Brothel Raids and Graffiti Grandstanding: A Call for Conversation

We are at a crucial time in history regarding prostitution policy and legislation. As survivor voices have become more outspoken, backing up invaluable research by our equally invaluable abolitionist allies, we have experienced internationally and locally a validation of decades of feminist activism targeting male violence against women. It is a sometimes tenuous or fraught relationship between abolitionist allies and survivor/victims of the sex-trade. As with any collaboration or relationship, there can be personality clashes, differing opinions in approach to abolition and all of the normal responses in human interactions. In the main, however, we all are seeking the same ends and I don’t believe we can ever truly be separated from each other in our goal to end the exploitation of women and girls, and all the prostituted.

So it is with genuine respect to my feminist sisters and their brilliant work for women that I bring up my concerns about some sections of activism that I do not see as helpful. I’d like to open a dialogue about our various approaches.

To begin I want to express my deep misgivings at some abolitionists advocating the police targeting of illegal brothels without an informed understanding of the mechanisms of law around police raids.

Those who have experienced police raids know that these interventions are often violent. Prostituted women are often terrorised and sexually assaulted by police before being given criminal records. Also, these raids are often ineffective. The pimp/trafficker is rarely even on the premises and is not caught. It is the women harmed in this situation. The illegal brothel just stops business briefly before springing up somewhere else.

Also, frequently in brothels, prostituted women ‘jump the desk’ when a receptionist is away, so she can then be charged on that count too. We did this often when I was in legal and illegal brothels- taking turns to ‘man’ the reception desk.

Victims have described the range of what happens in these raids stating they :

ranged from scary for what could potentially happen through to extremely traumatic: multiple rapes, being hit, kicked, dragged, bitten, slapped, humiliated, made to stand naked in front of the cops and turn around, bend over, finger yourself; emptying your wallet and having lockers and clothing searched for any remaining cash. Sometimes put in a holding cell and released without charges but 5 days have passed without food or showers, having to toilet in front of others even when menstruating and having no sanitary products and of course you can’t complain. One complaint and the charges get laid. I’ve never seen a brothel shut down from a police raid. I’ve only once seen a receptionist arrested. She was just replaced and the brothel continued as per usual. I’ve never seen a pimp receive a phone call let alone be arrested, charged and face court.”

Even the police will confirm that they are putting out fires instead of getting to the root of the problem.

Another concern I have is targeting brothels , strip clubs etc with stickers/graffiti. While I am completely supportive of this fantastic grass-roots activism and encourage it wholeheartedly, when it is done at sites of prostitution, it does little to change behaviour of sex-buyers and leads only to shaming of and defensiveness of the prostituted in these premises. What woman would feel inclined to embrace support from or for feminists doing this work when she bares the brunt of such activism? Speaking from experience, while this grass-roots stickering is useful and inspiring elsewhere, it fails on the premises where the violence plays out.

Stickering and feminist graffiti is an effective  and bold action and I am all for that, just please, not on the premises where the violence of prostitution itself is already being committed.

Here is an example of why it isn’t always the best move in all situations:

Security guards at strip clubs also take action like that to mean ‘be on high alert’. They can be more aggressive than usual. This is often towards both the girls and the punters who then take it out on the girls. Even the girls can take out frustration on each other. It also pisses off pimps whose job it is to remove graffiti, stickers etc They too take it out on the girls. The girls are at the bottom of the chain and wear the consequences every time. It also sets up abolitionists/radical feminists as ‘the enemy’ so when women try to exit and they need to turn to someone for help, they can’t come to us. They turn to the red umbrellas who funnel them straight back into the trade. We can’t afford to be the enemy.”

In my experience it can also set up and/or reinforce trauma-bonding of the victim to the pimp, something pimps regularly exploit. It sets up an “us against the world” mentality which is very difficult to break free from.

I am cognizant of the fact that prostitution impacts on all women whether (or not) they are prostituted themselves. I believe this is important. What happens to prostituted women happens, on some level, to all women. Therefore what individual women do to express their activism needs to be understood in that context. It is not only victims/survivors of the sex-trade who are important in this debate.

However, if we do not have a conversation about strategic activism and whether it is beneficial or harmful I think we are going to see survivors and currently prostituted women involved in abolition ‘disappear’.

In fact, some survivors and the currently prostituted have ‘disappeared’. There have been some recent hostilities in groups on facebook for example, where survivors and currently prostituted women stop commenting and drop out from being involved.

Incredibly,  even as sex-trade survivors, we have been accused by these graffiti activists, of blaming prostituted women, or blaming the women doing the stickering/graffiti themselves, for the violence the johns and pimps inflict when we question these activists on what they hope to achieve in  stickering and putting graffiti on sites of sexual violence.

We did not say the men are not responsible, we asked you to please at least consider what impact such activism does to the women at these locations!

Why are we being accused of appeasing men  simply for saying:  ‘Hang on a minute, think before you act here. Think before you graffiti that strip joint/car/brothel. Ask yourself , is this action helpful? Will the women in that brothel face retribution?’

Survivors are being silenced or kicked out of these groups for asking to be heard on this issue!

When faced with such hostility I see that for some, this graffiti activism is nothing more than egotistical grandstanding and it is not centering prostituted women at all.  In fact, it shows a lack of concern for the prostituted women altogether.

We’ve also had friends and allies drop out of groups due to hostility being shown to them for simply stating they agree with us.

I’m sure no one finds this acceptable and we would all aim to avoid this happening.

Some may disagree with me about these issues. For example on brothel raids. How do police crack down on illegal brothels if they don’t raid? How do we get the message to johns that they are (paying) rapists without targeting them at the sale?

These are important questions. So I’d really appreciate your input as survivors/allies/currently prostituted women. All our voices are important

What comes to mind for me is that we could demand at least two things be incorporated into law.

  1. That the prostituted persons be treated as victims, not criminals. That the police undergo training on how she is to be treated and a process which holds police accountable for their behaviour. 
  2. That trafficked persons are given exiting support without condition and with immunity from deportation regardless of if they testify against the trafficker or not. (Many women can’t do this as it is dangerous for themselves, their families/children/loved ones). That local women be given the same treatment and status under law as internationally or ‘differently’ trafficked women. That is, even those who “choose” to be in the brothel incur a victim status.

As abolitionists altogether we need to make a stand for support of women who are currently prostituted and also those who are fighting for the Nordic Model, but due to lack of exiting support, periodically go back into prostitution (legal or otherwise) in order to survive while they fight.

Targeting illegal brothels therefore sets up a fear of losing income, and women are understandably alarmed by the consequences of further poverty. Again, they are unlikely to appreciate our abolitionist efforts if they have no income support. I am not sure how we can rectify this without the Nordic Model but we can at least object to the trauma of brothel raids.

I believe we can continue forging the bonds and joint activism between prostituted women and our wonderful abolitionist allies if we endeavour to think before we act. This will remain difficult when some are insisting illegal brothels be targeted without legislation to decriminalise the women in those brothels first.

We need to know the policies of what the police are capable of enacting under law.

Do we have this information from the police in fully decriminalised and legal states? What are their policies on busting illegal brothels and do they keep records of bad police behaviour? Do we have records from other states where prostitution is illegal and what happens to women who are charged?

As we do not have the Nordic Model yet, we perhaps need to work in the meantime on fighting for legislation to ensure that any raids on illegal brothels ensure the prostituted person’s status as victim, not criminal, before we make a targeted attack on these brothels.

The journey is long, and it is frustrating for all of us. It is important to get back to the reality of the facts we have. I understand we are often burnt out and so perhaps need a timely reminder to go back to the roots of what we know, although due to urgency and stress, I understand how we can forget the basics in the gruelling day to day reality of fighting for the end of the sex-trade.

What is helpful for non-survivor abolitionists to remember is to take it from theory into reality. For survivors this is reality. For example, many abolitionists know that 68% of prostituted women suffer Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. This means that every campaign needs to ask, ‘Can this potentially trigger ptsd symptoms?’ It also means that when you interact with us there is a 68% chance that you are also interacting with ptsd. It’s unavoidable. Another way to look at it is, ‘Would you say that to a rape survivor?’ If not, don’t say it to an exited survivor either. We are strong. We’ve lived through much we barely speak of, but we are not indestructible and do need some sensitivity shown.”

Most abolitionist allies are indeed sensitive to this, however in the case of some activists (who are of course operating with the best of intentions), these concerns are not being addressed. I have heard too many people discussing busting these illegal brothels and using graffiti and stickers which, as I mentioned before, only inflames an already violent situation for the prostituted when used on the premises. I am not alone in my deep concerns about this, although I appreciate not everyone agrees with me.

I am certain these valuable and vital bonds between allies and survivor/victims are still happening and possible. I am also certain we can overcome these strategic differences and interpersonal obstacles on the way to abolition.

Thank you so much for taking the time to consider and hopefully engage in the conversation.


Simone Watson and Sabrinna Valisce








5 thoughts on “Brothel Raids and Graffiti Grandstanding: A Call for Conversation

  1. Thanks for this clear explanation of the ramifications of certain approaches to abolishing prostitution. Its a lot of food for thought, and clearly this is a somewhat complex issue which requires thoughtfulness.

  2. Your insightful and well written article is appreciated and hopefully has resulted in otherwise well intentioned radical feminists to give pause to the end result of their tagging efforts. We do need to be supportive in any way possible to exiting womyn and putting said womyn at risk by marking them this way isn’t the proper approach. Holding police accountable and demanding we adopt the Nordic model is also crucial.

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