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Sex Slaves or Modern Women? Towards a Sustainable Meat Market

Techno beats flow from the bars in the old meatpacking district. An African woman is leaning against the bus stop. She shakes her black curly hair, pouts her lips and ashes her cigarette on the sidewalk. A car pulls up beside her and she hurries to the open window. Her leopard spotted dress is tight around her bouncing buttocks as she stalks down the street in stiletto-heeled boots. On the opposite corner, a pair of girls in tight white jeans and heavy makeup are yelling something after the African woman in Romanian. They too are on the prowl.

True to its name, the meatpacking district has a sordid history as the epicenter of prostitution in Copenhagen. Taking the meatpacking metaphor to the extreme, the Nest International, an NGO that runs a drop-in health and counseling center and shelter for foreign sex workers, has adopted an iconic image of ten naked women curled up like chicken wings and shrink-wrapped in a Styrofoam tray with a sticker that reads “FRESH MEAT” adhered to the bottom corner. "It's an accurate picture of the girls in the sense that they are all victims of exploitation," comments Vibeke Lenskjold, the leader of the Nest. "Figuratively, I think that with all prostitution, it is just like selling flesh. If you are looking at it as the client, you can go to the shop and pick out the best meat in the fridge, just like you can go to the street and pick the best flesh."

What is an accurate picture of foreign sex workers in Denmark? Are they aggressive she-leopards of the night, ambitious and highly autonomous opportunists who have come to Denmark to seek their fortune, or defenseless consumer products, packaged and bought, who have been victimized by overarching power structures? These two contrasting images raise the question: if we really want to combat trafficking, how should we view these women?

The Victim/Criminal Paradox

It is estimated that half of the sex workers in Denmark are foreigners. While an exact figure is impossible to determine, a safe guess is that there are about 2,500 foreign sex workers on the street or in massage parlors and brothels, escort services and other corners of the sex industry in Denmark. Some of these foreign women come from EU countries and can work legally in the sex industry (as well as any other line of work) for up to three months. However, most of these EU sex workers have been in Denmark longer than three months, and are therefore working illegally. Alternatively, if the sex worker is not an EU citizen, such as someone from West Africa, then she never had the right to work in Denmark in the first place. While a woman may not be doing anything specifically illegal by selling sex, she is doing something illegal simply by virtue of living and working in Denmark. Foreign sex workers are therefore both potential criminals, and potential victims.

Trine Moeller, who has worked as an investigator for the Copenhagen Police in the Section Against Human Trafficking for the past two years, feels that we have to change how we perceive trafficked women if we are ever going to make progress against the problem. Investigator Moeller is a very attractive blond with big blue eyes and a slim physique. She flashes a big smile and raises one arm to shoulder height, miming a tourist photo. "They go to Tivoli with their friends," she tells us, as she stages the faux-photo, "When we confiscate their cameras during a raid, we find pictures of the Little Mermaid. It raises the question: What kind of victim are you?" There is an odd discord in the idea of a sex slave who has been bought and forced into the sexual labor market laughing with her friends, as she spends a free afternoon on the roller-coasters at Tivoli.

In this regard, Investigator Moeller considers the way that NGOs depict trafficking in the media to be part of the problem, not part of the solution. "There was a Hope Now campaign a year ago where you see an African girl in the fridge at the supermarket, and the customer takes her out and puts her in the trolley. The customer checks out and the girl has been bought, but that's not how trafficking looks in real life. The girls know they are prostitutes. They can have their free life, they can walk around. We haven't seen any locked up like that."

One may ask, if trafficking victims have so much freedom, what confines them to the life of a so-called victim? It turns out that for all one is exposed to the meatpacking district, there is a lot one won't see on a casual stroll down its aisles.

Most of the women working in the sex industry in Denmark are supporting families and children back home, and their primary motive is to raise money for these family members. "They may come to Copenhagen because have an Aunt from their extended family in Denmark who can give them a job at her hair salon," Moeller says. "So the girl comes to Denmark, but the Aunt is actually a Madame from Nigeria who will cast a spell on a girl so that something terrible will happen to her family back home if the girl doesn't obey her. This witchcraft is reality for the girls, they are very afraid for their families so they don't dare to disobey." In a recent raid on the street, thirteen Nigerian girls who were potential victims of trafficking were interviewed. It turned out that the same Nigerian Madame controlled all thirteen girls, and thirteen small bags used for voodoo spells were confiscated from the Madame’s possession. Collaborating with a priest from Norway who was familiar with voodoo practices, the police attempted to find a way to “lift” the spells from the girls, which would allow them to talk to investigators with a clear conscience. "The girls were glad he was there, but it didn't really make a difference," Investigator Moeller said. "But we have to try some new things to understand their situation." The police are currently considering the services of a Pentecostal priest from Africa, who has had success in lifting such curses in the past.

The point of this story is that, even if these women are visiting Tivoli and the Little Mermaid, this does not necessarily mean that they are not victims of trafficking. It only means that we don't yet know how to get them to tell their stories in such a way, that the system will recognize them as victims of a certain kind of crime.

The Action Plan to Combat Human Trafficking

In an effort to help victims of trafficking who already reside in Denmark, and to prevent more people from being coerced into working in Denmark illegally, the Department of Gender Equality launched an Action Plan to Combat Human Trafficking in 2007. The plan was to be active until 2010, and is currently being evaluated. According to the Danish Penal Code, In order to be considered "trafficked," a woman must tell a story that indicates that she has been duped, coerced, or otherwise knowingly exploited into coming to Denmark to sell sex. The Center Against Human Trafficking (Center Mod Menneskehandel - CMM) reports that among the 1500 women they have been in contact with since the plan went into effect, 106 have been identified as victims of trafficking.

"A woman may be arrested for working illegally and the police will suspect that she’s been the victim of trafficking, but she'll say, 'I have no idea why I have these condoms in my bag. I was walking down the street with a prostitute, but I'm a hair dresser myself. Or she'll say she was just out for the night and has condoms in case she meets a nice guy." So says Thomas Laigaard, who works for the Danish Anti-Trafficking Center and interviews the potential victims before determining for Immigration Services whether or not they should be considered victims. "Sometimes they get picked up at the airport for not having proper paperwork and when we ask why they were coming to Denmark, they will say they wanted to learn Danish," says Gitte Tilia, coordinator of CMM, ironically. Whether the women are actively protecting those who exploit them, mistrust the police, or have other motives, are factors to be considered when trying to understand why so few women are identified as "trafficked."

After a potential victim of trafficking has come into contact with the police – either at the airport, on the street, or during a raid in a massage parlor or brothel – Laigaard, or one of the five other people working with him, will interview the girls to see if they are victims.

"I will never use the words 'victim of human trafficking,' in an interview because they rarely see themselves as victims. I've come to see it as a judicial term that gives you a number of rights and options. These women have been taken advantage of in many cases, so to create a situation in which I come in and make promises about a better future is just recreating a situation that they have been in before, where the trafficker promises to help them and do a lot of great things for them" says Thomas Laigaard. Being recognized as a victim of trafficking does not give an individual asylum or a residence permit in Denmark, but it is stipulated in the action plan that identified women receive the right to a period of reflection. Instead of being given 30 days prior to being deported (which will likely be spent in prison for having worked illegally in Denmark), recognized victims of trafficking are granted 100 days before deportation. During this time, recognized victims are not housed in prison, but rather accommodated in Kongelunden, Sandholm, or a women's shelter run by the NGO Nest International. The purpose of this reflection period is to give the women time to consider their situation, cooperate with the police in finding the traffickers, and obtain assistance from an NGO in their home country that will find them a livelihood in an alternative industry. Part of the criteria for success of the Action Plan is to have 40% of women who have been identified as trafficked actually accept the reflection period offered to victims. So far, only ten women out of 106 identified between August 1, 2007 and March 31, 2010 have taken this full reflection period.

Laigaard offers an explanation of why so few women get the rights of a victim. "It's up to the woman to identify and formulate her own needs. I have to make sure she understands our offer, if she understands and doesn't want to tell us her story, I have to respect that. Her strategy might be to go back as soon as possible and start working in the sex industry again. Either because of fear of the people who are controlling her or to raise money for her family. I'll be creating more trouble for her if I put her in a shelter and don't let her work. We have to be very sensitive to the woman's own conceptions of their situation."

Laigaard criticizes the action plan for not giving interviewers enough time to establish a relationship with the potential victims to build the trust requite for getting the full story from them. But, even if all the women identified as trafficked do tell their stories and chose to take the reflection period, more is needed to combat the problem of trafficking. "A lot of these women came here on their own initiative" say Gitte Tilia. "We try to see trafficking as a trend in the most vulnerable end of migration. These women are here to earn money and improve their situation, but that doesn't mean that they haven't been exploited along the way. In a way tight immigration laws actually condition trafficking and benefit the traffickers, because the women need somebody to help them to get into the country." So really the question is, why do these women come to Denmark? Whether it be by their own volition or through other means? The answer is that there is money to be made, for the traffickers and the women.

A Sustainable Sex Market?

When we asked investigator Trine Moeller what could be done to improve efforts to stop trafficking she coolly responded, "Buy Danish." This would eliminate the market, and therefore make Denmark a less attractive destination for traffickers. "All men buy sex," we were told by CMM, the Police, and Nest. It's not just the old ones or the ugly ones or the handicapped ones. In this way, sex is just like many other products that appeal to a broad market, like produce, dairy or coffee. As politically correct customers go through the aisles of Netto, they take into account fair trade, organic, and cage-free certifications. Why don't the same standards apply in massage parlors and in the meatpacking district? Given that it is legal to sell and to purchase sexual services in Denmark, and given that regulations on "imported" services have not worked due to the high level of organization behind the trafficking business, then perhaps more emphasis should be placed on reducing the demand in the market by making customers more aware of the ramifications of their choices. If it is true that all kinds of people buy sex, then it must also be true that at least some of them are sensitive to fair trade certification and other socially responsible labels. So, the first step is to change the public perception of trafficking to make it recognizable to the customer base.

Just as chickens’ eggs cannot tell their buyers whether they were produced under happy circumstances, foreign sex workers are not typically asked about the conditions of their employment or how they came to be in Denmark. We have standards for other products; as long as sex is a product that can be purchased legally, it is likewise up to the discretion of the consumer to be responsible in purchasing such a product. Exotic fruits flown across oceans are being abandoned for Danish strawberries. Food products that are purchased from fairly compensated farmers, or not grown with pesticides, are gaining in market share. Why not develop a sustainable sex market as well?

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Denmark Denmark 2010


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