Beyond Trafficking and Slavery: Feature

Choosing between access and sex workers’ rights in Portugal

Anti-trafficking NGOs in Portugal have entered into a neoliberal bargain where political neutrality on sex workers’ rights is the price paid for access and funding

Mara Clemente
1 September 2021, 6.00am
Lisbon, Portugal
Pandora/Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

Debates between advocates of sex workers’ rights and their neo-abolitionist counterparts have long dominated conversations regarding commercial sex. However, there are other voices and organisations within civil society who have various incentives to avoid taking a clear position within this now familiar debate.

In Portugal, many anti-trafficking organisations favour a fluid and ambiguous position that allows them to be either advocates or ‘fence-sitters’ depending on context. However, the impulse to claim neutrality greatly increases when an organisation becomes incorporated into the anti-trafficking apparatus of the Portuguese state. It appears that advocates of both sex workers’ rights and neo-abolitionism have determined that staying out of this particular battle is a price worth paying in order to access the various benefits associated with state partnership, including funding opportunities and a growth in public recognition.

Many organisations have, by this point, chosen this route. This result is an environment where service provision is the main priority, and where anti-trafficking organisations finding it increasingly difficult to speak up regarding ‘controversial’ topics such as commercial sex or the harm of securitisation.

Sex work and NGOs in Portugal: a peripheral issue for a peripheral actor

The sale of sex has not been a major focus for activism and mobilisation in Portugal. Women’s groups have often been drawn from the female ranks of left-wing political parties and, until relatively recently, they rejected the ‘feminist’ label. Contraception and abortion were the main women’s issues for a long time, together with the more general struggle to rebuild Portuguese society following the transition to democracy in the 1970s.

Although prostitution was decriminalised in 1982, protecting the values and interests of society took priority over the interests of sex workers both in law and in public debate for a long time. One key moment came in 2003, when the ‘Mothers of Bragança’ mobilised in opposition to a perceived ‘invasion’ of the northern region of Portugal by Brazilian sex workers – whom they held responsible for disrupting the families’ economic balance by selling sexual services.

State institutions define what it means to effectively participate in anti-trafficking and set the terms of entry for organisations wanting in.

The framing of prostitution as a form of patriarchal violence by, especially, faith-based organisations has also made for a difficult environment in which to organise. Nevertheless, since 2011 some NGOs, sex workers and scholars have come together in a network, the Network on Sex Work (Rede sobre Trabalho Sexual), which represents a major breakthrough in the development of a pro-sex workers’ rights alliance within Portugal. But, some NGOs within the network still remain reluctant to publicly champion the cause due to their close relationship to the government and their involvement in anti-trafficking programmes.

Neoliberal actors in anti-trafficking

To better understand the contextual position of some of these NGOs, it is useful to consider that international anti-trafficking instruments leave it up to each state to determine the best way to address sex work through domestic legislation and policy. This is a necessary compromise, since governments have never been able to agree on a shared approach. From an anti-trafficking standpoint, the main goal of these instruments has been to develop the infrastructure required to support an anti-trafficking system. But in many countries, civil society organisations have used their presence to try and turn the fight against human trafficking into a fight against prostitution.

This has also happened in Portugal, although the fight against trafficking started slowly in the country. Civil society voices in Portugal are nowhere near as strong as they are in places such as the United States, and until recently human trafficking was considered a low priority by civil society and government alike. The impetus for change has primarily come from international pressure, especially the European Union.

Competing views on the sale of sex emerged as the Portuguese government began to develop its anti-trafficking system, creating a potential flashpoint. At the same time, the neoliberal construction of the system situated the state as the core agency in setting anti-trafficking rules and constructing trafficking subjectivities. State institutions now define what it means to effectively participate in anti-trafficking and set the terms of entry for organisations wanting in. To prevent potential conflict government officials carefully select the organisations they work with, and the partners they’ve chosen are ones they trust to not strongly advocate for changes in prostitution policy or against the current security-led approach to trafficking. For the NGOs concerned, the opportunity to join forces with the government is seen as highly attractive primarily because of the amount of capital that comes with it. The end result: a neoliberal bargain which has seen the Portuguese state elevate and incorporate civil society voices who have tacitly agreed to not be ‘too political’.

The most prominent example of this neoliberal bargain is the Family Planning Association (Associação para o Planeamento da Família), the main NGO working in anti-trafficking in Portugal. Since 2008, the association has run shelters, training activities, and awareness campaigns. It has also played a major role in coordinating local anti-trafficking networks set up with the help of the state and the EU. In recent times it has also expanded its programmes to facilitate the identification of ‘trafficking victims’ by the police and their subsequent repatriation, thereby consolidating its key position within the larger anti-trafficking system. The Family Planning Association has been part of the Network on Sex Work since 2011, but its involvement in anti-trafficking activities and funding has meant that it has become increasingly reluctant to champion a public position on sex work. Whenever it contributes to official anti-trafficking programmes it adopts a deliberately neutral position, despite having formally declared its support for sex worker rights in 2014.

The existing anti-trafficking system silences all related struggles, downsizes 'sex trafficking', and obstructs criticism of the existing security regime.

Other organisations also change their positions depending on context. This is the case of the Portuguese Association for Victim Support (Associação Portuguesa de Apoio à Vítima). Despite its participation in one of the main anti-trafficking networks supporting the sex workers’ rights movement, the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women (GAATW), this association does not publicly champion sex work at a national level. It avoids any participation in the public debate for the rights of sex workers and declares a ‘neutral’ position regarding the sale of sex. And, like the Family Planning Association, it also receives a substantial amount of government funding. In particular, it financially benefits as a subcontractor for trafficking ‘prevention’ activities and as a manager of a specialised shelter for trafficked women.

Some neo-abolitionist organisations, including women’s organisations, also engage in similar manoeuvres regarding the sale of sex. This is the case of the Women’s Democratic Movement (Movimento Democrático das Mulheres). By accepting the invitation of the main institutional anti-trafficking interlocutors to collaborate, the movement has left aside any struggle for new prostitution policies. In return, they are able to maintain a dialogue with the heavyweights in the field and access funding in this area – once again, mostly related to awareness-raising and training activities.

The Women’s Democratic Movement has an entirely different position on sex work to the Family Planning Association and the Association for Victim Support, yet all three organisations have ended end up with a common position – on the ‘fence’ – due to their shared connection to the Portuguese anti-trafficking system. Institutional constraints prevail over ideological and moral commitments.

Any chance to speak with ‘fence-sitters’?

There is an ongoing debate within Portugal over government policies regarding sex work, wherein different opinions are expressed and different civil society voices are recognised. Despite the difficulties posed by stigma and the substantial absence of any type of funding, a growing contribution to this debate is coming from sex workers themselves, in particular the Life Sharing Group (Grupo de Partilha D'a Vida) and the Sex Workers Movement (Movimento dxs Trabalhadorxs do Sexo). However, there is much less room for debate when it comes to human trafficking policies. The existing anti-trafficking system silences all related struggles, downsizes 'sex trafficking', and obstructs criticism of the existing security regime by positioning anti-trafficking within the larger war against crime.

NGOs embedded within this system find it hard to be effective allies to sex workers, depriving migrant sex workers especially of a critical source of protection from the problems they face in their working lives. Furthermore, it raises barriers between sex workers and other political actors inside and outside anti-trafficking. As a result, the fight against trafficking has lost much of its critical and transformative potential, and instead has strengthened the bureaucratic powers of the state over both ‘victims’ and other actors.

There is no easy way to persuade anti-trafficking NGOs to get off the fence. And these days there seems to be a lack of opportunities for engaging in critical debate. That said, one could imagine some structural changes that could make such persuasion easier. The emergence of new funding sources, for example, could potentially lead to a wider diversity of anti-trafficking actors, a robust debate on trafficking and its ‘victims’, and, with this, the chance of moving some organisations off the fence. Greater inclusion of migrants’ and workers’ rights organisations in Portuguese anti-trafficking could also change the discussion, if they are allowed to speak freely without risking their funding. And, of course, greater support for the self-organisation of migrant sex workers and their involvement in the fight against trafficking could potentially make sitting on the fence a much less attractive position. New research has also influenced some organisations to more strongly favour sex workers’ rights in Portugal, and thus we cannot underestimate the opportunity to strengthen critical research on trafficking and its dialogue with civil society organisations.

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