Britain's Women's Institute, which is infamous for offering classes on burlesque dancing and sex therapy, and having members pose naked in a charity calendar, has a new controversial campaign: attacking ads for escorts and massage parlors.
Minister for Women Harriet Harman, who last week announced plans to criminalize paying for sex with women forced into prostitution, asked the group's 205,000 members to join the government in its war against human trafficking. She asked that the group monitor newspapers and complain to editors who run sex ads that just might be promoting trafficked women; in turn, the organization has asked its members to pass along tips. "Look at the adverts in your local newspaper," Harman said. "They advertise women for sale for sex. Many are young women from eastern Europe, from Africa or Asia, tricked and trafficked into this country and forced into prostitution."
It's unclear, though, what the criteria will be for actionable ads or information worthy of passing along. I highly doubt Harman expects these women to put on their amateur detective caps and investigate suspicious operations before targeting them. So, will they broadly complain about anything mentioning escorts or massage parlors? Since the U.K. does not criminalize prostitution, but does outlaw persistent kerb-crawling and public solicitation, these advertisements are a major avenue for the sale of sex. Attacking all sex ads would almost appear a campaign to eradicate prostitution, not just sex trafficking (which some suspect is Harman's real aim).
It seems the group just might target advertisements featuring foreign women. Cari Mitchell, a spokesperson for the English Collective of Prostitutes, told the Associated Press: "Members of the WI are being asked to assume anyone coming from another country is being trafficked, which is an absolute lie." She added that "most immigrant women working in the sex industry are not being trafficked."
It remains to be seen how the information collected by the institute and complaints sent to newspaper editors will actually help trafficked women. As I said when NOW launched a campaign against massage parlor ads in alt-weeklies, "these ads exist because of a sex industry that exists." Simply making the ads disappear won't make sex trafficking disappear -- but it will purge the public evidence.