Beyond Trafficking and Slavery: Interview

Causing harm while trying to help women in sex work

A new campaign tries to educate well-meaning people on why they often end up harming sex workers, even when they're trying to help them.

Alison Clancey
2 March 2021, 3.42pm
'Existences also depend on sex work' in Hamburg, Germany
Markus Scholz/dpa/Alamy Live News. All rights reserved

SWAN Vancouver is a support and advocacy organisation for immigrant and migrant sex workers in Canada. Beyond Trafficking and Slavery caught up with its executive director, Alison Clancey, to learn more about the organisation’s new campaign ‘Anti-Trafficking: Harming While Trying to Help, which seeks to educate anti-trafficking campaigners on the unintended consequences of their actions for people in the sex industry. Our interview with Alison has been lightly edited for space and clarity.

Joel Quirk (BTS): What are the ways in which anti-trafficking campaigns, however well-intentioned, ultimately end up being harmful or unhelpful when it comes to addressing trafficking and exploitation in the sex industry?

Alison Clancey (SWAN): Anti-trafficking campaigns inadvertently contribute to the conditions in which trafficking thrives. In Canada, where we work, anti-trafficking laws, the enforcement of those laws, and the public discourse around human trafficking all impede migrant and immigrant sex workers from having violence perpetrated against them addressed. And that's whether they're trafficked or not.

In our experience there are only ever two outcomes when a migrant sex worker reports violence or exploitation or trafficking. The woman either becomes the target of a prostitution or trafficking investigation herself, or she's arrested, detained and deported under immigration policy. It’s quite the irony, as Canada’s ban on immigrating for sex work was supposedly implemented to prevent exploitation.

Predators know that it's extremely difficult for these women to report things without incriminating themselves. And we’ve seen that they’ve targeted women for that reason. That is the root of the exploitation in many cases.

Joel: SWAN’s new Harming While Trying to Help campaign seeks to confront anti-trafficking actors with the unintended consequences of their actions, but this is not your organisation’s first attempt at engaging with people in the anti-trafficking field. What has been your experience so far in trying to channel public and political interest in sex trafficking into more productive directions?

Alison: We've tried engagement for many, many years. We participated in national human trafficking forums and took up every opportunity with policymakers and lawmakers that we could get. We have also tried educating the police over the years. But when we talk about the harms inflicted by these anti-trafficking campaigns, what we’re saying just doesn’t cohere with the dominant way of understanding trafficking. So it is extremely difficult to get through to the people.

We've had two decades of managing, resisting and responding to the collateral damage caused to immigrant and migrant sex workers by anti-trafficking campaigns. We’ve realised that the perspectives of migrant sex workers that were being communicated to policymakers, lawmakers, and police were going unheard. So we decided to try a different avenue to get through to folks. That’s why we launched this campaign.

Joel: Have you seen major changes in that 20-year period? Has the conversation evolved, or are the kinds of things people say about trafficking now much the same as the things they said about trafficking five or 10 years ago?

Alison: I think they've evolved, but not in a good way. It's an interesting issue to be working on because facts or truth do not matter. We’ve been working in a QAnon-type atmosphere for 20 years. It’s only when trafficking claims are as far-fetched as QAnon’s that there is any scepticism, any cognisance that they may not be true. Only extreme claims get challenged even a little bit.

Joel: This gets to the heart of the issue. If the campaigns and claims associated with anti-trafficking are so harmful, why do you think they have persisted over such a long time period? What accounts for the fact that similar things show up time and time again?

Alison: There's a few things, I think, that contribute to that. One is that trafficking campaigns and the trafficking discourse provide a way for people to understand complex issues, however ill-informed that understanding might be. Take trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation. The sex work sector is incredibly complex – too complex for the general public to understand. Trafficking campaigns offer a way, however erroneous, to make sense of that. If the general public understands that the women are forced – men, trans and non-binary folks are left out of the conversation – then the sex industry makes more sense to them.

At the same time, participating in or supporting sex trafficking campaigns provides an opportunity to project one's own morality and values about sex. You can hear this when people say, ‘Well, I wouldn't do that’, or ‘My daughter wouldn't do that.’ People aren’t always aware that this sort of projection is happening. Faith-based organisations are aware. They know that their investment and involvement in anti-trafficking campaigns is from a moral position. But your average person probably hasn't spent much time thinking about their own values and belief systems about sex, or about how they may be projecting their own personal values onto the sex industry.

A lot of scholarly research has been done on the ineffectiveness of mainstream anti-trafficking campaigns, but it’s largely inaccessible to the legions of people who just want to help.

Finally, I think these campaigns create a role for well-meaning people. Anti-trafficking campaigns are sensational, they're graphic, and they pull at people's heartstrings. They evoke an emotional response. The donor or the contributor doesn't have to think at all. They just donate. They hit share on social media, they put tape over their mouth and march in a fundraising walk-a-thon, or they attend a training at their workplace. Doing these things makes them feel good about themselves, and they are happy to have helped someone less fortunate.

It's a win-win situation for proponents of the rescue industry. And it's something that's extremely difficult to address, this idea that their support for may be inflicting harm on those that they purport to help.

Joel: So this project's trying to tell a different story, but by the sounds of your description, it's also a more complicated and challenging story. How did you go about designing a project that invites people to see an already-familiar problem in a different way? What are the key features that try and nudge people in a different direction?

Alison: The centrepiece of ‘Harming while trying to help’ is an animated video. The main character in the video is a migrant sex worker, and it tells the story of how she personally has been affected by anti-trafficking campaigns through her lens. We want the viewer to step into the shoes of someone who has experienced the harms, to understand what that feels like, and to see how the viewer may be contributing to this situation.

We worked hard to make the language as accessible as possible. A lot of scholarly research has been done on the rescue industry and the ineffectiveness of mainstream anti-trafficking campaigns, but it’s largely inaccessible to the legions of people who just want to help. And given that there are people out there who are wilfully manipulating the situation, we thought it was important to make the stories of harm as accessible as possible. Nowadays we're inundated with so much information. We thought that a short, illustrated video that puts the viewer in the shoes of the person being impacted might be able to get that message out.

Joel: People tend to understand sex trafficking in terms of individual criminal wrongdoing, i.e. somebody is personally responsible for holding others in bondage. But if you look at a wider viewpoint, other things come into focus, like immigration regimes and labour regimes. How does your campaign shine light on the importance of these off-stage elements?

Alison: The campaign takes the viewer behind the scenes of anti-trafficking policymaking and enforcement. It highlights how ill-informed approaches, which purportedly address sex trafficking, create the perception that the government is having much success. However, this is a red herring since Canada’s Temporary Foreign Workers Program is rife with opportunities to exploit migrant workers. One scene in the video lays bare the optics of anti-trafficking enforcement versus immigration and labour policies that contribute to situations where trafficking thrives.

It’s important to understand that traffickers operating in Canada know how to take advantage of federal laws and policies. Those policies create systemic vulnerabilities and traffickers simply make use of them. I already mentioned how the immigration prohibition on sex work prevents women from coming forward to report violence, exploitation, and trafficking. Another example is Canada’s new Nordic model-style prostitution laws from 2014, which criminalise the clients of sex workers. Research has shown time and time again that this form of asymmetric criminalisation contributes to violence against sex workers and creates conditions in which unscrupulous individuals can target sex workers. And when predators can act with impunity in this way, no one in society is safer.

Joel: As the name of the project suggests, the impulse to help is not necessarily a bad one. It's more about how and on what terms help is offered. What would you say to people who are currently doing things that aren’t helpful, but are open to advice on how to change their behaviour?

Alison: In regard to sex trafficking, if people are concerned about women in the sex industry, go to your local sex work organisation and ask, how can I be of assistance? How can I help? A lot of people just don’t know how to act on their concern for women in the sex industry in a constructive way. So they're joining anti-trafficking campaigns without realising that they increase stigma and criminalisation for sex workers, which in itself is a contributing factor to sex trafficking.

Joel: So at one level your message is for the general public. But I assume there is a second message in your campaign for the Canadian government, which in lots of ways is the ultimate actor shaping how things unfold. What message are you sending to the government around sex work, migration and labour?

Alison: We want the government to spend resources and to make effective policies and laws that address the root causes of human trafficking, instead of wasting money on ineffective campaigns that only create the perception that actions are being taken. One recent example was a campaign in Ontario to improve the lighting in highway rest areas. Not a bad idea. However, this was sold as also being an anti-trafficking measure, and installing a few street lamps is going to do very little to address human trafficking. We want to encourage the government to look at things like gender inequality, poverty, systemic racism, and their immigration policies. These create these conditions where trafficking can occur far more than a darkened rest area.

I think despite anyone's moral views about the sex industry, violence being perpetrated against anyone on Canadian soil should not be okay for anyone. Nobody should be okay with predators acting with impunity. So we need to get past our moral views about the sex industry and listen to those who are working in this field. They’re saying, ‘we're trying our hardest over here to prevent trafficking, but what you're doing is impeding our work. Could we please work together to ensure that whatever trafficking initiative or action that you're involved in is having maximum impact and not hurting anyone along the way?’

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