I got to interview a Dutch tour guide. Gradually, I worked around to the question that I wanted her to answer all along.
“Are these window girls victims? Are they forced to do this work?”
“Definitely. Some are definitely forced.”
“That’s interesting information because there isn’t any hard evidence to the effect. There is a mountain of assertion, like almost every week someone is reported in the press as claiming that the girls in the windows are forced to do it. But we are very, very short on evidence.”
“Well, that’s because it’s mostly boyfriends.”
Ah, I see, boyfriends, how very, very convenient. It’s so easy to say but impossible to disprove.
“What, you mean Loverboys?”
It’s probably worth stopping off here and just rehearsing the expression Loverboy. Traditionally, a Loverboy is a good looking young man (usually Moroccan) who grooms an underage girl by showering her with gifts, booze, drugs and affection (and rides in his car) until she is old enough for him to pressure her into working in the red light district windows and relieve her each night of all the money she has earned. Like a lot of expressions it has been reduced to the lowest common denominator; i.e., a boyfriend.
“Do you know where the expression Loverboy comes from?”
“Well, it was coined by a Dutch journalist who was writing a throwaway article about a young Moroccan woman and her Moroccan boyfriend. I can’t recall the exact date but it was around 2001 – 2002. The couple lived over in Harlem. It appears that the young man suggested to his girlfriend that if she worked in the windows she could make a lot of money and they could subsequently enjoy a very nice lifestyle. The journalist wanted to be able to refer to the young man without using his name, so he used the word Loverboy.
“This was shortly after brothels were made legal in 2000 and before things were in the habit of going viral on the Internet. However, the expression went viral locally. You see, the change in legislation had prompted the anti-prostitution lobby to claim that making any aspect of the business legal was playing into the hands of gangsters who were forcing the women to work in the windows. This, of course, was unevidenced and becoming harder and harder to run with as an idea. The term Loverboy was a gift to those who wanted to eradicate prostitution entirely. The Loverboy phenomenon didn’t need proof. All you needed was assertion because there were enough visible boyfriends in the mix to get it to work.
“Well how come the girls didn’t take the opportiunity to rat on these little shits now that it was out in the open? The most obvious reason was because the girls were too scared to speak up. Again, we have something which is very easy to claim and next to impossible to disprove. But what about those girls who explained that their boyfriends were just that and that more often than not they were in love?
“The were dismissed as deluded. You see, the girls only think that they are in love, but they’re not. Well, how seriously arrogant is it to assume to know other people’s minds? Did I say arrogant? Maybe I meant delusional. Actually, it’s a case of cognitive dissonance, which I talk about in another blog post. Basically, according to the psychology of political morality, if a moral person is confronted with information that challenges their beliefs they don’t modify the belief, they either dismiss the new evidence or explain it away. And that’s what is happening with the delusional lover argument.
“Anyway, the phenomenon caught the attention of researchers in The Department of Criminology at The Willem Pomp Institute in Utrecht. They managed to get unprecedented access to window prostitutes through social workers who had regular contact with the women (the window girls are very heavily monitored by numerous agencies). The conclusion of the research team (published in 2004) was that they simply couldn’t find any evidence to support the Loverboy phenomenon. It was a sham. A scam. OK, sham and scam are my words, not those of the researchers. They explained that, yes, there were men in the window girls’ lives but the Loverboy control that had been so widely popularised by the anti-prostitution lobby simply wasn’t there.
“Interestingly, a couple of years later one of the research team went on a radio programme and explained that the report didn’t cover everything that they found out, although they didn’t undermine the actual report. For example, they discovered that some of the window girls were adopting the language of the rescue industry (quite inappropriately). For example, they might ask a girl how long she had been a prostitute. The girl might answer, three years. The researcher would then ask about the man in her life and be told that he was her Loverboy. And how long had they been together? Oh, about eighteen months. Obviously, she wasn’t forced into prostitution (if at all) by the current boyfriend. He was her boyfriend, not her Loverboy”
“You know quite a bit about this, don’t you?”
“Yes, I do. It’s my job.”
That, of course was a lie.
“So are you telling tourists that these girls are forced to work in the windows?”
She hesitated before replying.
“Well, we sometimes tell them what they want to hear.”
I guess that I could leave the story there but there are a couple of issues. The anti-prostitution lobby is still intent on eradicating prostitution (and we see that the Loverboy is still alive and well in the government’s anonymous tip line publicity) and in order to make a case they need to portray the window girls as women who are victims and who they are helping (as opposed to punishing and eliminating). The Loverboy still has a part to play. It doesn’t matter that the phenomenon was exposed by independent researchers as a sham; it still works as an argument. OK, 2004 was twelve years ago but you can’t have a new piece of research every time someone reinvents the story. What the researchers did was expose the lie the first time around. At the same time, there is no question that some of the women are in relationships. The members of the rescue industry don’t prove that these are coercive, exploitative relationships; they simply state that they are. The idea of a man and woman being long term partners and both being OK with ‘her’ being a prostitute certainly challenges most people’s understanding of relationships but that doesn’t mean that it can’t happen (lots of things that couples do challenge our personal beliefs). This draws attention to another aspect of the psychology of moral politics. People decide their moral position first then set about finding the evidence. And that leads to two things. First they make stuff up and second they confuse justifications with evidence. For example; she is a prostitute, they live together so he must have forced her (an assertion which justifies their negative view). This is appalling and grossly damaging logic.
Felicia Anna, in one of her posts, makes reference to Catch 22 (Joseph Heller). It goes like this. If a girl has a boyfriend, she is clearly in the clutches of a manipulator who is coercing her into prostitution in order to exploit her financially. If she doesn’t have a boyfriend (why would a healthy young woman not have a boyfriend), she is under the control of someone who ensures that she remains isolated – so that she can easily be exploited financially.