A crisis of ongoing, organised rape exists undetected in plain sight. Campaign group Equality Now reports that:

‘On any high street, in shops, in flats, there’s potential for victims of [sex] trafficking to be exploited.’

A Gendered Industry …

Sex trafficking is undeniably a gendered phenomenon. Seventy-one per cent of all human trafficking victims are women and girls, who also account for 96 per cent of all sex trafficking victims. Research by the Poppy Project reveals that the average trafficked woman is raped between 2,000 to 6,000 times and held for an estimated duration of eight months.

This problem cannot have developed overnight. So, how did we get here?

The fetishisation and normalisation of sex work are at least partly to blame. Films such as the Oscar-winning Pretty Woman, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and the worldwide appeal of Moulin Rouge! can only have contributed to the glamorisation and even promotion of sex work. Women pursuing this type of life have often been depicted as well-preened, wealthy and empowered business-savvy individuals with the world at their beck and call. The reality is far grimmer. Findings reveal that sex workers are ‘three times more likely to experience rape and other violence.’ On average, women in this profession have a 45-75 per cent chance of experiencing sexual violence ‘on the job.’ This includes having the highest murder rate compared to women in other occupations.

Misunderstanding ‘Sex Work’

As for the ‘business’ side of it, it is not unusual for sex workers to report giving up to ‘100%’ of all their earnings to their respective pimps.

It is no exaggeration to say that some sex workers hand over all their takings to a pimp because the alternative is to pay with their life. While pimps often self-identify as Sex Worker Agents, in reality, the relationship is frequently one of manipulation, exploitation and coercion for the women involved. The notion of a pimp as a supportive figure could not be further from the truth. Pimps are far more likely to ‘incentivize performance by collecting and depositing cash at the end of every night so that the group starts each day without money.’ Rather than supposedly supporting a sex worker, a pimp will often insist that she ‘go out and earn more money’ if she expects him to provide the ‘necessities,’ such as food and lodging.

It is hardly surprising that the words ‘pimp’ and ‘trafficker’ are often used interchangeably.

Sex work has been trivialised to the point of endearment. It is dulcified to the extent that it is synonymous with the harmless enjoyment of a trip to the theatre. A scene from Notting Hill tells us that ‘in over 50 per cent of the world’s languages, the word for “actress” is the same as the word for “prostitute.”

The connection between the two ‘professions’ was prevalent in the 18th Century when ‘The flirtatiousness of the actress was central to the perception of the actress as a whore.’ Regardless of whether we use ‘prostitute,’ ‘whore’ or ‘sex worker,’ they all essentially imply the same activity with only minor differences. The fact that the term ‘sex worker,’ has become ubiquitous, suggests there is greater social acceptance of the profession — and perhaps even a need to downplay its riskier aspects.

Outside of the acting profession, similar remarks are made about women singers today. It seems that artistic temperament is a quality reserved exclusively for men. According to some commentators, songstresses cannot call themselves feminists unless all their lyrics are deep and meaningful. To this day, the failure to distinguish performer from performance persists. Revealingly, it often goes unregistered that making light-hearted fiction of sex work trivialises a dark reality for countless women. So misunderstood and saccharised is life ‘on the game’ that we mislabel what is often paid rape with that word game and its prefix fun. But sex work is hardly a fun game for the women involved.

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Fetishising Sex Work through History

The overriding tendency to normalise and fetishise sex work can probably be traced back to time immemorial. One of the earliest instances of this is arguably found in the Bible. Numerous passages implicitly refer to Mary Magdalene as one who sells sex, from such lines as: ‘her sins were many.’ Similarly, many popular songs written about women are assumed to be about sex workers, not least of all ‘Liza Radley’, one of the schmalziest numbers by The Jam. There isn’t even a subtle suggestion that Radley is in any way involved in the sex trade, it’s more that listeners want her to be and so this interpretation has dominated. By listeners, one of course means men. The music press ‘is not only written for men, but also, largely, by men,’ which remains the case. Such things as features, reviews and reports continue to be digested and discussed by a largely male audience.

Interestingly, in a disturbing sort of way, both Mary Magdelene and Liza Radley are understood to suffer from poor mental health — something that is very common among sex workers. This point reinforces the actual problem. Fetishising and romanticising serious issues that are inextricable from sex work has eroded our sensitivity to its existing evils. We have glamorised the sex industry, and with that, suppressed the reasons why some women enter this trade. If we start seeing sex work as ’empowering,’ we lose sight of the grim reality that forces so many women to ‘choose’ this industry. If 90 per cent of all sex workers wish to leave the sex trade, why is this work option pursued in the first place? This is a hard question and the answer ‘because the money’s good,’ hardly scratches the surface.

Nevertheless, money is a key component. The majority of sex workers simply cannot afford not to pursue sex work. Here is a woman selling ‘the only thing she has — her body — in order to survive.’ Entry into the sex trade is usually a result of poverty stemming from various reasons. For instance, 74 per cent of sex workers are mothers who work to support their children and cover household expenses. And one quarter of ‘young homeless women have engaged in sex work to fund accommodation or in the hope of getting a bed for the night.’

A Stealthy Business

Despite society’s growing indifference to the sex industry, it continues to remain largely underground and unchallenged. This extends to not questioning the porn industry. Women’s participation in such ‘cinema’ is assumed to be consensual. However, research by Laila Mickelwait has unearthed the trafficking, abuse and exploitation of minors behind videos on PornHub alone. Uploading to the site only requires having an email address. No ID is needed to ‘verify that there’s not a child in the video, […] a consent form to say that this is not a rape victim or image-based abuse victim or a trafficking victim,’ explains Mickelwait.

Some readers will remember the unidentified woman who reported being raped in Cyprus in 2019. Campaigners claim that video footage of her alleged sexual assault has been uploaded onto ‘multiple pornography websites.’ And yet, nothing has come of it.

The sex industry has succeeded in flourishing unquestioned largely because it has never properly been called out. Weaponising sex work as a reliable money-making gig and a woman’s basic right has perpetuated the normalisation of a barbaric industry. ‘Just go on the game is the new ‘Just marry someone rich,friendly advice.

Our society is steeped in deep contradictions. More women may be employed than ever before, but little support exists for those who may be struggling financially or in their careers. We are also supposedly doing all we can to end violence against women, with VAWG officers commonplace in the UK police force. Yet we simultaneously fetishise and promote an industry in which this same violence thrives. Likewise, we claim to advocate for equality of opportunity between the sexes while failing to protect women from becoming sex industry prey. Some make the argument that to deny women the right to sex work is to deny them their income. Surely, this in itself reveals a basic social paradox? We must start helping women to aim a bit higher.

Hear the full Sex Trafficking interview with Equality Now here.

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