Beyond Trafficking and Slavery: Interview

Criminalising sex workers’ clients makes trafficking worse

Andrew Wallis, the CEO of Unseen, tells us what he really thinks about attempts to introduce Nordic-style legislation in Britain

Andrew Wallis
18 August 2021, 6.00am
Paul Davey/Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

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Andrew Wallis is founder and CEO of Unseen, a UK-based charity in England that has worked to end human trafficking and modern slavery since 2007. Beyond Trafficking and Slavery caught up with Andrew to ask him why so many anti-trafficking organisations, including Unseen, do not take an explicit stand on sex work, and what the consequences of that non-position might be. We also asked him about recent attempts led by Labour MP Diana Johnson to get the Nordic model of sex work introduced into the UK Parliament. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Emily Kenway (BTS): Why did you found Unseen?

Andrew Wallis (Unseen): Back in 2007 the understanding around trafficking was overwhelmingly one of trafficking for sexual exploitation. And then there were these other things – such as forced labour and domestic servitude – that were annoyances off to the side. I was concerned about exploitation as a whole, not any one of these on their own. I approached a whole bunch of charities and asked what I could do, and they basically told me to bugger off. So, I said, ‘All right, fine. I'll set up something and get on with it.’

Andrew Wallis.jpg
Andrew Wallis | Used with permission

If you start something new, you're disrupting. And if I think back to 2007, the focus was on the immediacy. There was very little focus on the strategic, on the big levers that needed to be pulled. I started Unseen to provide direct support to victims and to effect change at a systemic level. I wanted to do both. And we would say that what we do on the front line always informs what we do at the strategic level.

Our first foray was setting up safe housing. We then became part of the process for the National Referral Mechanism, which handles suspected cases of human trafficking, and from there we expanded into outreach and reintegration work. In 2013, as chairman of the slavery working group at The Centre For Social Justice, I led on the creation of the report ‘It happens here: equipping the United Kingdom to fight modern slavery’. This report had a big impact on the UK Government, and it is one of the reasons why the UK passed the Modern Slavery Act in 2015. So ten years ago we were pushing for a lot of changes at once: we wanted an anti-slavery commissioner, a helpline, better support for the victims, better understanding of how children are involved, and transparency and supply chain legislation for businesses. Our goal has always been to see how quickly we can achieve systemic change so we can actually end exploitation.

Emily: Where do you think questions regarding the sex sector and sexual exploitation fit within the trafficking sector in the UK?

Andrew: Let me give a slightly historical answer to that question. I once took part in a meeting in the House of Commons or House of Lords, I can’t remember which, on the intersection of sex work and trafficking for sexual exploitation. It’s seared into my mind because it descended into an absolute shouting match. For me it was just semantics – of course the two are linked. But for the others in the room, it was a turf war.

You had everybody at once. You had those that were saying, ‘You should ban all sex work and that would resolve the demand issue.’ You had those arguing for complete decriminalisation. You even had government officials trying to hold the line of, ‘we've got legislation that works’. I don't know how they had the temerity to even say that. Everybody was in their entrenched positions.

There was no point entering into this debate because it is just too toxic.

My take from that experience was that this is such a hot button issue. How do you navigate it without causing eruptions from somebody? Everybody was fiercely holding their lines so that you could never find a middle ground, or find compromise, or even have a dialogue that was worth having about the problems.

I was once a trustee for the One25 project in Bristol, which works with street-based sex workers. I felt like I understood the awful impact on an individual when they reach the level of street-based sex work. And for me, it was irrelevant whether or not the person had chosen to engage in sex work before they began to be exploited. The point was that they were now being exploited – so let’s help them.

Emily: So has Unseen taken a public position about the regulation of commercial sex work?

Andrew: No, and partly because of that meeting in Parliament. It was just like, ‘Whoa, okay. This is a minefield.’ I would say that different views are held in Unseen. And it's not a problem. We're very clear in terms of what our boundaries are, and that we're against all types of exploitation and particularly those that meet the threshold of trafficking. But I didn't want us to get drawn into this discussion. I didn't think it was going anywhere or that it would achieve anything. That wasn’t a philosophical or moral stance, it was pragmatic. There was no point entering into this debate because it is just too toxic.

Emily: Did the internally different positions also make that complex to navigate?

Andrew: No, I don't think that was an inhibitor. It was that if we say anything, we're just going to invite fire and brimstone from some sector. And what does that achieve?

Emily: That meeting in Parliament was quite a while ago. Has there been an ongoing conversation around this at Unseen, or did it more or less stop there? Did Freedom United’s recent announcement that it supports decriminalisation, for example, spur a conversation in the office?

Andrew: It's not a huge area of discussion for us. I think for my frontline colleagues, they're too focused on dealing with what's in front of them. And then at the organisational level, our standpoint is to ask what works and where's the evidence. And if there isn't evidence to show that it works, then why are we doing it?

Over the past 14 years, I've seen funding, policy, procedure, and government action based on the flimsiest of evidence. And my response to that is, ‘That is a waste of time, energy, and money. And it's not moving things forward.’ Yet we keep making the same mistakes because we’re not taking the time to gather evidence on what works, and then doing that. If you do that the whole discussion moves from the emotive camp to the practical camp, and that's where we need to be. That’s where Unseen tries to be, and in some ways it diffuses the contentiousness of it.

Emily: Commercial sex is treated differently than other forms of labour exploitation. The package of tools that people talk about for construction, or agriculture, or factories – trade unions, labour inspections, etc. – doesn’t get translated across. Why do you think that happens, and what makes commercial sex such a politically sensitive issue?

Andrew: I think there are a number of things at play. Part of the problem with such deep-seated issues is that the approaches of the various agents involved are fundamentally different. There are also no easy solutions or quick wins, and when that’s the case we end up hamstrung by our political system. You’ve basically got a two-year window before politicians are thinking about re-election, but if you're going to address any complex issue you need to be thinking in terms of 20 to 40 years. We’re talking generations. That can’t be done within the political construct – it will always be kicked into the long grass for being too difficult to deal with.

I think the second thing is that there's a huge amount of misogyny at play in tackling it.

Third, I think you have very loud voices with opinions that aren't necessarily backed up with fact. Everybody's talking very, very loudly and nobody's listening to anybody else. You also have a historical legacy, in that our mishmash of laws around prostitution have been built up over time and – still – are hung up on Victorian values. Then you have public sentiment, which has a lot of denial in it. One in 10 men purchase sex, something I always like throwing in at a conference, which meets up with that ‘what if it was your daughter’ question. I could go on and on. So when you then say, ‘Okay, so what about this issue?’, you have all of these things intersecting at once.

I think we have to have the humility to accept that this is a really complex issue, that we need to go slowly, that we need to hear from all voices, and that we actually need to try and define the outcomes we want. Some of those outcomes may be the least-worst options.

Emily: When you said misogyny is part of the problem, what do you mean? Do you mean buying sex demonstrates misogyny? Or do you mean that wanting to give sex workers rights hits up against misogyny and people not caring about sex workers?

Andrew: When I was doing the ‘It Happens Here’ report, we looked at the Nordic model and I ended up having a long conversation with the Swedish minister who brought the Nordic legislation into effect. It was really, really revealing. The takeaway for me was that it came out of 40 years of gender equality legislation. What they said was, when someone purchases sex a transactional relationship forms that creates an imbalance between the buyer and seller. They brought in the Nordic model to try and correct that imbalance. It then got jumped upon in terms of trafficking, but even back in 2011/12 when I had this conversation they were saying that the evidence for reducing trafficking was pretty thin.

We cannot support the introduction of Nordic model-type legislation if it is put under the banner of tackling trafficking because there’s no evidence for it.

Emily: Trafficking certainly features in the rhetoric supporting the Nordic model now, but you’re saying combating trafficking wasn't actually the intention of the Swedish government. So the evidence is so poor because that wasn’t the point?

Andrew: It is my understanding from that conversation that it wasn't the intention when they brought it in. They weren’t trying to address trafficking per se, they were trying to address the gender imbalance created through the transactional relationship.

I brought this up at a conference in Northern Ireland when they were considering bringing in the Nordic Model. I asked the conference why they thought that uplifting a piece of legislation from one jurisdiction and dumping it into a totally different jurisdiction would yield the same results. Or that doing so would even be appropriate? To me, that's just unthinking, that's lazy. It was a moralistic crusade. I got quite a bit of blowback when I said this, but I feel like the results now coming out of Northern Ireland have proven me right.

I went over Diana Johnson’s recent proposal for the UK and it's Northern Ireland all over again. They are arguing that criminalising buyers is going to deliver something, when there is no evidence at all that it's going to deliver that thing. There is an absence of hard evidence that shows that it works. As Unseen we're saying that we cannot support the introduction of Nordic model-type legislation if it is put under the banner of tackling trafficking because there’s no evidence for it. In fact, the evidence is to the contrary: it makes the situation worse.

Emily: Unseen, and indeed lots of the sector, haven't taken a public position on this topic for the reasons you described. But do you think you can take effective action against trafficking in the sex sector without having a position on the regulation of commercial sex?

Andrew: I just don't see the evidence for what is being put forward at the moment. I can't get behind it. Not just the Nordic model – all the models being proposed. Take the Dutch model. If you go down that route, you actually see an uptick in trafficking for sexual exploitation. I’ve spoken with everybody from the former Dutch Rapporteur and the Dutch Police to Dutch NGOs and they’re all consistent on that. Or you go with the German model. Again, all the NGOs I’ve spoken to in Germany, as well as German legislators in private, say that the model attracts further trafficking for sexual exploitation. Or you go down the path of the New Zealand model. I've been to New Zealand a couple of times, I've talked with organisations there, and what they do is not the panacea either.

Everybody is looking for a silver bullet solution, and that's just not life. So I keep coming back to the questions that we need to be asking. Why are people ending up in these situations? Why is there demand for trafficking for sexual exploitation? How can we address the fundamental demand for purchased sex? The drivers for exploitation are around cheap goods, cheap services, cheap labour. I used to add cheap sex to the list until I got told off for it. But I was saying it for a point – it is labour.

The really hard work is around how you address those demands. They are ingrained societal demands, not just in the UK but everywhere. It's almost like people will purchase sex regardless of what you do. Why? I think I agree actually with the Swedish minister. In that moment where you end up in a transactional relationship you don't have equality. Fundamentally, what we're talking about is how to create an equal society. And if you're perpetuating things or allowing things that create inequality, then over time problems start to emerge.

Emily: What was your reaction to the open letter from Decrim Now that strongly opposes the introduction of Nordic Model-type legislation in the UK?

Andrew: I was going to sign that letter as Unseen’s CEO, and it was completely my fault that my name didn't get onto that letter. I wanted one word to be changed. I could have signed it whether or not the word was changed, but then I was too busy and I missed the deadline.

I think where I am – this is not Unseen's position but where I am – is that I agree. I think decriminalisation is important. But I worry that it too is being viewed as a silver bullet. I said already that the response needs to be generational and holistic. My fear is that we'll do this one thing, and then there will be unforeseen consequences as well as things that don’t get done because we did decrim.

Back to my conversation with Sweden: the other thing they stressed was that when they brought the legislation in, they also brought in funding to provide support and pathways out of sex work for those that wanted it. It was a package. Now, I'm not passing judgement on whether or not it has worked. All I’m saying is that complex problems need comprehensive, complex solutions, ones which are properly resourced, tested, and evidenced. In the UK, I think we need a long-term commission to unpack it, understand it, and put in place what's needed.

I think decriminalisation is important. But I worry that it too is being viewed as a silver bullet.

Emily: One of the recent developments in this space is that more and more people are saying that migrants and sex workers should be included in the conversation. This is obviously harder to do under criminalising models than under decriminalisation. Do you think it's relevant to have sex workers in the conversation about what the trafficking sector should do about the sex industry?

Andrew: Of course. They absolutely have to be in the conversation. They need to be informing what enables them to be ‘safe’ and what allows them to identify things that are unsafe. That, to me, is an immediate goal. But I also want them in the conversation because, just as we talked to victims of trafficking, we should be talking to sex workers. This is the bit that's just not done. And I feel I'm banging my head against a brick wall with the Home Office on this one. There is continual talk at an extremely general level around the push factors into exploitation. The narrative there hasn’t changed for 10 years. But we did a bit of work internally within Unseen and it doesn't match that narrative. You've got to talk to people that are in it and affected by it if you want to get the story right.

If we don't talk to people directly then it's always filtered. Even talking to me about what trafficking victims feel, I'm filtering it and processing it and I'm going to give an opinion. You sometimes want it raw. But then the question becomes, how do you go from the raw and the anecdotal to a statistical level that holds true? How do you find a balance between individual stories and systemic issues?

This chat has brought to mind something else, which is that I’ve found myself wondering how much the UK is being influenced by the United States. There’s something that always confuses me whenever I go to the US. I go there thinking that I know what I’m talking about when it comes to trafficking. But when I arrive in the US, I find myself thinking that a) I really don’t understand this country and b) I don’t understand what is going on here. If you look at the trafficking organisations in the US, you’ll see that there is an obsession with sex trafficking to the nth degree. And it is in combination with the huge preponderance of faith-based charities there as well. You’ve got 50 states with different laws around prostitution, they have a massive problem with ‘child prostitution’, and it all dominates the conversation around trafficking in a really unhealthy way. The big funders in the US also have very clear positions and clear funding preferences. I wonder if some of that is starting to creep into the UK discourse as well.

Emily: What do you think it will mean for the commercial sex sector, and for trafficking within that sector, if Diana Johnson succeeds and we end up with the Nordic model in the UK?

Andrew: I think we can say with certainty that it won't be Sweden. It will be a variation on Northern Ireland. Crudely speaking, we’d bring in the Nordic legislation on top of the current system and that would deliver the same results. Systems are perfectly designed to deliver the results you get, and if you don’t like the results, you actually have to change the whole system. You can't just put the sticking plaster on it. And that's what I think this is.

Nobody is disputing what Diana Johnson is saying, that sex trafficking is hugely wrong and damaging and something should be done about it. That’s fine, not a problem Diana. But doing something when there is no evidence that it works and when there is evidence to the contrary, and thinking that just because you’re doing it in England and Wales you’re going to have a different outcome – that’s just nonsensical.

Emily: So in terms of the effect it would have on the trafficking, the effect would be either be negligible or make it worse.

Andrew: No. Make it worse. It will make it worse. Everywhere that they've brought that type of the legislation in, all the evidence shows it doesn't work. It makes the situation around trafficking worse. It drives it further underground. It will hurt those that you're trying to help.

Emily: Are you comfortable with anti-trafficking being used as one of the key reasons to promote and support Nordic models?

Andrew: No, I'm not comfortable. I'm hugely uncomfortable with it. My question is this: which trafficking organisations have Diana Johnson and others talked to that have led them to this position? We looked at the Nordic model when we wrote ‘It Happens Here’, I’ve spoken to academics since, and I’ve looked and looked and looked and I can find no evidence in defence of this.

Emily: Any final thoughts?

Andrew: Just one further observation on engaging with survivors or workers. Years ago, I asked a clinical psychologist about the journey to recovery for somebody who has been exploited.

What is the timeline? They of course said that everybody is individual, but if we’re talking in generalisations there is probably at least a seven-year window between exiting exploitation and being able to talk about the issue without retraumatising. A minimum of seven years. So, this whole thing of greater incorporation of survivor voice: I'm not opposed to it, but we need to remember our duty of care.

I once went to an international conference where I met up with a number of good friends who are survivors of trafficking. During dinner one of them said to me, ‘What you probably forget, and we forgive you for forgetting it, is that even though we can talk about it, the impact of it is with us always. So even things like if I go to the toilet, I can't close the door and lock the door. It just triggers me. Because I'm in a small, confined space and locked. And I live with that every day. And I can put things in place to cope with it, but things can still trigger me.’

So, when we say that we want to hear those voices, we have a duty of care as to how we do that. And I think we also have a responsibility to recognise that just as we filter things, they filter things because of the circumstances that they've been through. I’m bringing this up to re-emphasise the complexity around this. How we both receive and give information is really, really critical. Especially with something that's so emotive as this.

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