Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Convenient conflations: modern slavery, trafficking, and prostitution

Laws to reduce buying sex, such as proposed amendments to the Modern Slavery Bill, are not only ineffective, but their moral underpinnings drive them to single out sex work while ignoring other sectors in which women are at risk of exploitation.

Julia O'Connell Davidson
4 November 2014

Hundreds marched in London in 2012 to demand justice and protection from rape. Yanice Idir/Demotix. All Rights Reserved.

The UK’s Modern Slavery Bill will have its third reading today (4 November), and an amendment that would criminalize the demand for commercial sexual services will be debated. The amendment was proposed by Fiona Mactaggart (Labour MP-Slough) as a means by which ‘to “discourage demand” for trafficked people’. But independent academic research suggests that only a tiny minority of workers in the UK sex industry fit the criteria recognized by the relevant authorities as constitutive of ‘trafficking’. It also shows that people who pay for sex are a diverse group whose motivations vary widely, and that some go to great lengths to avoid buying sex in settings where they believe workers might be coerced into prostitution. Indeed, there are many cases in which clients have alerted the police to the presence of forced labour in brothels, precisely because they think it is wrong.

Fiona Mactaggart’s amendments would insert the following into the Modern Slavery Bill

New Clause: Procuring sex for payment (amendment NC21)
1. A person commits an offence under this section if he or she procures sexual intercourse or any other sexual act, whether for himself or herself or for another person, in return for payment.

2. ‘payment’ includes–
a. payment that is promised or given by another person

b. provision of non-financial benefits, including but not limited to drugs or alcohol.

And, to the penalties clause (amendment 64)
3a. A person guilty of an offence under section (Procuring sex for payment) is liable on summary conviction, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 12 months or a fine or both.

Access all documents relating to the Modern Slavery Bill

Domestic work, especially live-in domestic work, is another site in which some workers are known to be subject to violence, abuse, confinement and exploitation. Fiona Mactaggart is also concerned about this, and has challenged the government’s new visa rules that tie migrant domestic workers to their employers. Once again, those who pay for such services are a heterogeneous group. Some apparently enjoy the exercise of coercive power for its own sake, some are extremely kind and decent, and plenty fall between the two extremes. But one significant difference between those who pay for sex and those who employ domestic workers is that, while the former have only fleeting contact with sex workers, employers of live-in domestic workers (and au pairs) house them for lengthy periods of time. They live with them, determine their pay, living and working conditions, and know whether the worker remains of her own free will. When domestic workers are ‘trafficked’, employers are not merely consumers of the product of their labour, but personally exact forced labour from them. If there was any logic to Mactaggart’s amendment, it would apply equally, if not more forcefully, to demand for live-in domestic workers than it does to demand for commercial sexual services. So why no calls to penalize all buyers of women and girls for exploitation in domestic work?

The answer, of course, is that paying someone to live in your home as your servant is not socially stigmatised in the way that paying someone for sexual services is. Employers of domestic servants are presumed innocent until proven otherwise, while the latter are a priori perceived to be guilty of a (moral) crime. In other words, calls to criminalize sex buyers express a set of moral and political values about prostitution. They do not address a unique or specific link between demand for prostitution and ‘trafficking’.

Politicians like Mactaggart do not even consistently express these moral and political values. If they did, they would also call for the criminalization of the sex buyer in the context of commercially produced pornography involving adults, as well as prostitution. Possession, as well as the production, distribution, and advertisement of indecent photographs of children is already criminalized. But adults can also sometimes be subject to coercion, exploitation, and violence in the production of pornography. If we are to accept that demand for commercial sexual services within prostitution causes ‘trafficking’, why aren’t we also asked to accept that demand for all commercially produced pornography is a ‘root cause’ of this problem? Radical feminists and religious fundamentalists do argue this. But here, the alliance between them and governmental actors breaks down.

The disjuncture between how policy-makers approach prostitution and how they approach pornography is rather nicely illustrated by the views of the former British Home Secretary Jacqui Smith. In November 2008, as Home Secretary, Smith announced proposals to shift the government’s focus onto sex buyers ‘because they create demand for prostitution and demand for the trafficking of women for sex’. Smith was caught up in the parliamentary expenses scandal a few months later, and it was revealed, among other things, that she had claimed expenses for a telecom bill which included charges for two pornographic films viewed by her husband. After her parliamentary career ended, Smith made a documentary on pornography for BBC Radio 5 Live. Where in relation to prostitution she had stated ‘There will be no more excuses for those who pay for sex’, the documentary demonstrated she was quite able to find excuses for those provide the demand for pornography. She reiterated these views in a March 2011 column for The Independent:

I'm pretty sure that there are plenty of people who make an informed decision to work in the porn industry – they make a choice to stay, based on the money they can earn and some even enjoy it… People use porn because it's enjoyable. Couples sometimes use it together. Men aren't turned into monsters by watching a bit of pay TV!.

The production and distribution of pornography is a multi-billion dollar industry, largely integrated into the formal mainstream taxable economy, and largely controlled and organized by sizeable, sometimes huge multi-national corporations. The politics, not to mention the costs, of attempting to stamp out this industry by penalizing those who consume its products are very different from those of suppressing the far, far smaller market for prostitution by criminalizing men caught paying sex workers for services.

It might be objected that pornography has to be approached differently because there is no clear line between its commercial and non-commercial forms. But drawing lines between the ‘commercial’ and the ‘non-commercial’ is also difficult in relation to domestic work and prostitution (is an au pair a domestic worker? Is a ‘trophy bride’ a sex worker?) Pornography, prostitution and domestic work all sit uneasily with the liberal distinction between ‘public’ and ‘private’ life that is so important to the way in which power relations are imagined and regulated. But prostitution gets singled out as a peculiar problem requiring special and particular control.

Laws that penalize demand for commercial sexual services are widely condemned by groups concerned with the safety, human rights and civil liberties of those who work in prostitution. There is a long and tragic history of state intervention into forms of sexual expression deemed ‘deviant’. If Mactaggart’s amendment is carried, it will smuggle (or traffic?) sexual acts involving consenting adults into a bill that is ostensibly about ‘slavery’. It will thus add to the already disturbing list of ways in which this bill conflates the protection of human rights with a project of strengthening of the state’s powers to control and punish.


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