When the sex trade survivor Rachel Moran published her memoir, Paid For: My Journey through Prostitution, she knew not everybody would be happy that she’d laid bare the realities of sexual exploitation. Pimps, brothel owners and punters would hardly be pleased that she’d lifted the lid on the world’s oldest oppression. What she could never have imagined was having to sue another woman for defamation, for repeatedly claiming that Moran had based her book on a pack of lies.
Gaye Dalton, who was also a prostitute in Dublin’s southside red-light district, one of the spots where Moran was bought and sold, has repeatedly alleged that Moran fabricated her entire life history, and had never even been in prostitution. These extraordinary claims were ruled as, ‘Untrue, offensive and defamatory’ by a judge in Dublin’s Circuit Court today, and Dalton was legally restricted from repeating them.
In 1989, when Moran was 13-years-old, her father took his own life. Her mother, who also suffered serious mental health problems, then became even more difficult to live with. Moran left home shortly afterwards, moved in and out of hostels, state-funded B&B accommodation and domestic violence refuges, before becoming street homeless. Soon after Moran was groomed into prostitution. Her life was dogged by men’s violence and abuse, drug addiction and transient accommodation. After seven years, in 1998, Moran found the strength to kick narcotics and exit prostitution. She returned to education, undertook a journalism degree at Dublin City University and began to write her memoir Paid For, which took her a decade to complete.
The book, published in 2013, became an instant bestseller. Feminists all over the world picked up Paid For, which world-renowned legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon described as, ‘The best work by anyone on prostitution ever.’
Moran soon became a much-loved icon within the international feminist movement, and her book has since been published in the United States, Australia, Germany, Italy, Korea and various other countries. Moran had set up an organisation made up of sex trade survivors, SPACE International, the year before her book’s release. SPACE grew as an organisation, and Moran became its Executive Director. The organisation, which operated without funding for the first four years of its eight year existence, was held together by an ingenious strategy of connecting sex trade survivors with feminist organisations who wanted to hear their voices, with much interest generated by Paid For. Moran and her colleagues slept in feminists’ spare rooms, on sofas and in cut-price B&Bs, as they spread their message about the abuse inherent to the sex trade to as broad an audience as possible, on zero budget.
The reality of this history – an absolute grassroots feminist struggle – is probably what makes the allegations against Moran so unjust and insulting. Far from fictionalising her history, Moran laid out the painful truth so other women wouldn’t have to live it. Far from profiting from it, the first time I met Moran at a feminist conference in Malmo, she didn’t even have the price of a meal. I ask Moran about those early days and what was involved in building an organisation from the ground up. She said ‘I began travelling internationally in 2012 on the back of a blog I’d begun writing a year before my book came out, and I met all these fantastic women from across Europe and North America and the thing that struck me so forcibly was that, regardless whether we were white women from Europe or black women from the US or Indigenous women from Canada, we were all saying the same thing. You couldn’t fail to see what a powerful force these voices would be if they were united. The first thing we faced were lies and slurs, and we face them to this day.’ One such slur would be that delivered by Ms Dalton, who allegedly said the women of SPACE International were ‘A pack of greedy, spiteful little frauds who sold sex workers lives out along with their souls.’
‘It’s just disgusting to see our women spoken about in that way’ says Moran. ‘Every woman representing SPACE International has lived the sex trade, many of us delivering frontline services to women currently in prostitution. We know what we’re talking about because we’ve lived it and we’ve witnessed other women live it. Whitewashing the sex trade won’t work with us. That’s why our voices must be rubbished as fraudulent. They are a dangerously powerful opposition to the counter political narrative.’
Asked how she feels about finally being vindicated, Moran says, ‘Well I always knew I could be vindicated because I always knew I was telling the truth. What I didn’t know was whether I’d be able to see Ms Dalton inside a courtroom. Thankfully that day has come and the media is now reporting what I’ve always known.’
Moran’s court submissions included two affidavits, one from a former foster mother who took Moran into care under court order after she had been arrested from a brothel as a minor in 1992, and the other from the Vice Squad Officer who’d arrested her.
It’s not just about Dalton though, is it? I ask Moran. ‘No, it isn’t’ she says. ‘This is not nearly as straightforward as one women spreading malicious rumours about another. It’s much further reaching and more sinister than that. This was a concentrated campaign of harassment that ran for years involving hundreds of people, thousands of tweets, scores of videos and blog posts, false allegations, defamation and the deliberately threatening public release of my home address.’
Some of that mud stuck. I remind Moran that I myself was prevented from publishing a profile piece on her in a major British newspaper on the grounds that there were ‘murmurings about her authenticity’. ‘There’ve been murmurings about the authenticity of every woman who’s ever spoken out against male violence in the history of the world’ says Moran. ‘Those murmurings don’t bother me nearly as much as the fact that some women who’d call themselves feminists believe them and repeat them. I’d suggest they look up the word “feminist” in their dictionaries, or take a look in the mirror, or maybe do both at the same time.’
In a letter submitted to Dublin’s Circuit Court Ms Dalton’s psychiatrist described her as ‘ill’ and asked the Court for leniency on her behalf. I ask Moran how she feels about Dalton now? ‘I have some sympathy for her’ says Moran. ‘I feel she’s been used. The piece that’s been revealed here is a long-term psychiatric patient’s bullying and vilification of a total stranger with allegations that have just been deemed defamatory in an Irish Court. The piece that’s gone under the radar is how a whole global cabal of pro-sex trade voices took advantage for years of her mental frailty and of my inability to defend myself against it. They used one woman to hurt another, and they knew exactly what they were doing.’
Seventeen people have been arrested in early morning raids across east London in an international human trafficking investigation.
A total of 29 women aged 20 to 40 were rescued in the operation by the Met, supported by officers from Romania.
The potential victims were taken to a “place of safety”, and the suspects, 14 men and three women, remain in custody.
Sixteen warrants were executed at properties in Redbridge, Havering, Barking and Dagenham and Tower Hamlets.
The suspects, who were aged between 17 and 50, were held on suspicion of modern slavery, controlling prostitution, Class A drug offences and firearm offences relating to a stun gun.
They remain in custody in a central London police station.
Four warrants were carried out in Romania at the same time, leading to the arrest of a man in Constanta.
Det Ch Insp Richard McDonagh, said: “The Met recognises the seriousness of modern slavery and the devastation it brings to people’s lives.
“Today’s synchronised operational activity [had] the aim of, in one fell swoop, dismantling an organised crime network and providing support to the victims.”
A spokesman for Romanian police in the UK said: “Romanian police officers working shoulder to shoulder with our British partners is a great achievement, a proof of our mutual permanent support and a great professional reward.”
A friend told me his student daughter had become a feminist activist. Check out her Facebook page, he said. So I did, expecting posts on the gender pay gap or #MeToo. Instead I discovered the campaign to which she and her mates devoted their energy was to save the Sheffield branch of Spearmint Rhino.
Seriously? A lap-dancing club? Indeed, a multinational lap-dancing corporation, where men from London to Las Vegas can pay near-naked women to grind on their crotches in private booths. Spearmint Rhino, whose posters of strippers dressed in sexy uniforms for “naughty schoolgirl” parties were banned by the advertising watchdog, and which exists to flatter and feed the sexual entitlement of men, according to its founder John Gray.
Not just any old Spearmint Rhino either but Sheffield’s, where the council recorded 74 breaches of the licence and 145 of the club’s own code of conduct, including sexual touching and masturbation. Yet outside the club with placards, demanding the council ignore such violations, were women students.
Until recently feminists campaigned to close such clubs, which proliferated under New Labour’s shameful loosening of licensing laws. Residents fought to stop them being sited near homes or schools, where passing girls would be cat-called. Women in business battled male bosses who entertained clients in strip joints, meaning female executives must either endure the bump ’n’ grind or lose networking opportunities. Women’s equality was judged incompatible with male sexual services on every high street.
Yet the Spearmint Rhino feminists told Sheffield council that “stripping is a crucial drive in the feminist movement” and “plays a huge role in empowering women”. Those who wanted the club closed, including the local Women’s Equality Party, were “SWERFs”: Sex Worker-Exclusionary Radical Feminists, ie prudes and bigots. Among the club’s most vocal supporters was Sophie Wilson, 23, a Sheffield councillor and now the prospective Labour candidate for Rother Valley.
Given this constituency includes part of Rotherham, you’d expect Ms Wilson to be mindful of the town’s recent sexual abuse scandal, aware that 20 men were jailed for grooming, rape and trafficking, that her voters include some of the 1,500 female victims. These grotesque crimes, the ensuing cover-up and recriminations, have left a festering wound. No surprise that residents voted for a zero-tolerance policy on sexual entertainment venues: from next year Rotherham council won’t renew any strip club licences.
Yet instead of reaching out to victim groups, Ms Wilson has gone to war against one of Rotherham’s bravest survivors. Sammy Woodhouse described being raped and impregnated as a 14-year-old by Arshid Hussain, now jailed, in her memoir Just A Child. With low self-esteem, few qualifications and criminal convictions (after Hussain inveigled her into robbery and drug dealing) she could only find work as a stripper in clubs.
For nine years she endured sexual assaults, the constant badgering by clients for “extras”, saw foreign women trafficked by pimps who demand girls illicitly offer sex. Many lap dancers she met shared her troubled trajectory: child abuse, manipulative boyfriend, a subsequent sense of worthlessness. The parallels with the Rotherham victims are obvious. As the National Crime Agency wrote: “The girls, who were all vulnerable and craving attention and love, were deliberately targeted for the sole purpose of becoming sexual objects for the men.” Perfect strip-club fresh meat.
Sammy Woodhouse is aghast that middle-class students believe lap-dancing clubs are empowering. Or that Sophie Wilson responded to Spearmint Rhino’s offer of a free night out as reward for saving their licence with an excited: “I’m up for it.” In response, Ms Wilson called Woodhouse — a Rother Valley voter — “SWERF trash”. It is hard to believe such an immature, insensitive person could be selected for a seat beset with complex problems. But the Rother Valley long-list compiled by Labour’s NEC excluded most local candidates. Ms Wilson was a Momentum choice.
She will need all the goodwill she can get. The seat has never returned a Tory but Labour’s majority has fallen steadily to 3,882 at the last election. Despite this, Sophie Wilson’s only impact so far is to trample on the town’s sensitive past.
Who will go out leafleting for her on dark nights now? And if she wins, will she prove to be another hastily chosen, social media big mouth with little real-life experience, like the disgraced Sheffield Hallam MP Jared O’Mara?
Yet sadder than this betrayal of South Yorkshire voters by the party they have always trusted with power is the mindset of Spearmint Rhino feminists. Has the first generation raised on internet porn come to believe that sexual objectification is normal, even desirable? They call themselves “sex positive”, implying that women who oppose lap-dancing clubs ain’t getting any. (As if the sex trade has any respect for female pleasure.) They say lap dancers just need unionisation and for men to tip them well.
This, remember, is the #MeToo generation that calls a hand on a knee sexual assault and railed against entitled businessmen ogling hostesses at the Presidents Club charity ball last year. Yet it does not see that the narrative that gave Harvey Weinstein impunity to grab any passing starlet is played out in every £30 private dance. Wrapped up in their own narcissism and “identity” they are blind to the bigger picture. They are Spearmint Rhino’s useful feminist idiots. Ladies, you’ve been had.
The BBC is still at it! An otherwise excellent and important article is self-sabotaged by calling trafficked women and girls ‘sex workers’.
You can complain to the BBC here. This is the complaint I have sent:
Why, in an article about sex trafficking, sex slavery, the commercial sexual exploitation of children, trauma, drug addiction, and abuse, are you using the term ‘sex worker’ as if this is a legitimate industry with a few rotten apples in it?
‘Sex work’ is a partisan term, when you use it, you are saying that the women and girls described in the article were not abuse victims, they were ‘workers’. Using the term ‘sex worker’ undermines the whole point of the article and spits in the faces of the women and girls described in the piece.
The BBC has used the term ‘sex work’ in an article about drug dealing and child slavery. I have sent the following complaint:
I am writing to complain about the use of the term ‘sex work’ in an article about child slavery: ‘County-lines gangs fuelling’ child slavery rise.
Words matter, the BBC is supposed to be politically neutral, the debate over whether prostitution is ‘work like any other’ or exploitation and abuse is still ongoing in the UK. The use of the term ‘sex work’ is partisan, and it is begging the question (asking whether ‘sex work is work’ is like asking ‘is this bad thing bad’).
No child is a ‘sex worker’; even in countries that have legalised/decriminalised the sex industry, it is still illegal to purchase sex from anyone under the age of 18.
Calling a commercially raped adult or child a ‘sex worker’ reduces a sexual abuse issue to a mere labour issue.
Please consider complaining to the BBC, and please feel free to copy or adapt the above template. The BBC is a publicly funded body, indirectly through our taxes, and directly through the licence fee, they have to listen to complaints. You will probably be fobbed of with a standard response (as I was in a previous case), you will need to follow-up and say you were not satisfied with the original response to your complaint. You do not have to be a UK citizen to complain, but the form will ask you where you live.
This is how powerful the sex industry lobbyists are; they complain about being ‘marginalised’ and ‘silenced’ but they have managed to change the way we use language so much that mainstream news sources now routinely call commercially raped adults and children ‘sex workers’. I am sure there are post-modern academics right now writing papers about the ‘choice’ and ‘agency’ of the children being used as drug-mules, but that language is currently confined to academia.
The legalised cannabis industry in the US lobbies for tighter controls and regulations, while the organisations claiming to speak on behalf of prostitutes and porn performers lobby for fewer controls. The legalised cannabis industry is controlled by a completely different group of people than the illegal industry, while whenever the sex industry is legalised/decriminalised, the pimps and brothel keepers are rebranded as ‘sex entrepreneurs’, even while they still rely on trafficking to fuel their industry.
(That people, mostly poor and black, are still in prison in the US for crimes committed pre-legalisation of an industry now mostly run by middle-class white people is a real issue, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that the legalised cannabis industry is cleaned-up and well-regulated, while the legalised/decriminalised sex industry is basically just rubber-stamping what was going on already and turning criminals into ‘business men’.)
QotD: “One victim testified that she had been bound in shackles in the basement of one of Chatman’s houses while men paid to rape her”
In 2017, Kenny Chatman, who ran several treatment centers and sober homes, went on trial for money laundering, sex trafficking, and insurance fraud. He pleaded guilty, after evidence surfaced that he had held female clients hostage for sex work. One victim testified that she had been bound in shackles in the basement of one of Chatman’s houses while men paid to rape her. “I recall close to 150 in total different faces of rapists abusing me daily over a period of 3-4 weeks,” she wrote. “I was unrestrained for brief periods, only to be cleaned up of bodily fluids. I thought I was going to die there.”
I’m really disgusted by the use of the term ‘sex work’ here, in the same paragraph as ‘sex trafficking’ and ‘rape’, it shows what a joke the concept is.
Glamorous and flamboyant, Liliana del Carmen Campos Puello often posted snaps to her Instagram followers of racy days spent surrounded by beautiful young women in some of Colombia’s most exclusive spots.
Behind the façade, prosecutors say, lay a dark secret: last year the brash 48-year-old woman was arrested and accused of being the country’s biggest pimp. She is now in jail and on trial accused of making a fortune by catering to the dark desires of those visiting the Caribbean coastal city of Cartagena, after her arrest last year along with 17 others in a huge police sting known as Operation Vesta.
Prosecutors allege that Ms Campos Puello, nicknamed “La Madame”, forced young women to work in her international sex-trafficking ring and provided them to clients such as celebrities, policemen and politicians.
While Ms Campos Puello vehemently denies the accusations, her trial has highlighted Colombia’s insidious problem with sex tourism.
During the Eighties and Nineties Colombia was a no-go zone for travellers as a war involving left-wing guerrillas, drug traffickers and right-wing paramilitaries turned it into a near-failed state. But tourism has been booming since a peace deal in 2016 ended half a century of conflict, and Cartagena is the country’s biggest tourist trap. The beaches and colonial architecture of the Unesco World Heritage site attract millions of visitors each year.
But anyone wandering around the city’s old town will come across females, many very young, offering their services. Prostitution in Colombia is legal but it is alleged that Ms Campos Puello coerced women, often from poor backgrounds, into the trade and trafficked them overseas. Others caught in Operation Vesta were alleged to have trafficked children.
Despite admitting to having an escort agency, Ms Campos Puello claims that those involved chose to be so and were always older than 18. Mario Gómez Jiménez, the chief prosecutor, said that Ms Campos Puello had close to 400 women in the network.
“Never, never have there been minors involved,” Ms Campos Puello told local media in an interview from prison.
She has been kept in jail since her arrest last year. She has since been accused of continuing to run her agency and also threatening a journalist via her social media accounts.
Last year Néstor Humberto Martínez, Colombia’s former chief prosecutor, described the victims in the case as “true 21st-century sex slaves”.
The US-aided Operation Vesta led to 17 other people being arrested, including three Israelis who “had built a network of human trafficking, sex tourism and child exploitation that plagued Colombia for over a decade”. One navy official who has been jailed tattooed his initials on the bodies of the underage girls he raped. About 250 victims have been identified.
Mr Gómez said he hoped Operation Vesta would “open the eyes of the state, the government and society”.
Most of Cartagena is poor and the sex trade is seen as an easy way out of poverty for many young women.
“It’s very difficult to believe just one case will radically change the country. But emblematic cases such as this one give us hope,” Mr Gómez said. “We hope it could give some direction and help with the next step with many of the women who are involved in this trade. If the government could help, financially, those trapped in this trade and provide better opportunities, such as funds to set up small businesses, that would be a turning point.”
When I first heard about the tragic case of Cyntoia Brown, sentenced in 2006 to 51 years for killing a man who was paying to use her for sex when she was 16-years-old, I immediately thought of Emma Humphreys. In 1985, Emma also killed a man in very similar circumstances.
Both girls killed as a result of severe provocation and mental ill health, caused by the extreme abuse they had endured in prostitution.
Brown shot Johnny Allen in 2004. On the night she killed him, Allen picked up Cyntoia and took her to his home. Brown said in her statement she thought he was reaching for a gun during sex, so she shot him with a handgun and fled with his money.
The defence claimed Cyntoia was a victim of sex trafficking who feared for her life and was afraid of coming back to her pimp, “Cut Throat”, who used to beat and terrorise her, with no money. The prosecution said she was a greedy opportunist. Cyntoia was convicted of murder.
Like Cyntoia, Emma had grown up with appalling abuse, and was pimped into prostitution as a runaway child. Having met Trevor Armitage on the streets of Nottingham, Emma – who had been prostituted on the streets aged 13 – moved in with him, desperate for a home.
Armitage began beating, raping and pimping Emma, and her life was sheer hell. She killed him after he threatened her with a “gang-bang”. Like Cyntoia, she was just 16 years old, and yet was convicted a few months later of his murder. The jury failed to understand how child abuse and neglect is a training ground for prostitution, and how pimps and other predators target girls such as Emma.
Following a relentless three-year campaign to overturn Emma’s conviction, she finally walked free in July 1995. Emma had served a decade in prison for the “crime” of defending herself. But the lifetime of abuse, and her decade in prison took its toll on her mental and physical health, and Emma died three years later.
Cyntoia had been in prison for over a decade when campaigners brought her case to the public’s attention, and soon the hashtag #FreeCyntoiaBrown trended on Twitter. Celebrities including Kim Kardashian, and even Snoop Dogg, himself a former pimp, called for her release.
Cyontia says that “My hope is to help other young girls avoid ending up where I have been.” Emma said much the same when she was released. What Emma needed, and what all the girls caught up in prostitution need from us is to call it what it is – child abuse.
We need to challenge those that claim that when the Cyntoias and Emmas of this world reach 18 they are merely exercising a “choice”. One pro-prostitution organisation recently referred to Cyntoia as “a survival sex worker” as opposed to a victim of sexual exploitation, and called for changes to attitudes so that such young women can hang on to their “agency”.
A child in the sex trade has no “agency”. She is a victim of sexual abuse and violence. Girls such as Cyntoia and Emma usually never come to our attention. They often take their own lives, die from HIV, are murdered by pimps and punters, or end up in prison. We owe them a duty of care, and that begins by calling prostitution what it is: one of the worst forms of sexual exploitation and brutality on the planet.
I cannot believe the Observer/Guardian is still calling commercially raped women and girls ‘sex workers’
Dear Observer and Guardian Editors,
I am incredibly disappointed to have to contact you, yet again, to complain about the use of the term ‘sex work’ in an article about the commercial rape of women and girls (https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2019/jul/06/living-hell-of-bangladesh-brothels-sex-trafficking).
It is entirely wrong to refer to commercial sexual abuse as ‘work’, especially the commercial rape of children. No child can legally consent to ‘sex work’ in any part of the world, including in countries that take a decriminalisation/legalisation approach to prostitution, and being sexually abused is not ‘work’ by any meaningful measure.
By the Guardian’s own guidelines (http://www.theguardian.com/guardian-observer-style-guide-c), ‘child pornography’ should be referred to as child abuse images, therefore a recording of a ‘child sex worker’ doing ‘sex work’ would be an image of abuse, but the creation of that abuse image would be only ‘work’.
Calling the commercial sexual exploitation of women and children ‘sex work’ stops it being seen as a sex abuse issue, and reduces it to a mere labour issue. It also helps to make invisible the men actually doing the abuse, and the demand for women and child victims.
It is particularly galling to see this in an article intended to highlight the criminal abuses occurring within Bangladesh’s legalised sex industry, an article that is otherwise very valuable. You need to decide, as an organisation, whether you are reporting on avoidable flaws within a legitimate industry, or on the globalised traffic in women and girls for commercial sexual abuse.
I look forward (in vain) to hearing back from you,
The article is published today (Saturday), but seems to be an Observer article, so I am emailing the editors of both. Humanity United, who ‘supported’ the article, does not seem to have a publicly available email address, but they are on twitter: @HumanityUnited
After five years in the brothel, Labonni stopped dreaming of being rescued. Ever since she had been sold to a madam at 13 years old, customers had promised to help her escape. None had followed through. Over time, their faces began to blur together, so she couldn’t remember exactly who had visited before, or how many men had come by that day. There’s usually one every hour, starting from 9am.
“Sometimes I wake up and I don’t understand why I’m not dead yet,” she says.
Now 19, Labonni says she’s resigned to life – and death – in Mymensingh, a brothel village in the centre of Bangladesh. Here, between 700 and 1,000 women and girls are working in the sex trade – many of them against their will.
Girls as young as 12 sleep five to a room; their beds only cordoned off by torn cotton curtains. Music blares from heavyset sound systems and homemade liquor is poured from plastic bottles to numb the pain. Men swagger shirtless down the alleys looking for girls. Ten minutes of sex will cost them TK400 (about £3.66) – but it’s money that mainly lands in the pockets of those running the brothel.
Like the majority of girls in Mymensingh, Labonni was trafficked into sex work. On the run at 13 years old, she left her six-month-old daughter behind to flee the abusive husband she had been made to marry the year before, in a ceremony that took place on the same day she started her period. “I didn’t know where I was going,” she remembers. “I thought maybe I could find work in a garment factory.”
A woman saw her looking tearful in Dhaka railway station, and offered her food and a place to sleep for the night. Two days later, Labonni was sold by her to the brothel for about £180 and forbidden to leave.
Overnight, she became a chukri, or bonded sex worker – imprisoned within the brothel until she repaid hundreds of pounds in fabricated debts. “The madam who bought me said that I had to pay her back,” Labonni says in a flat voice. “She’d bribed the police to say I was 18 [the legal age for a registered sex worker] and told me I owed her more than £914. Then she confiscated my phone and locked me in my bedroom. She said that she’d hurt me if I tried to run away.” After two or three months, Labonni gave up trying to escape. “They always find you,” she adds.
A quick breakdown of the figures involved shows how girls like Labonni are a vital part of a hugely profitable business model for brothel owners in Bangladesh. For the past six years, since being trapped in the brothel, she has worked continually to pay off her phantom debt. Yet over those six years she has earned upwards of £46,500 for madams who enjoy lives of considerable luxury.
Until last year everything Labonni earned went to her madam. All she was given back was a £37 as a monthly allowance for food, clothes and toiletries. Labonni has now paid her original £914 “debt” back 50 times over.
Last year she was finally told she had paid off her debt, but she has yet to move on. Her mental strength is worn down by years of abuse. “I feel worthless,” she says. “My daughter doesn’t even know I’m her mum.” Even with her “debt” gone, she’s still obliged to pay half of her weekly earnings – approximately £78 – to the madams in exchange for electricity and a place to stay.
One of her regular customers, Mohammed Muktal Ali, is 30 years old. A married bus driver from the nearby town, he has been visiting Labonni every day for four and a half years, since she was 14. “All the girls here are helpless,” he says. “You can’t sell a boy to a brothel, but you can sell a girl because she has monetary value.” He doesn’t feel guilty for paying for sex with a trafficked teenager. “I am in love with Labonni. I’m 70% sure that one day I will rescue her.” Labonni doesn’t look up. “I don’t believe anything the men say to me any more,” she says later. “They all lie.”
Four floors down from Labonni’s bedroom, Farada, 33, says the number of trafficked girls has increased since she arrived at the brothel in 1999. She knows, she says, because she buys them. After 12 years entrapped in sexual slavery herself, she was given a girl as a gift by a customer eight years ago, moving from exploited to exploiter overnight. When the girl escaped, she bought a second, called Moni, for £137. “I paid £27 on cigarettes for the police, and they sorted all the paperwork,” she says, referring to the government-mandated certificates that state every sex worker is at least 18 and consents to engaging in prostitution. “Now the police charge more. It’s at least £450, which is very expensive, so the girls have to pay me back.” The younger the girl, the higher the bribe required by law enforcement, she adds.
These days, she makes about £187 every week from two girls, but says a third of that goes to local gang members who control the brothel.
The money being made in this single brothel is an indicator of the vast profits generated by the global trade in women and girls. Sex trafficking is an enormously lucrative business.
Academic Siddharth Kara advises the United Nations and the US government on slavery and has shown through his own research that sex trafficking is disproportionately lucrative compared with other forms of slavery. He estimates that sex trafficking creates half of the total profits generated globally by modern slavery, despite only accounting for 5% of all trafficking victims worldwide.
He told the Observer: “The return on investment for sex trafficking is around 1,000% compared with much lower returns in exploitation for construction, agriculture or mining. The immense profitability of sex trafficking is … driven by the minimal expense associated with acquiring victims and the fact that the victim can be sold up to 20 times a day, generating tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of dollars in profit per victim.”
Prostitution was legalised in Bangladesh in 2000, after the year-long detention of 100 sex workers by police sparked protests calling for the women’s freedom and equal rights. The women’s release heralded a new legal framework, but few protections.
Instead, the business of sexual exploitation has thrived in a country where women are oppressed in many ways. Across the country, one in five girls is married before her 15th birthday and only a quarter finish secondary education. Choice is a luxury few women here can afford.
While prostitution is legal, trafficking and forced labour are not. But poor enforcement of legislation in a country where women are easy prey means traffickers act with impunity. The Bangladesh government estimates that 100,000 women and girls are working in the country’s sex industry and one study reports that less than 10% of those had entered prostitution voluntarily. This investigation found hundreds of girls who spoke of being sold by strangers, family members or husbands without their consent.
In April the Dhaka Tribune reported that the conviction rate for people arrested in connection with trafficking is less than half a percent. While more than 6,000 people have been arrested in connection with human trafficking since 2013, only 25 were convicted. Last year only eight traffickers were convicted in Bangladesh.
While many girls sell sex from their homes or the street, more than 5,000 women and girls are split between 11 huge brothels countrywide. Some dating back hundreds of years, each brothel is registered with the government and monitored by the local police. Here, a triumvirate of powerful institutions – government, police and religion – watch over and approve the rape, enslavement and abuse of hundreds of thousands of prepubescent girls.
“The Bangladeshi police know everything that takes place in the brothels,” says Azharul Islam, programme manager of Rights Jessore, a local non-governmental organisation working to rehabilitate trafficked children working in the sex trade and return them to their families. “The brothel owners are involved in gangs, and our political leaders and law enforcement are involved in those gangs, too.” Corrupt government officials profit by accepting bribes and sexual favours in exchange for turning a blind eye to the abuse.
As part of this investigation, more than 20 underage girls in four of the brothels showed us their police-stamped certificates stating they were over 18. One girl admitted she was still 13. “Law enforcement here is a local mafia,” says Mahmudul Kabir, Bangladesh country director for the Netherlands-based NGO Terre des Hommes. “And it runs through the entire chain of power.”
The steady stream of women and children being trafficked into Bangladesh’s sex industry means that the girls are disposable to those making money out of them. The numbers killing themselves has reached a point where at least two brothels in central Bangladesh – Kandapara, on the on the outskirts of Tangail, and Daulatdia, on the banks of the Padma river – have had to built private graveyards to cope with the dead.
“There’s about one death a month,” says Shilpi, 57, who was sold to Daulatdia brothel in 1977. “It never used to be this many.” These days she conducts the funerals: washing each body before leading a team of 12 brothel guards through the thicket of weeds that shrouds the burial grounds; finally reciting a short prayer over the grave. She doesn’t know how many girls are buried there. She lost count after 100. “For a while, we tied a stone around their necks and threw the bodies in the pond,” Shilpi adds. “But sometimes they floated to the surface, so we had to find land.”
In Mymensingh, there’s no such graveyard – but not from lack of need. Instead, bodies are carried out to the countryside at nightfall; buried in unmarked graves by torchlight.
Public graveyards aren’t an option: the stigma that surrounds sex workers in Bangladesh forbids their burial in municipal ground. “Here we are shameful, bad women,” says Shilpi. “If a girl kills herself, people say it’s good riddance – it’s just a quicker way for them to get to hell.”.
Labonni has also tried to kill herself several times. “I’ll probably try again one day,” she says, sitting on the floor of the concrete cell that passes as a bedroom: her customers’ phone numbers are scratched into the wall. Meanwhile, she cuts herself daily.
Such deep-rooted mental health problems are endemic among Bangladesh’s bonded brothel workers, and make it harder for them to move on even when their “debts” are paid. Though there is little mental health support for the women, there is evidence that when it’s provided, it helps. One organisation working to rescue and rehabilitate underage trafficking victims is the Bangladesh National Women’s Lawyers’ Association. “When they first arrive at the home, they’re scared,” says BNWLA psychologist Sadia Sharmin Urmi. It takes consistent counselling to help them move forward, but within three months, she sees progress. “They know they are safe. That means a lot.”
For Labonni, the idea of ever getting help feels unlikely. “All my life, people tell me to have sex so that they can make money from it,” she says. “How much do I have to earn to be free of this life?”
For Labonni, escape now takes the form of daily video calls with her daughter, who is living with her elder sister in Dhaka. “I can’t raise her here and that hurts me, but I know she’s happy,” she says. “One day, when she’s old enough, I would like her to know I’m her real mum.”
The findings of a US-wide survey, outlined in a report, ‘Who Buys Sex? Understanding and Disrupting Illicit Market Demand’ might help the general population appreciate why prostitution is not a victimless crime, and how the sex trade is driven by the demand and not the supply side.
Demand Abolition, a US-based group that campaigns against the sex trade, commissioned a survey about johns and their behavior, interviewing 8,201 adult men across the US. As ‘quality control’, a number of women who were previously involved in prostitution (sex trade survivors) were asked to give their views on the research and to help come up with recommendations for change.
How common is paying for sex in the US? Despite the creeping normalization of prostitution, which, in popular sanitized parlance is commonly referred to as ‘sex work’, the majority of men choose not to pay for sex.
Demand Abolition found that on average, men who buy sex spend a minimum of $100 per sex act, which goes towards an estimated $5.7 billion profit from prostitution. Buyers use illicit massage businesses, the street and online to buy sex. High frequency’, or entrenched, regular buyers drive the market and typically earn $100,000 or more annually. Regular buyers are more likely to be younger.
I have heard a variety of justifications by johns that tally with the findings of the research. Many convince themselves that the women enjoy it; that if they don’t have sex they will spontaneously combust; and that they are merely looking for a little ‘variety’.
So, why do men pay for sex? According to the research, motivation is varied, but the increasing normalization and sanitization of the sex trade, such as the propaganda promoted by pimps and other profiteers that would have us believe that buying sex is the same as paying for a beer and a burger, removes the stigma from the men, and provide a clear conscience.
In Berlin recently, home of the mega-brothel, I came across a sign advertising a ‘beer, blood sausage, and as many girls as you can manage’ as a lunchtime deal for €60. Prostituted women are marketed alongside food and booze, and in turn, become nothing but a consumable item in the mind of the john.
Some even see themselves as saviors. ‘At least (now I have paid her for sex) she can feed her kids and buy them shoes,’ one john, who openly admitted paying for sex with a street prostitute that ‘looked in a bad way’, told me. Another said, ‘If women could give full satisfaction to husbands and boyfriends, then men wouldn’t go to prostitutes.’
‘If I wasn’t able to have sex with a prostitute and was frustrated, I might have to go out and attack a real woman.’ The ‘real’ woman that this sex buyer was referring to was a woman who wasn’t prostituted. I have heard the same thing said by sex buyers, by women in prostitution, pimps and by members of the public.
Prostitution is dangerous business. A review of homicides of women in street prostitution found that they were 60 to 100 times more likely to be murdered than other women. And the johns are the main perpetrators of homicide and other violent crimes towards prostituted women – in 2017, between 57-100 percent of homicides of prostituted women in the United States were committed by sex buyers.
Research by Dr Melissa Farley, a psychologist and academic based in San Francisco, found that the attitudes and behaviors of regular johns are similar to those that are common among sexually aggressive men. ‘College-aged men who used women in prostitution reported having committed more sexually coercive behaviors than men who had not used women in prostitution,’ says Farley.
Marian Hatcher is a sex trade survivor based in Chicago. Hatcher is employed as a victim advocate by the anti-trafficking division of Cook County Sheriff’s Office, and was one of the peer reviewers asked to provide feedback on the research findings. For Hatcher, finding what would deter the johns is key.
‘Better understand who buyers are and what leads to (and helps put a stop to) buying behavior,’ says Hatcher, ‘and we can work towards ending demand. End the demand and there will be no impetus for traffickers and pimps to supply the women.’
The key recommendation of the report is to shift the limited resource law enforcement has from seller to buyer. Funding programs to support state and local agencies to address demand. Fund survivor exit services and law enforcement demand reduction operations from fines collected from buyers. Increase fines and penalties for repeat offenders.
Targeted education, healthcare and media effort to combat the normalizing of sex buying. Establish zero tolerance employer policies prohibiting sex buying under any circumstances, including activities on company time or with company resources that are related to sex buying. Targeted prevention campaigns and focus deterrence communications to change behavior.