Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

For decriminalisation and justice: sex workers demand legal reform and social change

Austerity has increased poverty, particularly for women, while the rise of the far right has exacerbated hostilities against migrants and LGBT people, catching sex workers in a web of intersectional vulnerability.

International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe
29 February 2016


ICRSE convenes in Paris. Provided by author. All Rights Reserved.

The struggle for sex workers’ rights intersects with many other social movements. Contrary to the monolithic abolitionist discourse, which portrays all sex workers as ‘prostituted women’ without agency, the sex worker community is diverse and resilient. Sex workers are male, female and non-binary, LGBTQ, migrants and non-migrant workers. Supporting sex workers’ rights means understanding the diversity and complexity of their lives and involving sex workers from diverse communities in decision-making, policy-making and debates.

To commemorate the tenth anniversary of the
Declaration on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe, the International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe (ICRSE) published a report on 10 years of sex workers' rights activism and advocacy in Europe and Central Asia and launched it on 30 November 2015 at the European Parliament in front of an audience of sex workers, members of the European Parliament, European Commission representatives, and civil society groups.

One of the key demands of the sex worker movement – the call for decriminalisation – has received mainstream attention since Amnesty International’s August 2015 vote on its sex work policy and the loud debate that preceded and followed it. Amnesty International has now joined other human rights NGOs and international organisations, such as Human Rights Watch, La Strada International, the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women, the World Health Organisation, and several UN agencies, in their call for the decriminalisation of sex work and the promotion of a rights-based approach.

Due to the current high visibility of sex workers’ rights and the growing evidence in support of decriminalisation, there has never been a better moment to reflect on how sex workers’ demands intersect with the social struggles of workers, women, migrants, and LGBT people. Indeed, the movement does not merely call for a single legal reform – the decriminalisation of sex work. It is an integral part of wider social movements that push for greater economic and gender equality, and that vocally oppose homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, racism, sexism, and classism.

One of the core values of the sex worker movement is the acceptance of sex work as work. Only through this framing can we understand why most people enter the sex industry: to earn money. When the movement recognises sex work as an economic activity it also emphasises that sex work is, in most cases, a precarious form of labour. Precarious employment is characterised by insecurity and exploitative conditions, and can include illegalised, seasonal, and temporary employment as well as home work, temp-work, sub-contracting, and self-employment. Sex workers, like many other care workers with limited economic options – including women with low socio-economic status, undocumented migrants, and trans people – are frequently pushed out of the formal economy and left without labour protection.

Already marginalised groups have been further affected by the ongoing social and care crisis in Europe. Since the 2008 economic downturn, many European states have implemented austerity measures that specifically target social and health budgets, social protection, and education. This has contributed to increasing levels of poverty, social exclusion, inequality, and unemployment, thereby shrinking the lives of many people, especially those traditionally excluded from the labour market.

The feminisation of poverty and the punishment of migrants

Consequently, a feminisation of poverty can be observed all over Europe. Women’s employment has decreased due to dramatic cuts in the public sector, where women form the majority of employees. Women are also hit hard by cuts in essential social services, such as childcare and health services. As a result, we have seen the numbers of sex workers rise in countries where the number of available jobs in the formal economy have declined, for instance in Greece. In the crisis-struck country, where the majority of sex workers used to be migrants from Eastern Europe, Greek nationals now form the largest sex worker group. In the UK, the majority of today’s sex workers previously held jobs in healthcare, social care, education, childcare or charities, sectors which have all seen severe cuts in recent years.

When the sex worker movement addresses precarisation and exploitation in care work, including sex work, it recognises that one of the most affected groups is (undocumented) migrant sex workers. In many European countries migrants constitute up to 75% of sex workers. They may lack permanent or ongoing permits and documentation, and may be subjected to violence and labour exploitation. The increasing use of the ‘trafficking’ concept and legal framework – developed as tools to fight international criminal activities rather than to support victims – has so far failed to protect ‘victims of trafficking’ and migrant sex workers. Instead, they have been used as anti-sex work and anti-migration tools, justifying raids on sex work venues and deportations of migrant workers. The sex workers’ movement has been calling for an end to the conflation of sex work, migration, and trafficking so that adequate resources can be put in place to support migrant sex workers who are victims of exploitation and violence.

The so-called Swedish Model, i.e. the criminalisation of clients, exposes migrant sex workers to the threats of police repression, arrest, and deportation as much as any other form of criminalisation, thereby denying them their right to justice and redress. Furthermore, some of those seeking refuge by migrating to Europe choose to sell sexual services due to a very limited set of options. Any argument made towards the criminalisation of sex work that ignores the working and living conditions of migrant sex workers is not only dangerous, but plays into the hands of the increasingly racist and anti-migrant agendas of more and more state and non-state actors.

Intersectional vulnerabilities

In addition to policies directly or indirectly criminalising the sex industry, the living and working conditions of sex workers in Europe can only be understood by taking wider socio-economic conditions and processes into consideration. As previously stated, the increasing precarisation of labour and feminisation of poverty has had a negative impact on women and especially undocumented migrants. However, efforts to criminalise vulnerability also threaten the lives of several other groups.

The increasingly homophobic and transphobic social climate that we have today – fuelled by anti-LGBT rhetoric, the strengthening of far-right parties in many countries, the criminalisation of same-sex relationships (i.e. northern Cyprus, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan), as well as the prohibition of ‘promoting homosexuality’ (i.e. Russia) – all push LGBT people to the margins of society. This is one of the reasons why many LGBT people use sex work as a livelihood option. This is particularly true for trans women, LGBT people of colour, and LGBT migrants. Due to intersectional stigma, LGBT sex workers are further exposed to discrimination and hate crimes, and are excluded from services and justice.

In this social and care crisis, many governments increasingly address social and health issues with punishment. This treatment undermines the situation of various excluded groups, including sex workers, people who use drugs, homeless people, or anyone with intersectional vulnerabilities. Public order ordinances punish the homeless and repressive drug policies criminalise drug use, while social budgets are downsized for public housing, shelters, and health services.

Sex workers have mobilised for decades – often from the margins – against these trends. The movement demands that sex workers are not treated as victims of patriarchy, trafficking, or violence perpetrated by men, but as they truly are: experts not only on issues concerning sex work, but also on issues of migration, social marginalisation, women’s rights, and LGBT rights.

This article is published as part of the 'Sex workers speak: who listens?' series on Beyond Trafficking and Slavery, generously sponsored by COST Action IS1209 ‘Comparing European Prostitution Policies: Understanding Scales and Cultures of Governance' (ProsPol). ProsPol is funded by COST. The University of Essex is its Grant Holder Institution.

The Beyond Slavery Newsletter Receive a round-up of new content straight to your inbox Sign up now


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData