We asked sex worker rights groups and allies around the world to discuss what works and doesn't work when arguing for the decriminalisation of sex work. This series reports what they said.
It’s a well-established fact that if you want to win over an audience, you need to start by identifying common ground. Advocating for the decriminalisation of sex work to anti-trafficking actors is no different. But, to reach that ground, we must start by clearing away the pernicious arguments that obscure it.
First, we must undermine the fallacy that all sex work is trafficking for sexual exploitation, a notion deeply embedded in the history of international anti-trafficking instruments and much contemporary practice. If someone thinks this conflation is accurate, they are never going to agree with a decriminalisation position. We can counter it by providing real testimonies of women who sell sex without being trafficked, like many of those in the recently published report from the University of Bristol that explored that nature of contemporary sex work in England and Wales. Its many salient examples include people selling sex due to financial need, disability, frustration with job insecurity, discrimination and the need to flee domestic violence.
The idea that these circumstances are synonymous with those of women forced into selling sex under direct threat by a trafficker is plainly absurd. We should point out that such conflation is disrespectful to the horrific lived reality of trafficking, an experience that should never be instrumentalised for the ideological ends of a broad anti-sex work agenda.
When arguing against this conflation we must avoid being misunderstood as representing its crude opposite: the ‘happy hooker’ narrative that sees no problems in sex work and frames all those selling sex as choosing to do so in total freedom without any constraining factors. Instead, we should inject realism into this contentious debate by introducing the concept of a ‘continuum of choice’. This recognises a spectrum of experiences, ranging from freely chosen sex work as one viable economic option amongst many, through a range of circumstances with varying degrees of alternative options and constraints, to forced sex work, including those trafficked into it, at the sharp end.
We all want to end trafficking for sexual exploitation. Whatever our personal views on sex work in general, no one thinks one person forcing another to provide paid sexual services is acceptable.
Plant a flag on overlapping interests
Now that we have clarified that all sex work is not trafficking, and that we are also not apologists for a problematic sector, we can locate our common ground. I’ve often noticed sex worker rights activists advocating to anti-trafficking actors on the basis of the rights of sex workers in general. It’s a strategy that makes sense from the former’s perspective but doesn’t ring true with an audience whose day-to-day work is focused on the sharp end of that continuum. Agreeing to shared ground that’s specific to anti-trafficking itself would be more effective. Our starting agreement should be this: ‘we all want to end trafficking for sexual exploitation. Whatever our personal views on sex work in general, no one thinks one person forcing another to provide paid sexual services is acceptable.’
From this foundational agreement, we should tease out a core principle in approaching this topic: do no harm. Most people come into anti-trafficking work because they care about other human beings. Because they want to do something about human pain. It should be anathema to promote any policy that does the opposite. This is where we can behead the Nordic Model or ‘sex purchase ban’. I say behead because the Nordic Model is surely a zombie of a policy: evidence of its inefficacy and collateral damage should have killed it off and yet it keeps on coming. We should use the damning findings from Norway, France, Ireland and Northern Ireland to show the harm it causes and that it is also not proven to reduce trafficking.
Remind them of what they know
Having ruled out the sex purchase ban, we can bring decriminalisation into view by asking anti-trafficking actors to consider expertise from their wider work. It’s a strange truth that when it comes to sex-related trafficking, all other knowledge seems to go out the window. The ‘solutions’ provided would be laughable in other high-risk sectors, like fishing or farming. Do we think all fishermen should be regarded as victims because a proportion of those working in that sector are trafficked? No. Do we think traffickers exploit people within fishing because something about fish itself is morally dubious? No. Shall we criminalise the buyers of fish? Obviously not. Even if we take the less facetious example of cannabis farming, another criminalised sector, no one in the field is suggesting that criminalising the purchase of cannabis would ever prevent the use of trafficked labour in its production.
So, what can our wider anti-trafficking knowledge tell us? We know that people commit trafficking offences in order to make money. We know they need victims who can’t access basic rights or easily seek help. We also know that traffickers are generalists more than specialists; they exploit people in whichever sectors provide the most lucrative conditions. The sex sector, fully or partially criminalised nearly everywhere on Earth, is a perfect candidate.
Decriminalisation provides resilience and rights to the sex sector, making it less permeable to traffickers.
We also know what people need to protect themselves from victimisation. Rights, the ability to act together to protect those rights, enforcement of labour laws, pathways to migrate legally and independently, and trust in authorities so they can seek help. There is only one policy that can improve all of these factors simultaneously: decriminalisation. Implementing it would make the sex sector less attractive to traffickers while providing rights and protections to those in it overnight.
Decriminalisation provides resilience and rights to the sex sector, making it less permeable to traffickers, and allows sex worker-led organisations to partner with government-led anti-trafficking work. A useful example comes from South Africa, where the sex worker-led organisation Sisonke helped identify 38 girls and young women in Durban who had been trafficked and forced into selling sex. In other sectors, it is standard practice that better companies train workers to ‘spot the signs’ of victimisation in their peers. Should the sex sector really be missing out on this simply because of a societal discomfort with the exchange of sex for money? Similarly, decriminalisation creates opportunities for clients to support identification of victims. The New Zealand Prostitutes Collective (where decriminalisation for non-migrants is in place) receives calls from clients who are concerned about particular sex workers possibly being forced to provide services; why are we forgoing such crucial intelligence?
Learn to squash slippery slope arguments
A common concern raised in these conversations is that decriminalising sex work will lead to the decriminalisation of heinous acts like rape, assault or, indeed, coercion into sex work. That’s not the case and this is something on which we need to be very clear and very loud. In 1985, the International Committee for Prostitutes’ Rights (ICPR) launched the influential World Charter for Prostitutes’ Rights. This called for the decriminalisation “of all aspects of adult prostitution resulting from individual decision”, as well as for the enforcement of criminal laws against fraud, coercion, violence, child sexual abuse, child labour, rape and racism.
Under decriminalisation, then, acts that are crimes outside of sex work would remain crimes within it. In fact, decriminalisation would improve sex workers’ access to justice for crimes like rape or assault because they could report what happened without fear of prosecution.
Even with these key points made, many anti-trafficking actors will still feel uncomfortable with supporting decriminalisation because it feels as if they’re saying everything is fine with sex work in general. People have said this to me many times. We must do two things when this objection appears.
First, we must acknowledge it respectfully. There is plenty wrong in the world of sex work. It’s ok to feel discomfort with the purchase of sexual services at any point along the continuum of choice, particularly in a patriarchal and consumer-capitalist world in which women are commonly objectified and economically dispossessed. We can support sex workers’ rights without having to support the existence of sex work.
Second, we must redirect this concern to where it is more appropriate. It is perfectly reasonable to want a world in which no person feels they have to sell sex. We can fight for that world by fighting the drivers of that necessity. Those drivers are not traffickers or men who want to buy sex. They are poverty, restrictive migration policies, unrealistic drug policies, lack of flexible work, lack of free childcare, discrimination and so on. They are, in fact, things that most of us experience as constraining our daily lives to lesser and greater degrees.
This leads us to the final point we must make: we are all in this together. The woman who has sold sex in her past. The woman who is selling sex right now. The mother whose benefits payment is late and is wondering about going onto the street. The woman who thought someone was helping her to migrate but is now forced into selling sex. The caseworker working long hours in her fight to support trafficking survivors. All of us.
Those who promote criminalising models would have us believe we are divided. They’re wrong. We all want an end to harm to women, whether caused by an individual perpetrator or by a perpetrating state. Decriminalisation is a major leap forward on the journey to that goal. It won’t solve trafficking in and of itself, but it will make the sector less attractive to would-be perpetrators whilst building resilience and rights into its heart. It won’t stop women from selling sex along the remainder of the continuum either, but it will make them safer in the process. There really is no other option if women’s safety and rights is our aim.
Emily Kenway is a former adviser to the first Independent Anti Slavery Commissioner. This article represents her own views and not those of any institution.
Have your own ideas about effectively speaking about and arguing for the decriminalisation of sex work? Write to us.