It doesn’t matter which political direction you come from: the topics of sex work, sexual exploitation, prostitution and sex trafficking seem like a Gordian Knot. As long as you listen to one set of advocates and take their evidence in good faith, you are okay. But the minute you listen to another set of advocates with different arguments and evidence, everything falls apart. The way these subjects intersect leads to untenable contradictions that make progress seem impossible. Hand-wringing and ideological free-for-alls predominate.
Twenty years ago I first asked two questions that continue to unsettle me today. The first is answerable: What does a woman who sells sex accomplish that leads to her being treated as fallen, beyond the pale, incapable of speaking for herself, discountable if she does speak, invisible as a member of society? The answer is she carries a stigma. The second question is a corollary: Why do most public conversations focus on laws and regulations aimed at controlling these stigmatized women rather than recognizing their agency? To that the answer is not so straightforward.
I am moved to make this assessment after the murder of someone I knew, Eva-Maree Kullander Smith, known as Jasmine. Killed in Sweden by an enraged ex-partner, Eva-Maree was also a victim of the social death that befalls sex workers under any name you choose to call them. Immediately after the murder, rights activists cursed the Swedish prostitution law that is promoted everywhere as best for women. My own reaction was a terrible sinking feeling as I realized how the notion of a Rescue Industry, coined during my research into the “saving” of women who sell sex, was more apt than even I had thought.
Murders of sex workers are appallingly frequent, including serial killings. In Vancouver, Robert Pickton killed as many as 26 between 1996 and 2001 before police cared enough to do anything about it. Gary Ridgeway, convicted of killing 49 women in the 1980s-90s in the state of Washington, said, “I picked prostitutes because I thought I could kill as many of them as I wanted without getting caught.” Infamous statements from police and prosecutors include the Attorney General’s at Peter Sutcliffe’s 1981 trial for the murder of at least 13 women in the north of England: “Some were prostitutes, but perhaps the saddest part of this case is that some were not.” He could say this because of a ubiquitous belief that the stigma attached to women who sell sex is real – that prostitutes really are different from other women.