Beyond Trafficking and Slavery: Feature

The anti-trafficking movement has left sex workers behind

Anti-trafficking NGOs need to take a stance on sex work – or they will just keep harming us.

Lydia Caradonna
20 August 2021, 6.00am
Sex workers strike in London on International Women’s Day, 2020
Guy Corbishley/Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

“We don’t want to confuse our messaging,” said a representative from one leading UK anti-trafficking NGO when Decrim Now, the sex workers’ rights group I organise for, met with them to discuss the decriminalisation of sex work.

Over the past few years, we have sat with academics, advisors, activists, and advocates. We hear this sort of thing a lot.

You can divide the anti-trafficking movement into three broad groups. Two of them, the sex work abolitionists and the harm reductionists, are both open about their politics. They may stand on opposite sides of a fence but they are, at least, transparent about their positions. The third group is much more cagey. These are the people who refuse to touch the issue or keep their position ambiguous in order to ‘not confuse their messaging’. In my experience this is the largest group.

Unnecessary separation

For as long as I have been organising within sex workers’ rights movements – starting when I was 19 – trafficking has been a point of tension.

Survivors of trafficking were frequently held up as our natural opponents, and decriminalisation was tarred as a selfish pursuit that would also decriminalise trafficking. Neither of these things were true. Trafficking survivors and sex workers usually have aligning interests and are often the same people, and it is ludicrous to think that decriminalising sex work would make it any more legal to force someone into it. But the sex workers’ rights movement was put on the back foot by these attacks, and to defend themselves activists began to argue that sex work and sex trafficking were separate issues.

It is ludicrous to think that decriminalising sex work would make legal to force someone into it.

For a few years, before a conscious effort was made within the movement to educate ourselves on the growing trafficking hysteria, we would respond to questions about trafficking with assurance that we were only discussing ‘consensual’ sex work. Sex trafficking, we said, was something else entirely.

This was incorrect, and perhaps short-sighted of us as a movement. It ignored not only the fact that trafficking survivors often slipped into sex work, but also that sex workers could become ‘trafficked’ simply by performing a normal day’s work. In the United Kingdom this redesignation happened en masse in 2015 when the Modern Slavery Act defined sex trafficking as third-party facilitation with no coercion necessary. This legally designated a huge portion of the sex industry – including myself – as trafficking victims even if we did not consider that to be true. The definition is so broad as to include sex workers who are moved around internally by a third party, which turned me into a victim of trafficking the moment my brothel manager put me into a taxi to visit a client in his own home. The Modern Slavery Act made the legal definition of ‘trafficked’ meaningless, but it also made it impossible to continue to argue that sex work and sex trafficking aren’t connected. They are.

The unnecessary separation may have contributed to the number of NGOs who refuse to take a position on sex work because they don’t feel like sex work is an issue that is relevant to them. “Sex work is different from trafficking,” one policy officer explained to me, using our own movement's talking points as a way to avoid supporting our movement. “We don’t need to take a position, really. We’re not trying to impact or change the sex industry.”

In April 2019, I was swept up in a modern slavery raid. The brothel that I work in was one of a string of locations targeted in a five-day crackdown on immigration offences, and the officers attending had just taken three people from the nearby car wash into immigration detention. There were, thankfully, no clients in the building. The five of us working were either making food or doing our makeup when the officers barged into the girls’ room. They shouted at us, separated us, and as they photographed our passports I couldn’t help but think that the legislation that the anti-trafficking sector pushes for might have something to do with us after all. The law does not recognise a separation between sex trafficking and sex work, so why do we?

Cultural consciousness

It is challenging to criticise the anti-trafficking movement: how can someone be opposed to a movement aimed at combatting slavery? Is opposing the anti-trafficking movement implicitly pro slavery? In the cultural consciousness, opposing slavery and trafficking is considered a ‘unifying’ consensus issue. Unlike most stories involving migration, trafficking and slavery are never presented as ‘divisive’ or controversial issues, and the great NGO-industrial complex is very rarely criticised or questioned.

But it is also true that the general population has very specific, very incorrect, ideas about what trafficking and modern slavery look like.

Our entire conception of trafficking is based on the few media stories that are filtered down to us by news editors and producers and the things that we see in movies. Trafficking by kidnap is a particular favourite – the kind that can be imagined as a crime imposed against nice, normal people who are taken from their ordinary, middle-class lives. TV writers and true crime podcasters love this, especially when sex is mixed into it.

The general public also has a voracious appetite when it comes to sex trafficking. A quick online search for ‘sex trafficking merch’ provides a unique window into a problem that it is fashionable to care about. Celebrities like the American country singer Carrie Underwood use their platforms to amplify the messaging, posting pictures with red crosses on their hands and turning a human rights issue into an Instagrammable moment. It is an issue that people care about.

In the US, prosecutors refer to the ‘Taken effect’, where prosecutors could no longer use the phrase ‘human trafficking’ in a courtroom because the jurors’ conception of the crime had been so warped by seeing Liam Neeson save his pretty white daughter from a sex trafficking ring after she was snatched while on holiday.

Yet all of this is startlingly rare. Statistically, we know that most victims of trafficking started out by choosing to leave their normal lives behind and migrate elsewhere, only to end up prey to someone along the way. We know that people are more likely to be trafficked into domestic work than sex work. Yet none of this features in the public’s general understanding of trafficking. And, entirely unsurprisingly, those same Liam Neeson fan jurors turned out to be far less sympathetic when the victims turned out to be poor brown people who had been exploited in agricultural or mining industries.

Trafficking is also an issue that has been shifted, more and more, away from conversations about labour rights and safe migration and towards prohibitionism. There is a misguided belief that the existence of sex work is the cause of sex trafficking, rather than an understanding that the sex industry is attractive to traffickers because a huge history of criminalisation has rendered it extremely easy to dismiss and deny our rights as workers.

It is by this point wilful blindness to ignore the ways that anti-trafficking work and law directly influence sex workers’ access to rights and safety.

Sex workers in exploitative situations have very little recourse to justice because to demand it can result in the closure of our workplaces. Survivors of sex trafficking are, typically, undetected because the entire industry is forced to operate as far away from the eyes of law enforcement as possible.

Sadly, this is a level of nuance that has not reached the people sharing pastel infographics on how to spot a sex trafficker. The anti-trafficking movement depends on popular support, and a push to decriminalise the very industry that has been vilified as the root of all patriarchy is a recipe for a PR disaster. When Amnesty International introduced a decriminalisation policy, they were smeared in the international press and accused of everything from ‘fueling rape culture’ to ‘abandoning’ people in the sex industry – the same people who had called for the introduction of the policy and spoken in favour of it at the debate. One need only look at the global fallout of Amnesty International’s sex work decriminalistion policy to understand what can happen when organisations dare to make policy based on principles of harm reduction and evidence.


The public vote with their wallets: Of the people who donate to anti-trafficking initiatives, many feel very passionately that sex work is wrong.

Even though decriminalisation is harm reduction, taking a side that advocates a non-carceral approach to prostitution is somehow seen as an endorsement of the industry. It is simple maths, therefore, to throw prostitutes under the bus to avoid alienating potential donors.

Perhaps the biggest problem, however, is the major funding organisations. By far the largest funder of anti-trafficking efforts is the US government; Martina Ucnikova, an analyst at the Walk Free foundation, calculated their contribution as being an average of $68.7million a year in 2014, a figure which has certainly increased.

In 2003, the US government passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, which required all anti-trafficking initiatives receiving government money to pledge that they would not support any attempt at legalising sex work. This affects not only domestic organisations, but also the hundreds of NGOs around the world who receive US funding for anti-trafficking.

The US anti-prostitution pledge is not unique. While some funders, such as the Open Society Foundations, are vocal about their support for the rights of sex workers, many others will not fund NGOs that support decriminalisation. In many cases, reluctance to weigh in on sex work is actually reluctance to sacrifice funding.

The impact

The truth is that the anti-trafficking movement has a responsibility to take a position on sex work. Even if an organisation claims it is not trying to impact the sex industry, it is by this point wilful blindness to ignore the ways that anti-trafficking work and law directly influence our access to rights and safety. There is impact, and refusing to take a position is an act of complicity.

Sex workers have seen first-hand the impact of the anti-trafficking movement on our lives and safety – not just through individual instances like brothel raids, but through entire legislative moves and governmental campaigns.

In the name of anti-trafficking, the US passed the FOSTA-SESTA acts that shut down the venues that sex workers could use to advertise independently and made them more vulnerable to exploitation.

In the name of anti-trafficking, the general public are being educated on how to ‘spot’ a trafficked person – using criteria indistinguishable from spotting a sex worker, like ‘being skimpily dressed’ or ‘possessing condoms’ – and then directed to call the police.

And in the name of anti-trafficking, harsher border policy is proposed, which leaves all those wishing to migrate more vulnerable during their journeys– often increasing the risk of the same trafficking that is supposedly being prevented – whether they are engaging in sex work or not.

NGOs have a moral duty to take a position on sex work, and to do so considering the facts and evidence rather than their funding streams. I ask, as a prostitute affected by the actions of the anti-trafficking movement: when is it time for you to stop leaving us behind?

It is no longer the case that NGOs can simply stay out of the debate or refuse to muddy the waters by taking a position on sex work. Unless anti-trafficking efforts are explicitly pro sex worker rights, they can and will cause harm to the sex worker community.

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