Aziza Ahmed on the Traffic(king) Police – Karen Herland

In April 2014, a majority of the approximately 1000 votes at the Amnesty International UK AGM “comfortably carried” a resolution that “Amnesty International should adopt a policy position to support the decriminalisation of activities related to the buying or selling of consensual sex between adults.” That same meeting also defeated a motion to adopt a position on the buying or selling of sexual services by a margin of 507 to 502.

Far from a stalemate, that five-vote margin suggests a massive shift in human rights discourse on sex work. Until very recently, most humanitarian organizations adopted the position of anti-sex work (abolitionist) crusaders and rejected all aspects of the sex trade as inherently at odds with the freedom and safety of women involved. However, recent decisions, such as the Bedford ruling in Canada, have shifted that discourse to one focused on how to better recognize and support the needs of those in the sex trade. The issue is far from resolved.

Aziza Ahmed, associate professor of law at Northeastern University’s School of Law, has been researching the negative impact of the anti-trafficking movement on sex workers around the world. Below are highlights from a conversation that started in Montreal and continued by email.

Karen Herland: I’m curious about how you became involved in exploring the connections between HIV, feminism and sex work.

Aziza Ahmed: When I was an undergraduate, I majored in women’s studies. I grew up in a fairly conservative South Asian/Muslim community and so I became aware of gender issues at a very young age.

I went to South Africa after college and worked with the Planned Parenthood Association of South Africa. I was put on a small project that was geared toward sex workers. With the [dominance] feminist lens I came with, I thought the job was to get sex workers out of the sex industry because that’s not what they want to be doing.

I think it was five minutes after we got there that I realized I was completely unequipped to actually do anything tangible to address any of the concerns of the street-based sex workers there.

This inspired me to look for organizations that were doing good work with sex workers. And that’s when I discovered the Network for Sex Work Projects and a book they developed calling “Making Sex Work Safer” – this book became a guide document for us as we began to engage with sex workers.

Through the course of doing that work, I soon realized that one of the biggest barriers to being able to conduct, let’s say, a workshop on the street, was the police showing up and harassing us, and harassing sex workers. The police were a barrier to the effective implementation of harm-reduction and public health programs. This, of course, also happens in the United States.

After seeing the mistreatment of sex workers in South Africa I was troubled by a new layer of this in public health school – sex workers were the research subjects. While the research may eventually benefit sex workers and others, I was more interested in how were we actually protecting research subjects.

KH: So you were talking about the context of dominance feminism…

AA: The dominance feminist perspective, that connects up to the abolitionist feminist perspective, argues that sex work/prostitution/pornography epitomize women’s subjugation to men. So we need to eradicate sex work and prostitution in order to bring women and men onto an equal playing field.

In recent history, when dominance feminists began to engage with the law as a tool for addressing women’s inequality to men, they turned to criminal law. This has been documented by Janet Halley and Elizabeth Bernstein in the sexual violence and trafficking contexts respectively. This is also true in the domestic violence context – Leigh Goodmark and Aya Gruber have documented this extensively.

In the context of sex work, the outcome has been that feminists advocate for the arrest and prosecution of the clients of sex workers. This approach is carceral. The sex-positive movement inside of feminism largely opposes this reliance on criminal laws as a means of achieving feminist goals. Sex-positive feminists and sex workers call for regulation instead.

KH: Not moral regulation, workplace regulation.

AA: We want to be able to draw on the protection of the state, to reset the bargaining power between a sex worker and the person she’s working for or between a sex worker and her client. We aim to actually carry out the thought experiment of “What if we made the sex worker the focus of our efforts? How would we structure the laws?”

KH: I want to back up a second. You were talking about the dominance feminist model that comes out of a second wave feminist analysis, and I am curious about how we started from a vector of the contagion model to the need to protect and shelter.

AA: For feminists who believe that sex work is inherently violent, stopping the spread of HIV and other STIs means ending prostitution all together. For anti-trafficking feminists who conflate sex work and trafficking, the way to address prostitution and HIV is to rescue women from the institution. Thus, the “raid, rescue, and rehabilitate” model is seen as eliminating the core harm that contributes to the spread of disease.

These types of conversations are not new. We can look to the history of the Contagious Diseases Acts in the nineteenth century and contestation between feminists and medical practitioners, amongst others, to see how some of these conversations repeat themselves. The players, their stakes, and the contexts change dramatically at times, and at other times become remarkably similar.

KH: On the one hand, I find it paradoxical that feminists who believe in women speaking up, taking control our bodies ourselves — that whole fundamental understanding — turn to another group of women and basically say they have NO agency, despite the fact that those women keep saying directly to them, “this is not my experience.”

AA: There are always some feminists who set the terms for the engagement and ideas that would come to define what feminist ideology should be. This results in many schisms in feminism – for example, between feminists who didn’t put race on the agenda and those that thought it was central to the feminist project. In the sex work debates it is some women saying to others, “your agency is not actual agency.”

KH: At what point do all of these arguments become prescriptive instead of descriptive? At what point does saying women don’t have a voice deny them a voice?

AA: Exactly. And, who is that fully realized woman or feminist who really understands all of her options and can make all of her choices? The debates and consequences become real when we start engaging with the law, and use the law to silence movements. We have seen the sex work movement silenced many times through anti-trafficking laws.

KH: Jo Doezema returns to this old narrative about the white slave trade and about less powerful women being preyed upon by dark men — Italian and Jewish men being two prime examples. From that narrative it’s shifted to dark women from far away at the mercy of some sort of international powerful cabal of white men. There’s a class element and there is also a racial element to this notion of consent, which had been framed around age, now around race.

AA: There is a racialized idea of consent. And of course this gets to your other question that some women have a greater capacity to understand their own lived experience. This is true in relation to the hijab debates in Europe.

KH: Or here…

AA: Or here, of course. Can women wear hijabs, can they consent to wearing hijabs?

KH: And, if as a government you object to women being forced to wear a hijab, can you force them not to? 

AA: Exactly, there’s actually a parallel with the question of consent. Who gets to decide when women consent? When is there agency?

KH: I’m interested in how it is so polarizing amongst women who define themselves as feminists.

AA: I think feminism is an identity and it’s a struggle for the soul of the identity. I do think, however, that feminism is moving in the sex-positive direction.

KH: The human rights community as a whole is beginning to recognize it.

AA: Certainly the human rights community is taking on sex-positivity more readily. At least this is true of the health and human rights movement. The sex work position is now so well supported empirically with harm reduction and public health. It’s getting harder and harder as a sensible person to disagree…

KH: Spoken as a true law professor, I think people can disagree… but people like Melissa Farley will not just conduct research, they’ll also very forthrightly say, “I ask questions in order to get certain responses.” She will not just deliberately, but openly, bias her research around whatever she hopes to find.

AA: And that gets validated by the anti-sex work community that cites her work.

KH: Part of what I find so frustrating with this discussion is that the anti-trafficking community forms the contradictory tenet within their own belief system that women deserve rights yet women don’t have agency and can’t have agency in these contexts, but I can bestow it to them.

AA: Yes, it does seem that the leaders of the anti-trafficking movement have decided that they are the only people who get to decides what kind of sex is consensual and when meaningful consent has been given.

KH: There’s the notion of protection in there too. There’s a responsibility on the part of those people holding up those contradictions to somehow protect those less able to assert themselves – none of which is new, either.

AA: It does feel like we’re living in more of a recycled moment. When I went to the COYOTE [Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics] archive…

KH: That sounds awesome.

AA: It is awesome! It’s just pages and pages of documents from the early days COYOTE.  A disagreement emerges in a series of letters from 1982 in which an activist from the International Women’s Tribune Centre is writing to Pricilla Alexander (National Task Force for Prostitution) regarding an invitation to an anti-trafficking conference. The International Women’s Tribune Centre disapproves that money to attend an anti-trafficking conference might be raised by a pimp. Essentially the letter states that this is concerning because it perpetuates the problem they are trying to address.

KH: and yet, the pimps were paying for sex workers to attend an anti-trafficking conference…

AA: Yes! That part doesn’t even compute. The back-and-forth is a copy and paste of the things that there continues to be disagreement about.

At the international level, the sex-positive/harm-reduction perspective does seem to be winning out – at least where public health is concerned. Governance institutions, including UN institutions, are on board with the sex work perspective. But individual governments, partly because of electoral politics and partly because of the strength and power of the anti-trafficking movements, seem to be going the other way.

KH: It’s a hard sell because the narrative is so entrenched. That narrative of contagion and disease and desperation. They feed off a very familiar story the poor vicitimized innocent.

AA: Yes, and it allows Americans to be the saviour. It is a very neo-colonial project; it is about intervening and saving and rescuing.

KH: I feel like there’s often a tension between what is and some kind of utopic vision of what could be. It’s as if to say that, in a perfect world, no one would be forced into transactional sex; or, through whatever pressure might exist that is fine in the future, but in the here and now, people are involved in this – so how do we respond?

AA: We need to approach this issue pragmatically. We need see the material realities around us and begin to address those with the legal tools we have: labour protections could prove to be enormously helpful for sex workers. But for people who are in the anti-trafficking movement, labour laws for sex work are a crystallization of inequality. Instead, the anti-trafficking movement wants to utilize criminal laws to arrest people who benefit from the sex industry – although not the sex worker herself.

KH: So what’s your best-case scenario, we’ve got Bedford here, do you see possibility for change?

AA: I hope that the post-Bedford legal environment is not one where a new population is criminalized, or the same population, but in a different way. This would happen if the government adopts the Nordic model and really begins criminalizing clients. Once you have those laws on the books it’s very difficult to get them off the books – it requires a politician or lawmaker to say, “One of the items I have on my political agenda is the right to buy sex.” Or at least that is how the media and public will hear it, even if the issue is truly sex worker safety.

I think we just have to keep fighting this battle. It is not fair that the sex workers keep getting thrown under the bus, poor people keep getting thrown under the bus, poor people of colour keep getting thrown under the bus. And to what end?

Aziza Ahmed is associate professor of law at Northeastern University’s School of Law. She is currently a member of the technical advisory group on HIV and the law convened by the United Nations Development Programme.

Karen Herland is a Montreal-based author and educator. She is currently featured at the Centre d’Histoire de Montréal’s exhibition: Scandal: Vice, Crime and Morality in Montreal 1940-1960.