Beyond Trafficking and Slavery: Feature

The importance of unpopularity: taking a position on law and policy on sex work

Anti-trafficking work runs aground wherever it tries to avoid taking a position on sex work

Klara Skrivankova
16 August 2021, 9.00am
Decrim NY marches in 2019
Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

Verbal fencing around sex work and the regulation of prostitution is common in the anti-trafficking field. Sometimes the arguments are fierce, with passionate advocates on both sides committed to demonstrating that theirs is the ‘right’ approach. So much energy can be expended trying to win the argument that it can be easy to overlook those who silently watch from the sidelines. There are many bystanders to this particular contest – far too many.

Is neutrality on difficult issues ever justified in the social justice space? Taking a principled stance against injustice can upset those with different perspectives. Yet, careful silence can become connivance. Promoting the rights of others is not a popularity contest.

Who is who?

Twenty years ago the cards were on the table. We used to know each other’s stance on sex work. But over the last two decades the anti-trafficking sector has become so skittish on the topic, so silent, that one almost hears a whisper: just don’t mention sex work.

When I started working in the field in 2000, one of the first things my more experienced colleagues explained was the positioning of other anti-trafficking organisations. Part of my induction was learning who was abolitionist (supportive of the Swedish/Nordic model under which the selling of sex is legal, but buying of sexual services is illegal) and who was pro sex workers’ rights (supportive of the decriminalisation of sex work and affording sex workers all rights and protections enjoyed by workers in other industries). This information was crucial for collaborations and also made it possible to anticipate likely confrontations in meetings where both sides were present.

Looking back, I would say that things were easier to navigate back then. There weren’t that many organisations, nearly all of them worked only with women and girls trafficked for sexual exploitation, and pretty much everyone engaged in some kind of policy and advocacy work. Meanwhile, governments at the time were still denying that human trafficking was even a problem.

It is very hard to change public opinion if you avoid confrontations and robust arguments.

Over time the field got busier. International conventions and national laws were passed. The focus broadened to include trafficking in many sectors of the economy and of all people. And anti-trafficking organisations appeared that only sought to provide services to victims – they had no explicit policy and advocacy aims. However, one can neither end nor even reduce modern slavery by only providing services to those trafficked, in the same way as governments cannot prosecute themselves out of the problem. The root causes must be tackled.

With growing number of ‘apolitical’ service providers the anti-trafficking field has become muddier and the positions taken by organisations on policies surrounding sex work are less clear. The group of the undecided has grown.

Getting off the fence

The way to ‘fence-sitting’ seems to have been paved by regulators. The custodians of the two main European legal instruments – the Council of Europe with its Anti-Trafficking Convention, and the European Commission with its Anti-Trafficking Directive – have both avoided taking a clear position on sex work. This was a necessary compromise, as it would have be impossible to reconcile the divergent views of member states on this issue. Hence, both legal instruments are limited to discouraging the demand for services from victims of all forms of trafficking, and individual countries are left to adopt their own approach on sex work. Without this compromise, it would have been impossible for 47 and 28 countries respectively to agree on a common legal text. Yet, this also appears to have sent a message that it is possible to deal with trafficking without taking up the question of sex work.

But is it?

Over the years, I have heard many organisations explain that they don’t take an explicit position. Many of these are service providers who do not wish to be political. It is okay not to have position if you have not had the opportunity to think it through properly, consult relevant stakeholders (especially survivors of trafficking and sex workers) and consider organisational impact. However, maintaining neutrality as a stance because the issue is controversial, or out of fear of upsetting someone, is difficult to justify if your mission as an organisation is to end human trafficking. It is very hard to change public opinion if you try and avoid confrontations and robust arguments.

Organisations which sit on the fence frequently find it hard to grapple with the fact that laws and policies are often the very structures and systems that enable trafficking to occur in the first place. Take the example of kafala – a tied visa system common across the Middle East. It binds migrant workers to their employers, giving them total control over the workers’ status. This has led to widespread exploitation. However, it would be simplistic to say that changing a visa regime alone would stop trafficking.

The overseas domestic worker visa in the UK is a case in a point. For a period of time between 1998 and 2012 domestic workers were able to change employers. Many workers used the opportunity to run away from exploitative employers, get support from NGOs, and find better employers. Workers had more agency and were able to act against exploitation without losing their status. While the position of workers improved, the change did not completely stop trafficking for domestic servitude because other systemic issues stayed unchanged. For example, enforcement remained weak and exploitative employers rarely faced prosecution, facts which made it easy for them to bring other workers into the UK for the purposes of exploitation whenever one found the courage to leave.

We know that systems and structures impact on the risk of trafficking and our ability to advocate for solutions. Commitment to eradicating the structural causes that lead to trafficking – be they labour market regulation, migration policies, or how rights are enforced – should be the raison d’etre of the anti-trafficking movement.

That said, no individual policy or regulation will end trafficking, though some can go a long way towards facilitating it. This applies to sex work as well. Evidence from countries that took different stances on sex work, such as the Netherlands and Sweden, show that. Analyses, such as those carried out by the Group of Experts on Trafficking in Human Beings of the Council of Europe (GRETA) show that trafficking still occurs in both countries. They also show that when policies narrowly concentrate on a particular sector problems elsewhere can go unseen. For example, GRETA noted that Sweden, known for promoting the Nordic Model, “focus[es] on sexual exploitation and therefore not all forms of human trafficking are sufficiently addressed”.

The opposing sides of debate over sex work don’t agree on much, but they do share a common focus on causes of exploitation entrenched in systems and structures. And while these groups often vociferously disagree on what these causes are and how to solve them, they are all right on a point of process: change needs to occur through transforming structures and systems. That is unavoidably a political project. Avoiding the issue of sex work policy weakens efforts to eradicate some of the most egregious manifestations of human trafficking because it allows governments to pretend that only traffickers cause trafficking and that states themselves play no role.

The focus on systemic change can sometimes provide a common purpose and bring together organisations with different stances on sex work. One example is the United Kingdom’s Anti-Trafficking Monitoring Group, which is hosted by Anti-Slavery International. Its members have different stances on sex work, and within this group the abolitionist Poppy Project (before it closed in 2015), for example, shared a table with FLEX, a member organisation of international networks that support sex workers’ rights . These differences have not prevented organisations within the coalition to be a strong united voice in holding the UK government to account on anti-trafficking.

Decisions, decisions

Adopting a position on sex work is not a trivial task. Organisations operate in environments where taking a principled stance on the issue can pose a risk, for example from a hostile government. Ultimately, organisational leadership will have to weigh up whether the level of risk connected to having a position is acceptable. The questions leaders will be considering will include: is this the sort of risk that groups that work on social change commonly face, and one that can be managed without much detriment to the organisation, or would coming off the fence imperil the organisation’s existence?

When Amnesty International announced its policy on decriminalisation of sex work in 2016, it did so with the understanding that there would be some backlash from the public, its members and staff. But it took this step because it deemed it to be important for its organisation’s core mission and presumably because the leadership considered the associated risk to be manageable.

It is because of the significance of such strategic decisions that they need to be given proper thought. External operational environment, such as sources of funding or the law of the land, will be some of the factors that leadership will take into account.

That evidence has not translated in widespread policy change indicates perhaps that too many policy makers find ideology a convenient alternative to thinking.

Anti-trafficking groups were faced with such decisions in 2003, when the Bush administration introduced the so-called prostitution pledge (this was later struck down by the US Supreme Court in 2013, before being later upheld in modified form in 2020). According to the terms of the pledge, organisations receiving US funding had to certify that they would not advocate legalisation of prostitution, have an explicit policy opposing prostitution and sex trafficking, and would not use funds to support sex workers.

When faced with these requirements, a number of anti-trafficking organisations that supported sex workers rights decided to stay away from US funding altogether. But not everyone could afford to take this stance. Some signed the pledge, even if it meant a deviation from their position, because US funding was a lifeline. Not just financially, but also politically. I remember a conversation with a director of an anti-trafficking organisation in an authoritarian country. She told me that US money was indispensable for her organisation. It not only provided financial sustainability, but some protection from persecution and harassment by the regime, which knew that the US was monitoring the organisation.

Where next for anti-trafficking organisations?

There may be a variety of good reasons why organisations do not take a position on sex work. They might not have the time to properly think it through. They may be worried about financial implications. They may face an hostile external environment that makes it very difficult to take a public position. However, not taking a position on sex work simply to avoid confrontation, I believe, is not an acceptable position for an anti-trafficking organisation.

But neither is taking one purely from an ideological standpoint uninformed by the realities of stakeholders’ lived experiences. Rigid ideology is never helpful. The Netherlands and Sweden both demonstrate the need for evidence-based policy arising from dialogue that includes survivors of trafficking and sex workers. Both positions may seem reasonable starting points for policy action. However, they need to be tested and adjusted against evidence of impact. Having an inflexible ideological position on either of these ideas is anathema to obtaining effective changes in policy and practice. It risks pushing for solutions that are not based on facts and evidence, but on evidence adjusted to fit the ideology.

While ideology is not helpful because of its proximity to dogma, principles are useful in guiding decisions on anti-trafficking. For example, there is the principle that government policies should help people access decent work and protect them from exploitation. Policies that advance these goals might not necessarily be labelled as ‘anti-trafficking’, but will be so in their effect.

Personally, I believe that in relation to sex work these principles are advanced by decriminalisation. I believe that this position is supported by the preponderance of the evidence collected across the world with the participation of sex workers, starting with the landmark work by Jo Bindman and Jo Doezema in the1990s, published by Anti-Slavery International.

That this evidence has not translated in more widespread policy changes across the world is perhaps an indication that too many policy makers find ideology a convenient alternative to thinking. But it is perhaps more indicative that too many individuals and organisations mandated to work to end trafficking have shied away from the robust conversations necessary to establish effective protection for workers in this brutal industry.

And that is a failure for which there are no excuses.

Views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not represent opinions of any organisations she has been associated with.

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