole question of ethics is thrown out the window when one person buys access to another person’s body. You can tell yourself you are negotiating. You can tell yourself that you’ve finally met a compassionate john. Whatever you need to tell yourself is fine with me. But frankly, we just want to use your body, get off, and move on. We don’t care how you got there or where you are going after. We just don’t want to get caught. Wake up.

  27. How do you know buddyg? What makes you such an expert that you can come on here and start speaking for all clients and treating us like we’re totally naive? Your comments seem like trolling.

  28. At first I thought Buddyg was a hobbyist, now I’m not so sure. The wording sounds very simliar to some rad-fem trolls we’ve had.

    Who knows? Either way, Buddy does not represent all points of view — whether really a client or not.

    XX

  29. My first thought was also that he sounds like a she – I suppose because the shape of the ideas is, as you say, so familiar from the anti-prostitute literature.

  30. A scared, underaged girl would only appeal to sickos, Buddy. So I guess that’s what you are if you think that’s “hot”. You’re probably a rad-fem troll, though.

  31. “In fact, a fragile, scared, underage (or barely legal) girl is way hotter than some militant middle-aged wrinkle queen yelling about her sex worker rights.”

    I have found that the more vocal and visible I am about rights advocacy the more enthusiastic my clients are to support projects that I care about.

    This idea that a woman must be viewed as young/innocent/helpless in the context of sex is irrational. Plenty of confident, mature women have fantastic sex lives both professionally and personally.

    The best way for women, whether sex workers or not, to stay safe and healthy is to be able to avoid assholes like buddyg by getting their financial and sexual needs met elsewhere by men and women who are not misogynist.

  32. What I find so interesting is the pathology revealed by the offender’s comments. She locates herself as male and a male client of prostitutes of which she uses as a platform to project violence against women workers and makes demeaning statement to women who want their rights. Is there’s a name for this disorder?

  33. Karly,

    As a friend of mine says “True that!”

    Maxine,

    Excellent! You’ve put a big smile on my face. A pathological disorder indeed.

    XX

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: