* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
A longer version of this article first appeared in the Anti-Trafficking Review, issue 7.
On Sept. 30, 2005, UK West Midlands police raided a massage parlour called Cuddles. Female officers entered Cuddles first, with 50 officers in total participating in the raid to rescue victims of trafficking. Speaking to the media assembled outside of Cuddles, Detective Inspector Mark Nevitt said, "As we anticipated that there would be a lot of half-dressed ladies in there, 25 female officers went into the building first, to ensure that the women were decent before the male officers went in." Complicating Nevitt’s claim was the fact that male officers had already seen "half-dressed ladies" when they entered Cuddles posing as clients. The difference on this day was that police had invited the media to record the rescue of "sex slaves". Given the media presence, a scene of men storming into Cuddles and forcing women into vans would not produce the image of a trafficking raid the police wanted to convey. Thus, once female officers made sure the women inside Cuddles were "decent", they walked 19 presumed victims of trafficking before the media.
Detective Inspector Nevitt’s reference to sending in female officers to shield "half-dressed ladies" overlooks the fact that millions of people in Britain and beyond would view these women via media coverage. Indeed, Nevitt’s claim to protect women from the gaze of male officers fails to acknowledge the problem with presenting the women to the media’s gaze. While expressing concern about exposing the women, Nevitt does not admit to the danger of media exposure or the fact that the police facilitated it by calling reporters to the event.
Within a rising climate of concern about trafficking in the United Kingdom, photographs of the Cuddles raid gave the British public a peek into the sex industry and the pleasure of seeing police saving white women. Since 2000, the media had portrayed trafficking as invading the UK, East European women as quintessential trafficking victims, and severe cases of violence as typical of migrant women’s experience in the sex industry. Yet claims about liberating "sex slaves" from Cuddles turned out to be premature. Within days, police decided they had not discovered victims of trafficking, but women engaging in sex work.
Raids tell a moral story that excites a desire to resolve a conflict between good and evil by establishing public expectations that police will stop traffickers and save the girls. Victims are thereby positioned as objects of state power, at once overexposed and concealed. The women taken up in raids cannot refuse police orders, resist arrest or stop the media from taking their photographs. In this profoundly disempowering situation, police and media objectify women in order to publicise state action.
Although police raids operate on the premise that they make the invisible visible - exposing the hidden world of trafficking - the Cuddles raid in effect renders the visible invisible. That is, the raid hides the repression of sex workers in plain sight by framing it as the rescue of "sex slaves". Raids thus appear to produce happy endings, displaying the moment of women’s liberation, but they can cloak discrimination and rights violations against sex workers.
Research on raids indicates they can cause serious harm. Women fear raids, experience trauma during raids and face interrogation, detention, prosecution and deportation in a raid’s aftermath. Media coverage exacerbates these negative effects by publicly associating women with stigmatised activities, which constitutes a considerable reputational risk and violation of privacy. Coverage of the Cuddles raid, in print and online, guarantees global circulation of these images and makes women’s exposure a constant threat. That police thought these women were trafficking victims raises serious questions about the rationale for presenting them to the media.
Through Cuddles, the media got a "sex slave" story and police received publicity to frame the problem of trafficking. That framing located rights violations in the trafficking scenario only, effectively shielding state agents from accusations of coercion, entrapment, detention and forced movement. One conclusion that can be drawn from the Cuddles raid is that presenting women to the media against their will exposes not the horror of trafficking, but a horrifying disregard for their rights. The media and public should not simply accept that police raids demonstrate victim protection. Raids are dramatic, and traumatic, events that can cause harm to the people they purport to rescue. In the end, the Cuddles raid resulted in the deportation of women and several brothel-keeping convictions, but nothing like the capture of traffickers in a sex slave story. The owner of Cuddles was imprisoned for less than a year and the massage parlour reopened in 2006.
Annie Hill is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies at the University of Minnesota. Her research focusses on sex work, trafficking, sexual violence, migration and law. She is currently writing a book on the UK’s response to trafficking in the context of EU migration.