This blogpost is available in audio form.
TAMPEP stands for “The European Network for the Promotion of Rights and Health among Migrant Sex Workers” and is an umbrella organization which involves networking between various pro-prostitution lobby groups and so-called “sex worker unions”. Before anyone gets upset, because I put the last words in scare quotes, I do this because many of the organizations included under this banner are of dubious status or openly advocate not just for “sex workers” but for “management” (fka pimps). I put “sex work” in quotes whenever I use the word, because I consider prostitution neither “sex” nor “work” and one of the reasons I hold this position today is explicitly because I sat down and read and listened to individuals and organisations combining these words in their titles/labels. This will give you an exemplary insight into how this very process goes.
Now other than functioning as a network and umbrella organization for these national outreach and lobby groups, TAMPEP also uses the funding it gets from places such as the European Union to conduct studies on people in prostitution, which, even as an abolitionist, I won’t deny are useful and important work, which is rarely done on national and governmental level. But TAMPEP also commissions pamphlets meant specifically for prostituted persons with the intent to educate about health, safe sex and safety in general and it’s these pamphlets specifically that need a closer looking at. Because it is there that we find what organizations like TAMPEP really mean when they say “sex work migration” and consequently what anyone supports who puts money into such groups.
The pamphlets I will be focusing on are three pamphlets commissioned by TAMPEP in 1994 and while they are not recent publishing, they are still available for download and thus endorsed on the TAMPEP website. The three pamphlets are mostly designed as comics (the first two drawn by male cartoonist Davide Toffolo) and are intended to be easy to read in order to serve as information booklets for women in prostitution. They tell educational stories of exemplary “sex workers” and their ups and downs inside the sex trade. From here on out I will be using women instead of people, in acknowledgement that the vast majority of persons in prostitution are female and because the comics themselves only feature prostituted women.
The first of three comics is incorporated into a pamphlet on safe sex practices, which advises prostituted women on STDs and condom use. As any standard safe-sex guidebook it tells prostituted women to avoid coming in contact with punter’s blood, urine and feces and to use a condom or dental dam whenever possible. The advice section specifically warns of “cheaters” aka buyers who will refuse condoms, pull them off mid-intercourse or not disclose an STD infection. It also tells drug addicted women to not use stranger’s needles and warns prostituted women who are pregnant that various STDs can infect the unborn in their belly. So far, just the regular stuff you’d have to deal with in any normal work environment. We all fear our customers bodily fluids, unclean needles and deadly illnesses for ourselves and our unborn babies, whenever we go into our offices or get behind our shop counters… right? And I almost forgot it gives advice on which types of lubricants to use as to make the daily penetration more bearable and what to do to hide the blood of menstruation, if you’re among the group of women who cannot take days off.
This is stuff we have all seen over and over again from “sex workers rights orgs”. Pain during intercourse, addiction, deadly diseases and the looming threat of physical violence are the everyday bread of the average prostituted woman as these bits of publishing freely admit. But the TAMPEP pamphlets take things a step further, when we dive into the story of Sabina – a young “sex worker migrant” from Nigeria.
Augusta’s Way – Safe Sex
Sabina’s story begins with her arriving at an airport in an unnamed European city, where she is picked up by a Madam Hanna, who immediately escorts her to a hotel room and promptly informs her that she is not legally permitted to take on a regular job, but can make “money quickly”, if she is “nice to men” and wears “the appropriate clothes”.
Sabina is shocked by this revelation and clearly states that she has no interest in clearing her debts to Madam Hanna in this manner. When she requests regular employment, Madam Hanna guilt trips her about her family and insists Sabina pay for the traveling expenses that have arisen from her journey to Europe. Sabina acquiesces, but bursts into tears as Madam Hanna exists the room.
This exemplary “sex worker” story is actually describing a common method of sex trafficking: A young woman, unfamiliar with the laws in the country she is “invited to”, is promised a job as a maid, waitress or similar. Upon arrival she is quickly informed that no such job exists, but that she is now indebted to the trafficker, whom she must pay off (often coupled with threats to herself and her family) in order to return home. This fits the story TAMPEP is telling about Sabina to a tee. The basic moral imperative here would be to inform any woman finding herself lured to Europe under false pretenses to immediately inform law enforcement or social services (depending on state’s law) as she may well be entitled to protective status as a sex trafficking victim.
The TAMPEP pamphlet does no such thing: The next time we meet Sabina she has just joined the sex trade, entering it at the street level – now in the appropriate attire of low-cut mini-dress, high heels and a tight jacket. Her she meets the title character Augusta, who quickly becomes her mentor, warning Sabina that the first time is “difficult” and that she needs “to be careful”, but that she shouldn’t worry, because “you get used to it”. Sabina “does” her first “client” and returns with a happy smile on her face – the tears from yesterday all but disappeared – telling the other women on the street excitedly about the large sum of money she just made by agreeing to not use a condom.
Augusta sternly corrects her, lecturing her that “if you want to continue to work […] you must never make love without a condom”. Judgemental and intensely sex-negative as I am, I can’t help but interject here to point out how perfidious it is to describe a situation as “love-making”, wherein a poor indebted Nigerian woman with no choices is being used by man in a car or by the side of the road. Continuing with the story, another woman named Youna tells about how she caught Chlamydia and is now unable to have children (because any normal line of work carries the common risk of rendering you infertile, right?).
Next the story makes a time jump to a point where Sabina is three months into street prostitution and has succeeded in paying off her debts, but is sick (due to Juju magic from jealous competitors as she believes – not an uncommon method for traffickers to use). Wise Augusta schools her once again that no magic is doing this to her and that what Sabina needs is a doctor. At the doctors it turns out that Sabina has caught Syphilis – “lucky” her, because this is the type of STI that is no longer deadly, if you have access to modern medicine. With a sad smile on his face the doctor warns Sabina once again that her line of work can lead to infertility or death and that she must practice safe sex and responsible needle use for drug injection.
The following few scenes in the comic repeat the written advice on correct condom use and artificial lubricant, while Youna proposes all the wrong methods and Augusta swiftly corrects her. Well aware that sex born from mutual attraction is fundamentally different from sexual contact coerced through money, the women also discuss how they’d prefer to not use condoms with their boyfriends.
And then after an unspecfied amount of time we are already at the final pages of the first comic, where model sex worker Augusta is joyfully packing her bags to return home. What a success her time on the streets of Europe has been! She is free of disease and has earned so much cash that she can make all her dreams come true! She has built a house, opened a shop and plans to marry her boyfriend and have his babies upon returning to her home country. Meanwhile Youna tells the cautionary tale of her madam, who is now diseased, poor and “ugly”, because she did not practice regular condom use. Finally Youna and Sabina thank Augusta for all her wisdom and then wish her farewell.
There is no other way of putting it: This pamphlet is plain and simple victim-blaming. While not entirely disappearing the sex buyer (at least 3 panels depict punters explicitly and they do look like average Joes), nothing in the pamphlet tells of TAMPEP campaigns to educate sex buyers to practice safe sex – it is a given that condom use and STD testing are the duty of the prostituted woman. If a woman is sick… she should have been more careful! Because if we are really honest, we know that sex buyers as a group feel no responsibility towards women in prostitution and can’t possibly be relied on to provide and use condoms.
Augusta’s Way – Security
In fact they cannot even be relied on to not get handsy or violent as the second shorter comic strip shows us: In “Augusta’s Way” on “security”, we learn helpful tips for “sex workers” to… not get raped or murdered on the job. That’s right: Here’s a list of things that you can do to not end up a corpse, while working your normal job that is totally exactly like retail work and burger flipping:
- Choose working in locations that are well-lit.
- Never go to a client’s house, instead go to a hotel, if he insists. Choose the place yourself […]. It should be your choice – not his.
Notice the choice-rhetoric here: We are talking about women in situations of dire poverty and often under the threat of dangerous blackmailers and traffickers – yet they should “make the choice” to work under bright street lamps every night. Totally appropriate to keep saying “choice” in this context… not.
- Always work in groups and always check for each other after about 15 minutes.
- Always write down car numbers for each other.
In hopes of doing what exactly? In the first and longer comic we learned that the women don’t have the option of calling the police for fear of being deported – what exactly are they supposed to do if one of them is kidnapped? Call Madam Hanna, who, while being a literal black mailer, might know some even more dangerous types to help out in this situation?
- Never agree to go with more than one client at a time, no matter how much you are offered.
Translation: Take care to not get gang-raped, while doing “sex work”.
The next two panels I have to say actually shocked me. I’ve been researching prostitution for four years now and in that time I’ve been on dozens of sex buyer forums, read hundreds of entries and studied every (attempted) murder case committed against a prostituted woman in Germany since 1987 (spoiler alert: the most likely killer is a sex buyer) and it turns out you can still shock me: By publishing a safety pamphlet that really talks no-nonsense, but clearly shows sex buyers choking women. I have never seen sex buyer violence described and depicted so blatantly by the pro-prostitution side.
While it’s good for any woman to know basic self-defense, what TAMPEP is doing by on the one hand labeling prostitution “sex” as well as “work” and on the other saying that it involves potentially being suffocated to death is gaslighting: This is a “don’t-get-raped” manual. These safety pamphlets suggest that aggression on the part of the sex buyer must be carefully calculated and expected at every step of the way and that there’s nothing inherently wrong about a “job” where attacks like these are common – but there absolutely fucking is!
A work environment that involves the daily fear and risk of beatings, rape or murder at the hands of “customer” is fundamentally incompatible with human rights and should under no circumstances be normalized. Expecting women to take care it doesn’t happen to them is down right cruel and again crosses the line into victim blaming territory. Yet here we are. This is the daily world of “sex work” not according to radical feminists like myself, but according to those who want you to be in the streets shouting “blowjobs are real jobs”.
The “don’t-get-raped” tips continue:
- Do not wear long “Bob Marley” hairstyle. Tie it back with a wig, that comes off easily if pulled.
- If you must wear a necklace use one that breaks or comes off easily. Do not wear a scarf or tie around your neck.
- Do not wear long tight skirts to work or high-heeled shoes, because you cannot run fast […].
- Do not wear expensive clothes or jewelry to work, as you can be attacked by thieves who will want to steal from you.
Feminists are up in arms when teenage school girls are told to not show bra-straps or when women are advised to not wear pony-tails when moving through the public sphere – yet we wait for wide-spread public outrage over dress-codes such as these. If you’re not furious yet, read this again and imagine we were telling school girls or women leaving their homes this for the sake of their own safety!
Near the end the pamphlet recommends the use of pepper spray, panic buttons and… literal rape whistles.
Yeah, this is totally normal. Whenever I go to work, I carry a panic button, because my clients pose a mortal danger – that’s life, isn’t it? I am out of words to describe this situation. Except fuck the male artist for that nip slip. Fuck you, Davide Toffolo. I don’t know if you got paid for this crap or if you thought you were doing a great act of charity, but this was fucking unnecessary!
As it’s very final part the pamphlet lists objects “which clients can have in their cars and which they may use against the “sex worker”:
Nothing to see here. Just some potential murder weapons. Pillows can kill you. Don’t have sex with men who have pillows (we’ve have heard that one before, too). TAMPEP’s useful advice for if you do spot one of these objects that might be used to end your life is:
“If there is any item which may seem dangerous to you, find a way to gently make your client lock it in the boot, before you enter the car. All this should be done in the presence of your colleagues.”
How about running the fuck away!??? Didn’t we see a man using his bare hands to strangle a woman just one page ago!??? How can you advise women to get into cars with men who brings guns – even if they get locked away??? Am I the crazy one here for calling the sex trade violent and sex buyers inherently dangerous??? I get called a fucking nazi for saying that prostitution and trafficking are inseparable and any conversation and law concerning one will inevitably concern the other – but here is the pro-prostitution crew making all my arguments for me and I’m just standing by the side. Dumbfounded.
Here’s a modern safety guide to “sex work” by National Ugly Mugs in the UK giving nearly word for word the same advice: The pro prostitution lobby knows that many fear for their life every single day and that it is the sex buyers who are the cause of said fear.
The corresponding YouTube video:
Teuta and her friends
If there’s still any doubt in your mind about prostitution inherently involving the risk of deadly violence and the pro-lobby normalizing said brutality and exploitation – here’s the final pamphlet from TAMPEP for which we change location and companions moving to Italy. Here our protagonists are a group of Albanian women prostituted on the street. This comic is harder to read than the other two – not only because it’s in Albanian, but because it’s poorly structured and leaps between stories, but I’ll try my best to summarize it:
We follow the fates of four women in this information pamphlet: Teuta, who like Augusta, is the mother of the group and knows whom to trust and where to get medical support without being deported. Shpresa, a 16-year-old trafficking victim who is found dead right at the start of the story, murdered by her pimps. Her inclusion in this safety pamphlet makes no clear sense, as we learn nothing about her, except that her killers are caught and sentenced, because Teuta gave the police the relevant information.
I am not sure what to conclude from this, except maybe a call to women in prostitution to work with the police in murder cases? No advice is given as to how to handle these interactions with police, nor where to go if one should encounter a minor in the sex trade. Because with Shpresa being a minor, we are now without doubt in sex trafficking territory! Yet this is supposed to be a guide about “safety at work” for “sex workers”… This is not at all the first time the pro-prostitution lobby has labeled the sexual abuse of minors as “sex work” or statutory rape as “young people selling sex”, but it remains disturbing to encounter so blatantly and brutally.
The third woman in the story is Besa, whose storyline starts tragic, with Teuta taking her for treatment after a failed abortion attempt, wherein Besa inserted an electric rod into her vagina in hopes of triggering a miscarriage (reminding me of these two real life cases of prostituted Romanian women, 20 and 18-years-old respectively, being pimped throughout their pregnancies, giving birth inside brothels and throwing their babies out the window in a panic – 2010 case in legalized Germany, 2007 case in legalized Austria). In the other pamphlets we had women believing in Juju magic, here we have another strident example both of extreme desperation and lack of knowledge about safe sex practices/abortion, but we are supposed to believe that these women are “workers”, able to negotiate “fair business dealings” with “clients”, despite the growing list of near-death experiences.
This becomes even more absurd when we learn that Besa entered into Italian street prostitution after fleeing Albania and crossing the Mediterranean sea on a rubber boat in hopes of marrying an Italian man, who upon arrival started beating and pimping her out instead. We have truly ventured far from what the general population conjures up when they hear “sex work”.
Having now seen three instances of what – to my mind constitutes trafficking – I’m beginning to seriously wonder what it takes for TAMPEP to consider a woman trafficked. Here’s the definition they announced they were using in a document where they define their terms (unfortunately I don’t know what year this document is from):
“Trafficking in Persons” shall mean the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. […] The consent of a victim is irrelevant if any of the means are used or if the victim is aged under 18 years.”
So… Besa, Shpresa and Sabina from earlier… are all trafficked by the definition that TAMPEP themselves use and which they claim to oppose – yet their stories are in a guidebook for “sex workers”… Furthermore the term glossary shies away from using the term “pimp” or “trafficker” and recommends “manager”, “controller” and “gatekeeper” instead. Sex buyers of course are “clients” or “service users”. And to top it all of the term “sex worker” remains totally undefined and is only labeled as the correct “non-judgemental” term to use for… whom exactly? We don’t know.
In a position paper on trafficking from 2005, TAMPEP makes the following official statements:
“TAMPEP agrees (along with other NGOs) that WOMEN’S MIGRATION cannot be identified with TRAFFICKING IN WOMEN, but that trafficking in women IS embedded in an international migratory process.”
So again the “sex work migration” world and trafficking are not at all separate, are they?
“TAMPEP distinguishes between prostitution and trafficking in women through recognising: Trafficking is an international crime and fundamental breach of human rights that occurs in other work areas other than prostitution.”
Yay, deflection! Exploitation is elsewhere so don’t look over here at us! Not much to see here!
“Trafficking in women is a blatant violation of women’s human rights. Prostitution without violence, coercion or deceit is not a violation of human rights. An individual’s right to choose prostitution and the selling of sexual services as work.”
What can I say? The TAMPEP safety pamphlets according to their own definition are absolutely about trafficked women, not about “sex workers”. I’m used to people not understanding poverty as a grounds for coercion (even though we all get that there is a huge power inequality between a poor woman and a financially stable man and only deny this when there is money exchanged), but in the guidebook stories we’re talking violent murderous pimps and still this stuff is up on official TAMPEP website…
So best case scenario: TAMPEP have changed their definition of trafficking since the 1994 safety pamphlets were produced and simply forgot to delete them off their website. Considering that there are other frontline NGOs who turn to them for such material (which is free for anyone to download from the website) this still seems like significant oversight.
Returning to the guidebook story, we see – instead of Besa getting information on where to seek refuge from her pimp – it is suggested that her abortion being taken care of by medical professionals is all she needed and that she is now fit to go “back to work”. After this Besa’s story takes an absurd turn morphing into a Pretty Woman rerun, wherein a gentleman (possibly but not clearly identified as a “client”) falls in love with her and takes her away to his mansion in the mountains, where her pimp can’t find her – which works like magic, because her pimp gives up looking for her and is never seen again.
The last woman Teuta encounters remains unnamed, but is introduced dramatically after being thrown out of a car onto the street by a “client” and being found desperate and sobbing. Teuta saves the day again by asking the woman if she needs anything and soon figuring out that she has a problem with condoms breaking – so the obvious solution is to get her straight on the pill. The woman also tells Teuta that she is in debt-bondage to a pimp that is threatening her family, but nothing is done about that and it never comes up again.
We’ve arrived at the end of our journey through TAMPEP “sex work safety” pamphlets and I need to take a deep breath and compose myself to not fill my conclusion with lots of cursing, because I am exhausted and I am angry. *deep fucking breath*
At the end what all the pamphlets accomplish together is to normalize an absolutely unbearable “work environment”: At every corner lies a different possibility of misery, illness, violence and death. One misstep, one broken condom, one bad “trick” and Sabina, Sophia, Augusta, Youna, Teuta or Besa will be lying on their death-beds like Shpresa did. Yet nowhere, not even once, does TAMPEP mention the possibility of exit. It is always implied or specifically stated that staying in the sex trade is the only option and all a woman can do is to use the bits of agency she has left to seek consistent medical help in hopes of not falling ill or dying before she has earned enough money to build a new life. That new life and fairytale ending with a boyfriend and a new home is dangled in front of her constantly.
Interestingly enough the pamphlets accurately describe prostitution as something that women are not keen to stay in, but that they all hope to merely transition through to get to a point where they can have what isn’t named, but implied as a “real job”. This is in complete contradiction to the claim of organisations like TAMPEP that prostitution is a job like any other, that should be recognized and treated like legitimate work.
Let me say, that – yes, outreach and health care programs for women in street prostitution are valuable and they need to operate whether women are currently in a position to exit or not – but exit must be an option fought for and made available by any reputable NGO working with women who live under conditions like the ones shown in these pamphlets. It is not good enough to test women for AIDS and to hand them contraceptive pills and condoms, when afterwards they are simply send right back into the environment, into the arms of the very men who are making them paranoid, sick and as we see not too rarely: dead.
This is what you always have to keep in mind with organizations who claim to advocate for “sex workers” and to promote “harm reduction”: When they say “sex work” they’re not merely referring to a middle-class financially stable woman with no pimp and lots of choices, but they mean the indigenous 18-year-old on the street, they mean women addicted to drugs and so poor that not using condoms to increase earnings seems like a good idea, they mean the young Nigerian or Albanian woman in debt-bondage to traffickers. They are not advocating for a clean wholesome industry. They are apologists for poverty, trafficking and a fundamentally racist system.
When they say “harm reduction” they mean lowering AIDS transmissions by hounding prostituted women about condom and needle use and lowering rapes and murders by calling on women to learn methods of self-defense or supposed “attack prevention”. “Harm reduction” is setting the goal that at least prostituted women don’t die. They mean keeping women alive and healthy enough to “work” – though you have to ask yourself how healthy you can be if you have to check every 15 minutes on the job, if your friend might have been kidnapped or may already be lying dead in the bushes. This rhetoric sanitizes exploitation and normalizes violence, especially when it’s coupled with not even once suggesting that women caught inside these impossible circumstances deserve a way out that does not mean going through a sea of potentially diseased, definitely disgusting middle-aged European dicks. The position peddled here is essentially this:
“Give the woman to the buyers with as little state interference as possible, because if you criminalize them, they’ll really start hurting the women! And we mean more than the raping and killing they’re already doing! Simply send doctors in for health check-ups now and then, so we got fewer AIDS cases in the genpop and otherwise leave it be! That’s all you can do! You gotta except this, this cannot be changed and even though we know and show the women want out, advocating for exit services is paternalistic moralizing! Now please give us your donations.”
And they do get donations. They do get paid for doing all this – by the EU of all people, who has over the years come to realize that maybe the demand side of prostitution does need tackling and women support for exiting – and they get to call themselves a legitimate NGO. I am sure there are people in TAMPEP who mean well, maybe even most people involved, but this does not change the fact that the organization as a whole has a responsibility to act for the benefit of human rights and this isn’t it.
If you’re under the impression that the safety concerns described in these pamphlets only apply in countries with total prohibition on prostitution, consider this example from German legalisation and this example for New Zealand’s decriminalization.