Stuart Waiton: Chained to a false alarm

Francesca, left, and Elisabetta Grillo, right, former personal assistants (PA) to Nigella Lawson. Picture: AP
Francesca, left, and Elisabetta Grillo, right, former personal assistants (PA) to Nigella Lawson. Picture: AP
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A few high profile cases have fuelled the perception that slavery and sex trafficking are a widespread problem here. This is not the case, says Stuart Waiton

There is a trend in society to describe an increasing range of experiences as forms of slavery. Protesting young interns, annoyed by their lack of a wage, describe themselves as slaves, for example. Last week Nigella Lawson’s paid personal assistants said that they were “being treated worse than Filipino slaves”. In a few years’ time I suspect we will all be able to claim the mantle of slavery.

The increasingly fluid meaning of slavery has been demonstrated most acutely in the strange case of what appears to be some kind of Maoist sect or commune in London. Here the police announced with great excitement that they had arrested a couple for slavery and the media leapt on to the case and made it the “shock horror” top story: A British version of the Josef Fritzl case or the three Ohio “slave girls” discovered earlier this year.

However, the first indication that the situation in London was somewhat different to the imprisoned episodes in Austria and the United States was when the police officer in charge of the case stood in front of the array of television cameras and explained that this case of slavery involved “invisible handcuffs” (if I’m ever arrested I hope by then the police will be using these very same handcuffs to keep me at bay).

Despite being defined as slaves, and being reported as having been imprisoned, brutalised and terrorised “in captivity” for 30 years, it soon transpired that this was not the case. The 30-year-old who we were led to believe had spent her entire life as a slave had often been seen by neighbours walking to Tesco. The local social services and education and housing departments had also had contact with this woman. Video footage of the other two women “slaves” has also come to light, showing them out on the streets defending their “captor” in 1997, while denouncing the “fascist state” that was investigating their commune. In the end, these women were not “rescued” but simply left the house they had been living in. Strange? Yes. Slavery? No.

This issue of slavery, in my opinion, is one of the most interesting and perhaps most important new developments for sociologists to keep an eye on. Not because slavery itself is becoming a major problem, but because the redefinition of people as slaves tells us a lot about the problems of the modern world. It is fast becoming one of those newly defined social problems that captures the imagination of the cultural and political elite, appearing as an issue in an increasing array of films and television dramas, or quickly becoming associated with wider national or international events.

The main form this discussion about slavery takes is through the concern about trafficking, and here in Scotland we are in the consultation stage of creating our very own Human Trafficking (Scotland) Bill, a new act that one MSP argued could be a “beacon to the world”. But before we get excited about this 21st century anti-slavery campaign, it is worth looking at some of the panics that have already been generated about this issue.

In 2006, for example, there was a massive campaign against the imagined 40,000 women who were going to be trafficked to the football World Cup in Germany. Promoted as a problem by Green, socialist and conservative MEPs, the anxiety about this mass trafficking resulted in an awareness campaign being launched by the music channel MTV and telephone hotlines being set up by NGOs, while cross border security was tightened. At the matches, condoms and leaflets were handed out to the masses of football fans it was assumed were about to indulge themselves with these “sex slaves”.

In the European Parliament’s women’s committee, the right wing Slovakian Christian Democrat Anna Zaborska attacked Sepp Blatter for not condemning this trafficking, arguing contemptuously that: “After all, isn’t it true that in the masculine world, football and sex go hand in hand?” Even George W Bush and the American administration got in on the act, questioning Angela Merkel about the way Germany was becoming the capital of pimping, pandering and trafficking. Here in the UK, the police’s own anti-trafficking initiative, Operation Pentameter, was promoted with reference to the 40,000 sex slaves being trafficked to the World Cup, and in Scotland leaflets were handed out at Prestwick Airport to Polish arrivals asking if they had “travelled willingly”.

The reality of this international anxiety about trafficking was that only five cases of human trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation were uncovered that related to the World Cup. As was noted by Bruno Waterfield, who exposed this panic, this was 8,000 times fewer than the predicted number. A Council of Europe document concluded that “there was no sign whatsoever of the alleged 40,000 prostitutes/forced prostitutes – a figure repeatedly reported”. Of course, nobody was held to account for this panic.

Here in the UK, Nick Davies has exposed a more recent campaign against trafficking, illustrating how research findings about the number of tracked women in London become exaggerated time and again until a handful of proven cases ended up becoming, in the words of Labour MP Denis MacShane, “25,000 sex slaves currently working in the massage parlours and brothels of Britain”.

During this panic, Harriet Harman led the campaign to punish men for having sex with women who are “controlled for gain”, even if the men were genuinely ignorant of this fact: punished in law for an act you do not know you are doing?

Over the last few years, the hysteria about trafficking and slavery has become so commonplace that almost any claim can be made about this problem. Tapping into both a conservative anxiety about illegal immigrants, a radical concern about the abuse of women, and a united opposition against prostitution, the trafficking panic has few enemies willing to expose the truth. The reality is that there are plenty of prostitutes in the world but they are not sex slaves.

The use of the term slavery reflects the trend within law and politics to redefine people as vulnerable, to treat women for example as fragile and in need of protection, to treat them like children. This apparently sympathetic approach to women manages to undermine their status as moral and legal subjects. Consequently, prostitutes become helpless subjectless slaves, as indeed do women living in a strange commune in London.

This explains the incredible idea of invisible handcuffs, as power within relationships is redefined as a criminal form of abuse, leaving the authorities in a terrifyingly authoritarian position of being able to potentially police all our relationships.

The campaign about trafficking and slavery needs to be exposed for the panic it is.

• Stuart Waiton is a sociology and criminology lecturer at the University of Abertay Dundee