As New Scientist is behind a paywall, I'm naughtily going to reproduce the complete item here as I believe Agustín's ideas should have a wider audience before our politicians make ever more hasty and ill-considered rules. And because I happen to agree with her.
Most of what we think we know about sex trafficking is wrong, says Laura Agustín, who has spent 20 years investigating the sex industryThere are other augments too. By legalising sex work, as the Dutch have done, means it can be regulated, the workers given regular health checks, and also have their income taxed. It takes sex work out of the grey economy, whereas criminalisation pushes it ever further into the murky depths of the blackest of black economies.
There is a proposal in the UK to clamp down on prostitution by criminalising the purchase of sex. Why do you object?
Millions of people around the world make a living selling sex, for many different reasons. What are they expected to do? This would take away their livelihoods. Selling sex may be their preference out of a limited range of options. In the UK, migrants may have paid thousands of pounds to get here. This debt has to be paid off somehow, whether it is by working in the back of a restaurant or selling sex. Migrants who sell sex can pay off the debt much faster.
But prostitution is dangerous, especially for those who work on the street ...
Women who work on the street are a small proportion of all the people who sell sex. Many more work through escort agencies, brothels or independently from home.
It is disrespectful to treat them all like victims who have been duped into what they are doing. In the UK, there are thousands of articulate sex workers who say, "Leave me alone, I did know what I was getting into and I'm okay doing it."
Isn't the "happy hooker" a myth? Doesn't research show it is a miserable existence?
Given the millions of people selling sex in the world, generalisations are impossible. Much research has been done at medical clinics or shelters for victims. If you go to a trauma centre, you meet traumatised people. When people tell me they have never met anyone who wanted to be selling sex, I ask where they did their research.
Why do you think anti-prostitution laws can make life more dangerous for sex workers?
If you think what sex workers do is dangerous, why insist they do it alone? It is legal in the UK for individuals to sell sex, but they may not work with companions or employ security guards. Brothels are illegal. If you prohibit businesses but people run them anyway – which they do – then workers must please bosses no matter what they ask. That is why this is a labour issue. Also, targeting kerb-crawlers makes things more dangerous since sex workers may have to jump in cars without getting a good sense of the driver.
What about trafficking of unwilling victims?
The numbers of trafficking victims reproduced by the media have no basis in fact. There is no way to count undocumented people working in underground economies. Investigations showed that one big UK police operation failed to find any traffickers who had forced people into prostitution. Most migrants who sell sex know a good deal about what they are getting into.
If there is no proof it is common, why is there widespread belief in sex-slave trafficking?
Why do moral panics take off? Focusing on trafficking gives governments excuses to keep borders closed. Perhaps it is easier to campaign moralistically against prostitution than to deal with the real problems: dysfunctional migration and labour policies that keep large numbers of people in precarious situations.
Laura Agustín studies gender, migration and trafficking. She is the author of Sex at the Margins (Zed Books, 2007) and blogs as The Naked Anthropologist at lauraagustin.com