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More sex, lies and trafficking

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The Guardian's headline of 20 October 2009 announcing that the UK's 'Biggest Sex slavery inquiry failed to net single trafficker' was certainly designed to surprise if not shock the paper's readership. Journalist Nick Davies argues that there is something familiar in the 'sexing up' (to excuse the pun) of the evidence on sex trafficking and likens it to the 'tide of misinformation' that surrounded the evidence on Saddam Hussein's alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction before the Iraq War. However it can also be likened to the lurid tales of white slavery, kidnapping and the seduction of young virgins that dominated the discussion of the rights and wrongs of prostitution in Victorian Britain and colonial Hong Kong in the 1870s and 1880s. In both locales the debate began with the controversy surrounding the Contagious Diseases Acts (Contagious Diseases Ordinances in Hong Kong) but moved on to include slavery, human trafficking and child abuse. In both cases the CDAs and CDOs were eventually repealed and attempts were made to legislate against slavery, trafficking and child abuse - but prostitution itself was not legislated against and continued to exist.

The CDOs were introduced in Hong Kong in 1857 as a means to reduce the venereal disease infection rates in the British Army and Navy by compelling all prostitutes to be routinely inspected for disease and, if found to be infected, to be hospitalised until cured. Even in 1857 some members of the Legislative Council of Hong Kong, uneasy that such measures were tantamount to the state sanctioning of 'vice', comforted themselves with the fact that the legislation would also reduce the incidence of 'brothel slavery.' In the late 1870s early 1880s some in Hong Kong, such as the Chief Justice, Sir John Smale, and the Governor, John Pope Hennessy expressed concern over the CDOs because they licensed brothels and thus perpetuated the sale of women and girls to brothels. However others argued that the girls were not slaves and that the selling of girls by their parents was a legitimate economic option for poor parents in China and that most girls did not become prostitutes but servants to wealthy families. Sir John Smale extended his arguments to include the latter ('mui tsai) but the practice was not legislated against and instead the wealthier, more influential members of the Chinese community in Hong Kong set up an organisation (Po Leung Kok) to prevent girls being kidnapped though they could still be sold by their parents. Ironically when the Colonial Office instructed the Hong Kong government to repeal the CDOs (following the repeal of the CDAs in the UK in 1886), the latter prevaricated on the basis that the CDO was the only way to protect girls from being kidnapped and sold into prostitution as the Inspector of Brothels could ensure all the girls were there of their own accord. Ultimately the CDO was replaced by the 'Ordinance for the Better Protection of Women and Children' in 1887 and prostitution was left alone.

The CDAs were introduced in the UK in 1864 in a restricted number of locations, to protect, as in Hong Kong, the military from venereal diseases. The operation of the act was extended in 1866 and 1869 but it was the threat to extend it to the whole civilian population that galvanised Josephine Butler to start a vociferous campaign against the CDAs. One of her staunchest supporters was W.T. Stead, who in 1885, published in the Pall Mall Gazette a sensational and lurid exposé of the trade in young English virgins sold to aristocratic rakes or to foreign brothels entitled "The Maiden Tribute to Modern Babylon." Stead's stories were later found to be fabricated but that did not lessen their effect on public opinion. As a direct consequence of the public outcry, the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885 was passed which inter alia raised the age of consent for girls to 16; it also sounded the final death knell of the CDAs which had been suspended in 1883 and were finally repealed in 1886. Prostitution, however, was not outlawed.

Nick Davies rightly points out that many of those who currently have 'pursued the trafficking tale' are using it as a means to achieve their ultimate aim: the abolition of prostitution and this is certainly true of some of those who opposed the CDAs and CDOs in the 1870s and 1880s. But what Davies does not discuss is why those who would wish to abolish prostitution should hide their intentions under the cover of lurid tales of kidnapping, slavery and human trafficking. Many of the nineteenth century campaigners against prostitution were inspired by a strong religious desire to save and reform the prostitutes. Thus it was essential to establish that the women were unwilling victims and therefore capable of redemption; it also made the prostitute a more sympathetic woman deserving of charity. It would seem that modern campaigners are still motivated by the same desire but what is clear from the historical evidence is that wildly exaggerated claims can be easily disproved and do not in the long run help the women themselves, assuming of course that they wish to be 'saved.' Then as now, the voice of the prostitute is absent.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.


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