Who says sex workers want to be 'saved'?

In these times of economic implosion, it seems there is one industry that the government is actually keen on crushing. The home secretary, Jacqui Smith, recently unveiled a proposal for new legislation aimed at bringing the sex industry to its knees (metaphorically speaking). If we tackle the demand, Smith proclaimed, then supply will diminish. In other words, Smith wants to penalise punters.

Under the proposal, anyone who buys sex or other erotic services from someone who is "controlled for another person's gain" could be fined and receive a criminal record. Ignorance of the circumstances would be no defence. Harriet Harman, the minister for women, believes the proposed legislation will help stamp out sex trafficking, which she has described as a "modern-day slave trade".

Yet if speakers at a panel debate this week on sex trafficking held at London's Institute of Contemporary Arts are to be believed, most sex workers – including migrant ones – do not see themselves as slaves, and few want to be "saved" by the likes of Smith and Harman. Scaring away potential punters will only rob those who work within the sex industry of their livelihood. (And this includes everything from charging for sex to pole-dancing, providing attentive dinner company and selling erotic lingerie, literature or DVDs.)

Laura María Agustín, anthropologist and author of the controversial Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry, told the ICA audience that politicians like Smith and Harman are promulgating abolitionism as a benevolent, feminist project. But, Agustín says, "this is state feminism which has nothing to do with gender equality. It's about the state identifying a proper way for its citizens to behave and defining millions of women as victims."

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