Beyond Trafficking and Slavery: Feature

It's time to get off the fence on sex workers’ rights

You cannot effectively combat human trafficking within the commercial sex sector without taking a stand on basic regulatory questions

Joel Quirk Emily Kenway Cameron Thibos
16 August 2021, 6.00am
Artwork by Carys Boughton
All rights reserved

Public opposition to Covid-19 vaccinations is now a major political issue. Vocal minorities in numerous countries have strongly questioned whether vaccines are either necessary or desirable, and their refusal to get vaccinated has had increasingly lethal consequences. The highly contagious Delta variant has spread rapidly amongst unvaccinated groups, creating major challenges for already exhausted and overtaxed medical staff. Governments have recognised that vaccine hesitancy is a major public health challenge, and have tried all kinds of things – from shotgun raffles in the United States to free herring in the Netherlands and a cow lottery in Thailand – to persuade more people to get vaccinated.

Anyone can see that there are two very different positions here. One side regards vaccines as essential to the fight against Covid-19. The other side regards the cure as worse than the disease.

Now imagine trying to fight Covid-19 without taking a clear position either one way or the other.

This probably sounds ludicrous. How can you avoid taking a position on an issue which has such obvious ramifications for addressing a major global problem? However, this is exactly the position which numerous activists and organisations try to maintain on another major global policy issue: combating human trafficking within the commercial sex sector.

Attitudes towards human trafficking and commercial sex can be roughly divided into three main camps: pro-sex workers’ rights, prostitution abolitionists, and 'on the fence'. The arguments favoured by the first two camps will already be familiar to many people. The former regard commercial sex as a form of work much like any other, while the latter views commercial sex as inherently exploitative. Both camps maintain that their preferred position offers the best platform for combatting trafficking.

This new feature focuses upon the third and final camp: anti-trafficking activists and organisations who try their best to avoid taking a clear public position on the legal status of commercial sex. This is not a fringe project pursued by a small minority. It is not uncommon for fence-sitters to outnumber both advocates of sex worker rights and prostitution abolitionists within many anti-trafficking circles. Despite the fact that fence-sitters comprise a major portion of the field, their efforts to remain neutral have not been closely scrutinised. So much attention gets focused upon the pro- and anti- camps that they have been able to fly below the radar. This low profile is undoubtedly useful for fence-sitters, since their main goal is to avoid controversy, but their strategic silence come with major costs.

Over the next month we will publish a series of articles focusing upon three main questions:

  • Why are so many anti-trafficking organisations reluctant to take a clear position on the status of sex work?

  • What are the main effects of fence-sitting upon politics and policy?

  • What would encourage anti-traffickers to get off the fence and directly support sex workers' rights?

The Beyond Trafficking and Slavery editorial team is not on the fence. We strongly favour and support sex workers’ rights.

We also know from first-hand experience that the sex workers’ rights vs. abolitionist debate generates strong emotions. It is not our intention to focus upon this debate here (for those who are interested, the case for sex workers’ rights is made at length in our e-book on arguing for decriminalisation). Instead, we want to find out why so many people and organisations try their best to avoid this argument entirely, and what it means for sex workers when they sit on the side-lines.

The politics of fence-sitting

Sitting on the fence usually has much more to do with politics than with principle. Anything to do with human sexuality tends to be controversial, and the sale of sexual services is no exception. Political arguments over what to do with commercial sex go back centuries, but they have more recently been transformed by the growth of anti-trafficking from the 1990s onwards. Prostitution abolitionists have learnt to invoke anti-trafficking to justify all kinds of restrictive and coercive policies, and this has made sex workers and their allies justifiably suspicious of anti-trafficking campaigns. However, the growth of anti-trafficking has also contributed to the emergence of a third camp: individuals and organisations who seek to combat trafficking without taking a clear public position regarding the nexus between anti-trafficking and the regulation of commercial sex.

Fence-sitting can usually be traced to a number of overlapping factors. These will not be present in every single case, but they are present in enough cases to talk in terms of general tendencies. As a general rule, fence-sitting occurs when activists and organisations become worried that contributing to public debates over sex work has the potential to ‘derail’ their anti-trafficking efforts. They therefore decide that they need to try and stand above the fray. Sex work effectively becomes a third rail which organisations are reluctant to touch because of the potential for organisational and political damage. The now famous case of Amnesty International, which controversially decided to publicly support sex worker rights in 2016, has come to be regarded as a cautionary tale in many circles. When Amnesty took the plunge it faced extremely strong criticism for its decision, and the lesson that has been learned is not that a principled yet divisive stand is important, but that controversy should be avoided.

It is hard to take a controversial stance if it means risking your organisational survival.

Financial and political constraints usually play a major role as well. Fence-sitting frequently occurs when anti-trafficking activists and organisations become worried that taking a public position on sex work would jeopardise their funding streams, alienate their supporters, and endanger their relationships with governments, corporate backers, and/or other anti-trafficking organisations.

The role of funding is hard to overstate. Organisations who secure anti-trafficking service provision contracts tend to be strongly invested in ‘playing things safe’, as taking controversial positions runs the risk of losing future funding. Some funders, such as the US government, have explicitly restricted their grants to prevent the organisations they fund from publicly supporting sex workers’ rights. Others are not quite as direct, yet there nonetheless remains an underlying subtext which means that many anti-trafficking organisations have learnt not to rock the boat on sex work. This creates a self-perpetuating logic. Fence-sitting becomes normalised once most people in the room are fence-sitters.

Many groups justify their lack of a stance by claiming that it’s simply ‘not necessary’ to take one. This is especially common amongst organisations that focus on labour exploitation in economic sectors outside sex work. The thinking is that this is simply not their fight. Yet this creates all kinds of challenges and contradictions, because the same organisations who spend their time talking about links between regulation and labour exploitation in one sector have to turn around and try to avoid talking about regulatory issues once the conversation turns to commercial sex.

This decision not to take a position also frequently includes prosecutors and front-line service providers, who regard their main job as applying laws and procedures as they are set down. Providing services and support to survivors can be demanding and delicate work, and many people who concentrate upon service provision do not regard debates over commercial sex as central to their immediate mission. While this stance may make sense at an individual level, it usually becomes harder to justify at an organisational level. Most organisational mandates are not limited to service provision, but also usually feature advocacy, policy, research and raising awareness campaigns.

Fence-sitting is only sometimes a personal decision. It is instead frequently compelled by circumstances, particularly when people occupy positions with significant institutional constraints. It is clear, for example, that United Nations agencies such as the International Labour Organisation or the International Organisation for Migration will always have a hard time getting off the fence, since they are diplomatically obliged to accommodate many competing positions. This is also true of most public servants who are tasked with implementing official policies.

Civil society voices and organisations usually have greater autonomy when it comes to policy and advocacy. This means that they have an essential role to play within the politics of fence-sitting, since their lobbying efforts – or lack thereof – will ultimately play a major role when it comes to public policy. It is also important to recognise, however, that civil society is not one thing but many things. Some organisations have more autonomy than others. It is hard to take a controversial stance if it means risking your organisational survival.

The costs of fence-sitting

The politics of fence-sitting result in all kinds of omissions and silences. The vast majority of people who work on anti-trafficking issues have personal opinions about sex workers’ rights. It is hard not to have a personal opinion on key issues when you spend your days on the front line. However, these personal opinions only occasionally translate into the public stances of their organisations.

Many people in anti-trafficking circles are socialised into silence when it comes to the decriminalisation of sex work. They write reports about trafficking for sexual exploitation that avoid taking a position on sex work regulation. They design projects on labour exploitation which do not have sex work as a case study. They attend stakeholder meetings where sex workers’ rights are raised, yet decide not to take a stand. They design campaigns and information sheets about trafficking which avoid taking a position on sex work regulation. Within their day-to-day work they internalise the non-position of their organisation, and regularly keep whatever personal opinions they have to themselves. Sex work gets placed in a very different box to other forms of labour, both mentally and politically.

These silences can be costly in both policy and political terms. It is here, we would argue, that fence-sitting has a tendency to:

  • Undercut the effectiveness of anti-trafficking interventions

  • Weaken opposition to initiatives that harm sex workers, including abolitionist campaigns sold under the guise of anti-trafficking, by creating a recipe for inaction and self-censorship

  • Reinforce existing barriers between commercial sex work and other forms of labour

Trying to combat human trafficking within the commercial sex sector without taking a clear position on fundamental regulatory questions around commercial sex is unlikely to be an effective strategy, yet this is ultimately what fence-sitting requires. Research into labour trafficking has demonstrated that the laws and regulations governing work, migration, wages, collective organisation, and the social safety net all have profound effects on trafficking outcomes. Changing how regulations are designed and applied can either enable or mitigate forms of vulnerability, abuse, and labour exploitation.

All of these insights apply to commercial sex and human trafficking, yet fence-sitters find it very difficult to publicly grapple with their implications. When you criminalise commercial sex between consenting adults – either partially or wholly – you place it outside the remit of public regulation. This effectively excludes sex workers from the possibility of protection, leaving them in an extremely vulnerable position. Regulations will never be a magic bullet – there will always be problems with their design and implementation – but it is hard to work through the strengths and weaknesses of different models when your position is to not have position. This is the equivalent of anti-trafficking organisations stepping into the ring with one hand voluntarily tied behind their back.

Not taking a position in support of sex workers’ rights can also have the effect of ceding political ground to prostitution abolitionists. Laws and regulations governing sex work are frequently debated in policy circles, and these debates regularly result in major reforms. Recent examples include France and Ireland, who introduced the so-called Nordic model in 2016 and 2017 respectively. These and other reforms have had huge effects upon anti-trafficking policies, yet anti-trafficking organisations who remain on the fence decline to say whether these effects are negative or positive. Prostitution abolitionists are definitely not on the fence, so when anti-trafficking organisations decide not to take a stand they enable anti-sex work campaigners to speak for the anti-trafficking field.

This reluctance to enter the fray is a sad indictment of a sector that prides itself on fighting injustice.

This dynamic applies to many legislative issues. Take, for example, the introduction of FOSTA-SESTA by the US government in 2018. This law had a major effect upon the online advertising of sex work by making online platforms criminally liable for third party abuses. It has proved to be a complete disaster, imposing all kinds of hardships on sex workers without meaningfully increasing prosecutions. It is hard for most anti-trafficking organisations to publicly grapple with the harms associated with FOSTA-SESTA (and many other anti-trafficking laws), since opposing FOSTA-SESTA would be widely understood to mean ‘getting off the fence’ and taking a clear position in support of sex workers’ rights. This reluctance to enter the political fray, even when things go badly wrong, is a sad indictment of a sector that prides itself on fighting injustice and helping people.

Prostitution abolitionists tend to be narrowly concerned with commercial sex. They have become better at making rhetorical gestures in the vicinity of labour trafficking in other sectors, but these gestures are only rarely backed up by the investment of actual resources and energy. This creates a window of opportunity for people who care about human trafficking but who don’t want to engage with abolitionists: bypass sex work and instead focus on labour exploitation elsewhere, where it is possible to talk about the effects of regulation without the ‘pimp lobby’ being mentioned.

The abolitionists are more than happy to see them go, since this means fewer complications when it comes to the major issue they care about, which is criminalising commercial sex. However, this bypassing of sex work reinforces the established notion that sex work belongs in a different box to other forms of work, and therefore needs to be treated as a case apart. This may make sense from a short-term tactical perspective, but it is likely to come with longer-term costs. Vulnerable workers in many economic sectors tend to face similar challenges when it comes to a lack of rights, protections and representation, which means that building solidarity across different sectors is crucial to political transformation. Sex workers need to be part of this project.

It is time to get off the fence

You cannot effectively combat human trafficking within the commercial sex sector without having a clear position regarding basic regulatory questions. As we have seen, sitting on the fence means not taking a position regarding whether or not sex workers deserve rights, have accessible routes to challenge harms, and can effectively contribute to efforts to tackle trafficking within the commercial sex sector. We don’t expect everyone to reach exactly the same conclusions when it comes to regulation, but it is our opinion that anyone who examines the available evidence in good faith is likely to move towards decriminalisation.

There are no magic bullets for any form of trafficking, and decriminalisation is no exception. However, getting off the fence and publicly grappling with how sex work should be regulated, and the kinds of rights and protections which sex workers require as workers, needs to be regarded as an essential pre-condition to making progress on other political and regulatory questions, such as banking services and immigration regimes. Sex workers are often suspicious of anti-trafficking organisations, and this is unlikely to change overnight if an organisation comes out in support of decriminalisation. But publicly ‘coming out’ in support of sex worker rights’ is nonetheless a crucial step towards building solidarity and working together.

Getting off the fence will always be a challenging for many organisations and activists, since they are frequently subject to strong institutional pressures not to take a position. It will also always be easier for some organisations than others to embrace sex workers’ rights. So, the immediate challenge is to move some organisations off the fence in the hope that this opens the door for others to follow. Getting even a few funders to publicly embrace sex worker-specific projects would also make a major difference, since organisations who are dependent upon funding for their continued survival tend to be highly attentive to funder priorities. It is also necessary to put greater pressure on fence-sitters to publicly justify their non-position. In some circles, fence-sitting has been normalised to the point where it has become a taken-for-granted default. Sitting on top of a fence should not be a comfortable position.

Over the next four weeks, we will be publishing opinion pieces, survey results and interviews that explore how leading anti-trafficking figures and sex worker rights' activists approach the politics of fence-sitting. We hope you find it useful and interesting – do share it with colleagues!

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