We at Associazione Iroko were thrilled to welcome guests including Rachel Moran, Ingeborg Kraus, Blessing Okoedion and Julie Bindel to Rome on 27th and 28th May for the International Conference on the sex industry and human trafficking, which we organised alongside Resistenza Femminista, UDI Napoli, Salute Donna and Differenza Donna.
We are not newcomers to this conversation, but the ability of these speakers to ignite passion and inspire us to action never fails to amaze us. We cannot underestimate the power of a knowledgeable, empathetic and eloquent speaker. We were lucky to have various different perspectives represented among our guests – from survivors of prostitution and human trafficking, to professional trauma counsellors and international authors – which offer a rounded picture of this damaging industry.
There is no denying the link between the sex trade and human trafficking; the latter exists in large part to ‘feed’ the former, among other industries.
Blessing Okoedion arrived in Italy in 2013. Having a computer technology degree, she was working in a computer repairs shop in Nigeria when a woman offered her the opportunity to go and do the same work in Europe. ‘Why not?’, she asked herself. A 26-year-old from Benin City, she found herself on the streets in Italy. “I was desperate. I realised that I had ended up in the hands of traffickers: I couldn’t use my mobile phone, I had to wear the clothes they told me to, I had become their slave, an object. They told me I would get used to this life of slavery. I listened to the desperate stories of many women on the street and I said to myself, ‘how have you ended up here? This wasn’t the life you wanted!’” Blessing’s hell was finally over when she decided to report her exploiters and start a new life in the safe house she was granted. Along with all of the speakers at the convention, Blessing’s story serves to reiterate the fact that none of the women and girls who are on the street choose to go into prostitution. Nobody wants to become an object used to service a customer.
A key point made by Julie Bindel in her speech at the Chamber of Deputies in the Italian Parliament is that by fighting to abolish prostitution, we are automatically helping tackle the problem of human trafficking. Given that the sex trade is a multi-billion dollar industry, we must deal with the demand side in order to effectively stem the supply in the long term.
We are all familiar with the characterisation of prostitution as the oldest profession in the world. This seems to be a popular response when people are confronted with the idea of the abolition of prostitution, the elimination of the sex trade altogether – they think it’s not possible. They want to continue to promote the myth that prostitution is simply inevitable because it has always existed. That is definitely not true. Prostitution is not inevitable. As pointed out by Bindel, there are many troubling issues that exist and have always existed in society, but that we are much more hopeful about eliminating. Poverty. Child abuse. Rape. Domestic violence. We do not talk about simply reducing the harm of these things. We talk about ending them. We see that as a realistic and worthwhile goal. So why, then, is the idea of legalisation (or decriminalisation – the other side of the same coin) so popular when it comes to prostitution? The thing that sets prostitution apart from these other abuses in society is the money involved. There are huge vested interests in this industry’s survival. But we also hear talk of advantages for women – better healthcare and protection, more professional autonomy and less stigma.
We turn to Ingeborg Kraus to debunk these myths. A trauma counsellor in Germany, Kraus is familiar with the realities of a system where prostitution has been legalised and ‘normalised’ and characterises the situation there as “capitalism at its roughest. Women’s bodies are exploited to the maximum” and this is sanctioned and managed by the German state. With legalisation comes the clear message to men (and it is predominantly men) that they have the right to buy sex without shame or guilt. The state is facilitating indecent sexual practices that are incompatible with human dignity. Kraus has spoken to healthcare professionals and gynaecologists in Germany who say that the health of women in prostitution is catastrophic. They present with frequent infections, abdominal pain and STIs, not to mention the psychological trauma caused. They all too often have extremely unhygienic living conditions and anaesthetise themselves with alcohol and drugs. This is the story of those who are seen by doctors. Despite legalisation, the majority of women in prostitution in Germany remain illegal and therefore have no access to the social system. 95% of the women are from overseas and 31% of them are under 21 years of age. Imagine a teenager unable to speak German finding herself in this situation, completely overwhelmed and in practical terms incapable of saying no. The state has abandoned the most vulnerable women in our society.
What about the impact on human trafficking? The German model has seen an increase in trafficking of women to ‘feed’ the sex industry and a simultaneous reduction in the number of convictions for human trafficking. In 2000 there were 151 convictions, versus just 32 in 2011. The state has effectively turned the exploiters, the traffickers, the brothel-owners into recognised businessmen, rather than criminals. Rachel Moran describes what hurts her the most about what she sees travelling around the world to places where prostitution has been legalised, on top of the abuse that women suffer, as the change in who the law protects. Police no longer protect the women. The law protects the rights of the pimps.
Moran’s activism and research have taken her to brothels in countless cities and what she has observed is that the abuse is as bad, if not worse, than where prostitution is illegal. She has “rarely been so appalled as in Munich”, where so-called super brothels exist, where there are entire floors dedicated to buyers’ preferences: the black floor, the gang bang floor, the trans floor and many more. This is why Moran says she “shakes with rage when people say they want to legalise prostitution”.
Kraus used a powerful analogy to highlight the psychological trauma experienced by these women. What if we imagine 10,000 women returning to Italy every year completely destroyed and traumatised by German brothels? It would be a national crisis, comparable to soldiers returning from war, but for what? Not for the protection of national security or prevention of terrorism, but for German men’s ‘right’ to have sex when they want, where they want and with whom they want.
What Kraus, Bindel and our other speakers agree on is that the solution is the Nordic Model. Bindel is quick to admit that it’s not perfect, but looking at the facts shows us that it has huge potential to vastly improve the situation. Its success has been in disincentivising buyers and changing societal attitudes towards the buying of sex. When asked about their opinion of buying sex, young Germans see it as normal and cool, which comes as no surprise in a country where lunchtime offers are advertised for ‘a sausage, a beer and a woman’. Young Swedes, on the other hand, consider it unacceptable. Which view do we want normalised for our young people? The simple decriminalisation of the women selling sex and criminalisation of the men buying sex is not the only element of the model. Another key element is the support for women exiting the sex industry, who in the vast majority of cases need no persuasion to do so. Bindel proposes that countries where prostitution is illegal take the money they currently spend on arresting women and use it to fund support services. Take the money and assets away from ‘managers’ and owners of brothels and use this in the same way.
We are especially grateful to Moran and Blessing Okoedion for their courage in speaking publicly about their own experiences in prostitution. We must heed the advice and wisdom that comes from survivors. We at Iroko would like to reiterate the request that Moran made at the end of her speech in Parliament and ask our followers and supporters to spread it further: stop all use of the term ‘sex work’. This term was coined to normalise prostitution and is often used by well-intentioned people who want to confer dignity for women in prostitution. However, phrases like this act as a linguistic veneer over the situation. Prostitution involves neither sex nor work. Sex is a consensual, mutual act between adults. That is not what exists in prostitution. It is compensated sexual assault. As part of our fight to end prostitution and human trafficking, let’s at the very least call them what they are.