UK Legal Rulings: Sex Trafficking Victims and Sex Workers
Prostitution made the British headlines twice this week, once when record damages in conjunction with trafficking were awarded, and once when sex workers successfully managed to block the closing of a Soho brothel.
Four Moldovan women were awarded more than 600,000 by the High Court in London on the basis of testimony and other evidence detailing that the women had been lured to the UK with the promise of employment as dancers. Yet, as the Independent reports, upon arrival, the women were kept in slave-like conditions, being forced to work up to twenty hours a day as prostitutes.
In a sharply contrasting case, the Guardian reports that a “large number” of sex workers from countries including Kosovo, Albania and Romania appeared in the Horseferry Road magistrates court in an attempt to block the closure of the Soho brothel where they worked. The women stressed in court that the closure would result in their being forced to work on the streets, thus increasing the chances they would be charged with antisocial behavior. The women were supported in their claims by both the maids who serviced the Soho brothel, and the rector of a local church.
That these cases were decided in the same week merely underscores the complex reality associated with the sale of sexual services. On the one hand, the first instance confirms the assumptions held by many in destination countries about foreign women in the sex industry. As Nieuwenuys and Pécoud argue in American Behavioral Scientist, a central component of national and international informational campaigns intended to stop trafficking is the portrayal of foreign women in the sex industry as “naive and defenseless victims of cruel male traffickers; being ignorant, they are unaware of what awaits them and therefore vulnerable.” The experience of the four Moldovan women reads, letter for letter, as a horrific example of this causal story. But the second case, that of foreign sex workers going through legal channels to keep a brothel opened, is sharply at odds with tales of victimization and instead suggests instances where actors make strategic use of the available institutions in order to minimize the degree to which they will be exposed to conditions perceived as negative. Taken as such, the efforts by Eastern European women in Soho to re-open the brothel at which they worked can be used as evidence by those seeking to argue that not all foreign sex workers are passive victims, but that some, indeed, possess agency.