Lost in translation: do anti-trafficking organisations reflect their employees' views on commercial sex?
What do staff at anti-trafficking organisations in the United Kingdom think about sex work? Are their personal positions different to those of their organisations?
A fierce political debate is currently taking place in Great Britain regarding commercial sex. Diana Johnson, a Labour Party MP, has made a series of efforts to criminalise the purchase of sexual services in line with what is known as the ‘Nordic model’. Echoing arguments made elsewhere, Johnson and her colleagues at the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Commercial Sexual Exploitation maintain that this model will help reduce human trafficking for sexual exploitation. Or, as she likes to put it, “bust the business model of sex trafficking”.
Johnson’s proposal has provoked strong opposition by sex workers and their allies. In April 2021, the UK’s Decrim Now campaign published an open letter opposing the Nordic model that was signed by over 150 anti-trafficking and sex work experts, academics and activists (as well as the two authors of this article). This letter maintained that there is a compelling body of evidence demonstrating that the Nordic model has not worked elsewhere, and that it would have all kinds of harmful effects upon marginalised sex workers if it were introduced in the UK.
Preventing human trafficking forms a major part of Johnson’s case for the Nordic model, yet numerous organisations who have dedicated themselves to ending trafficking have expressed no public opinion at all about the merits of her proposed legislation. Not all civil society organisations have been reluctant to take a stand. Other prominent civil society voices, including Amnesty International, Liberty, and Momentum, have taken a position in support of sex worker rights, so this widespread reluctance amongst anti-trafficking organisations to take a public stance warrants further inquiry.
As part of our larger feature on ‘sitting on the fence on sex work’, Beyond Trafficking and Slavery recently conducted an anonymous survey of staff at anti-trafficking organisations to find out how they approach political arguments over commercial sex. This survey featured a mixture of yes/no and open-answer questions, and was administered via targeted emails to staff at civil society organisations in the UK focusing on human trafficking. An email contact list was compiled building upon the UK listings from the Global Modern Slavery Directory, supplemented by further personal contacts. Organisations which work solely on child trafficking were excluded, because child exploitation raises different questions. In all 104 people were invited to contribute and 25 chose to participate. This article describes what we found.
The vast majority of respondents (92%) reported that their anti-trafficking organisations do not have a public position on the legal status of commercial sex.
Five main reasons were offered to explain the absence of a public position:
● A need to do further research before formulating a position.
● It is not necessary to take a public position since their organisations either only work with people once they have been trafficked, rather than with sex workers in general, or because they work on exploitation taking place outside the sex sector.
● Their main focus is trafficking, and taking a position would be “mission creep”.
● The topic is too politically controversial.
● Taking a public position would risk creating problems by harming relationships with funders (36%) or with other organisations in the field (52%).
However, two-thirds of respondents (68%) also reported that taking a position on the legal status of commercial sex matters for anti-trafficking strategy.
There is a tension between these two responses, with people working for organisations which don’t have a public position on sex work also reporting that having a position on sex work matters for anti-trafficking. Some of the thinking behind this apparent contradiction was revealed via responses to a follow up question which asked respondents how their public position – or lack thereof – on commercial sex affected their anti-trafficking strategy.
Answers to this question stressed the negative effects of the criminalisation of sex work on rights, safety and exploitability. One respondent stated that “Any criminalisation of work has a direct impact on the likelihood of exploitation and the ability of sex workers and those who are potentially at risk of exploitation to seek appropriate support if needed.” Others highlighted the role criminalisation played in making sex workers vulnerable to trafficking:
 “Our strategy takes an approach that criminalising people is deeply unhelpful, will drive them underground and will increase their vulnerability.”
 “… being illegal means girls and women will have more fear of seeking help when help is presented. It's another form of control traffickers can use. It adds additional shame. Women need to be protected and given better rights, being considered a criminal is never going to help the situation.”
The fact that they worked for organisations who did not have a public position on sex work was also identified as a problem by several respondents. Not having a position was said to “undermine our policy position that workers should have basic and fundamental rights that mean they can keep themselves safe at work” and to result in limited engagement with “a group that may be at particularly high risk of exploitation.”
These responses suggest that many anti-trafficking staff in the United Kingdom recognise that the legal status of sex work has important policy ramifications, yet they nonetheless work for organisations that have not taken a public position regarding sex work policy.
Two thirds of respondents have a personal position on sex work (68%), with 88% of respondents who shared their personal opinion on sex work (15 of 17) expressing their support for either legalisation or decriminalisation.
This aligns with our analysis above. While anti-trafficking organisations try to remain neutral as institutions, this neutrality is much less evident at a personal level. Many of our respondents strongly endorsed treating sex work as work from a personal standpoint:
 “I personally believe that sexual services should be legal so that sex workers can be recognised as workers, be able to enjoy protection such as unionisation and access to welfare/benefits when needed, and legal protections against abuse.”
 “Decrim now! Only by doing this can sex workers gain better and safer working conditions.”
 “It aligns with my human rights values.”
 “I am an advocate for workers’ rights, which includes rights for sex workers. These rights must ensure that sex workers can carry out their work safely and without risk. Legislation which criminalises workers only serves to drive them underground making them isolated and vulnerable to abuse.”
Others highlighted the regulatory advantages of legalisation or decriminalisation:
 “Yes because it could be properly regulated making sex workers less vulnerable to attack”
 “Making it illegal doesn't stop trafficking, it just means it’s pushed underground making it harder to stop exploitation.”
 “I'm of the belief that criminalising the sale of sexual services will not address concerns linked to sexual exploitation, which is often the narrative used to support criminalisation … criminalisation will serve to increase sex workers' risk of violence and exploitation since they will have less channels available to enforce their rights as workers and seek support if they need it.”
Not everyone endorsed this overall stance. One respondent indicated that they were “not in favour of the sale of sexual services” due to the “risk of sexual exploitation”.
It is also worth noting that around a third of respondents did not express a personal position on commercial sex, which is a significant minority. Most who didn’t express a personal position didn’t explain further. However, one person stated that “I haven’t done sufficient research to take a position personally. It is an extremely divisive topic which has perhaps made me hesitant to engage more fully.” This suggests that, for this respondent at least, limited knowledge and political controversy are making it difficult to form an opinion.
While four people indicated that they did not have a personal opinion regarding sex work, another four simply skipped the question entirely. This is one of several questions where a minority of respondents did not answer yes or no, and instead did not answer at all. Another question with a notable non-response rate asked whether people felt able to express their personal viewpoint in public if it differed from the viewpoint of their organisation. These non-responses can probably be traced to people not being sure whether to answer either yes or no, which in turn speaks to the complexities and politics of the underlying issues.
Most respondents felt able to publicly share their personal position (64%), yet a majority also expressed concern that their relationships with other organisations (52%) and with funders (36%) would suffer if they supported decriminalisation.
The 64% figure suggests most anti-trafficking specialists feel able to express their personal opinions in public despite a widespread reluctance to take a public stance regarding commercial sex at an organisational level. This was not always the case: a minority of respondents (16%) reported feeling unable to state a public position if it was different from that of their organisation. So while self-censorship happens occasionally, it is far from the norm: there remains room to share personal opinions in public within many organisations.
The other findings strengthen the earlier point about differences between personal opinions and organisational constraints, since many respondents also expressed concerns that publicly supporting decriminalisation would have negative implications for their relationships with other organisations (52%) and with funders (36%). In a further question, 68% of respondents answered ‘no’ when asked whether they think that anti-trafficking organisations in the UK “feel comfortable expressing a public opinion on sex work”. The fact that two thirds of respondents believe that the sector as a whole is reluctant to speak up is hugely significant. Anti-trafficking organisations tend to be very reluctant to criticise their peers, since they routinely work closely together and share common goals. So the fact that so many organisations currently remain on the fence is likely to contribute to a mutually reinforcing dynamic, where it is much easier to remain neutral than to take a clear position on commercial sex and potentially damage relationships with their peers and other stakeholders.
As our findings earlier showed, respondents gave several reasons why organisations do not have a public position, including lack of research, irrelevance to their specified remit, political controversy, and concerns about funders and peer organisations. Our findings suggest that most staff at anti-trafficking organisations are personally supportive of sex worker rights, and that most feel able to raise their voices personally in public, yet there remain major constraints when it comes to taking a position at an organisational level.
92% of respondents indicated that their organisation had not taken a public stand regarding Diane Johnson’s proposal to introduce the Nordic model in the UK.
This brings into focus a stark divide between sex worker-led organisations, who collectively mobilised in strong opposition, and anti-trafficking organisations, who only rarely took a public position. Given this divide, it should not be surprising that 52% of respondents also indicated that they had not heard of the open letter from Decrim Now, which was central to political opposition to Johnson. Only three respondents indicated that their organisations had an internal conversation regarding whether to sign the letter. Seven reported that they had considered signing the open letter in a personal capacity, four of whom did. Only one of those four was a member of an organisation which had a public position on sex work.
These results can be interpreted in two different ways. In one reading, a lack of knowledge regarding the letter suggests that sex workers’ rights organisations could do more to engage with the anti-trafficking sector. Alternatively, this lack of knowledge can also be read as symptom of a broader lack of engagement by anti-trafficking organisations with sex worker-led organisations. There is truth in both. Sex workers and their allies have frequently written about their disillusionment with the anti-trafficking sector and their reluctance to engage with them because of how they have been treated within anti-trafficking circles. And, as this survey shows, many anti-trafficking organisations do not view engaging with the sex sector or supporting workers’ demands as part of their remit. Both readings ultimately point in a common direction: many anti-trafficking professionals are not aware of key initiatives by sex workers’ rights activists. As we previously discussed, 68% of our respondents believe that the status of commercial sex matters for anti-trafficking strategy, but it is hard to incorporate this position into programming if you don’t sufficiently engage with sex worker organisations.
We don’t want to read too much into the Decrim Now letter as a singular issue. We recognise that open letters are common, and that this was only one of any number of things which called upon the time and energy of staff at organisations which are continually overstretched. Some people may have wanted to sign, but ultimately never followed through due to the press of other demands on their time. The fact that Johnson’s proposal was (initially) a private member’s bill, rather than a party political matter, could also have been a contributing factor here, since a calculation may also have been made that it was unlikely to succeed and therefore didn’t merit much investment.
It is worth noting, however, that the Decrim Now letter also overlapped with a public petition which called upon the UK government to restore rights to domestic migrant workers. Many anti-trafficking organisations threw their public support behind this second petition, which was eventually bluntly rejected, while remaining silent on sex work. The fact that many anti-trafficking organisations supported one public initiative but not the other is symptomatic of a larger reluctance to take a public stand regarding commercial sex.
Separating sex work from human trafficking?
Some respondents to our survey maintained that they were specifically focused upon human trafficking, and therefore did not need to take a position regarding commercial sex more generally. The following response provides a good example of this approach:
We don't take a position on the sale of sexual services. Our focus is on cases involving trafficking or where children are in commercial sexual exploitation. Our casework therefore focuses on supporting women who want to leave exploitation and/or children who cannot consent to such abuse. We support them to access services after leaving exploitation, and we want to ensure traffickers are held to account. We don't see it as our position to speak to situations where women consent to providing sexual services.
Organisations that are narrowly focused upon specialist support provision may well determine that they don’t need to take a position, since they only focus on what happens once harm has already occurred. However, many anti-trafficking organisations that provide victim support services also operate policy and advocacy arms. Where this is the case, the failure to have a public position becomes much less defensible, especially if they are in the 68% of respondents who also thought that taking a public position matters for anti-trafficking strategy.
Not having a position on commercial sex becomes increasingly difficult as the conversation shifts to policy and regulation. Human trafficking can be found in many sectors, including farming, construction or domestic work, and in all of these sectors it represents the sharp end of a spectrum of exploitative conditions. Not all people who work on farms or in homes are trafficked, yet the regulations that govern workers in these sectors nonetheless play a crucial role in determining how and why workers are vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, including human trafficking. Many policies and activities build upon this insight. Take, for example, the licensing of labour providers via the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority, which attempts to reduce trafficking by improving workplace regulations across specific industries.
This overall framework is directly applicable to commercial sex. If you want to reduce trafficking for sexual exploitation, you need to look at the role of regulation in making workers vulnerable to abuse (or in preventing it). Maria Grazia Giammarinaro, the former UN Special Rapporteur on Human Trafficking, acknowledged this when she said that “Exploitation, and therefore trafficking, begins with the enabling of a breeding ground for the disregard of fundamental labor rights”. It therefore follows that regard for labour rights must be maintained in order to reduce trafficking, and that means focusing upon the rules which determine how all people are able to work, bargain, and exercise their rights.
This relationship between regulation and exploitation is already widely acknowledged in other economic sectors, but many people continue to insist that the sex sector should be treated as an exception to the rule. This is reflected in the following response:
Because we are trying to avoid mission creep – our focus is on victims of [modern slavery and human trafficking] exploitation and while there are overlaps we recognise there is a breadth of opinion out there that could draw us into endless debates whilst not moving the issue forward and/or distracting us from our core mission.
This is one of the main rationales for separating sex work policy from anti-trafficking: it is better to prioritise victims and try to avoid “endless debates” over a controversial and complex topic. And as resources are limited, isn’t it better to avoid engaging entirely? While this position may sound attractive, at least initially, it effectively means that anti-trafficking organisations are removing themselves from a policy conversation which has profound effects upon their capacity to advance one of their main goals: reducing trafficking.
The personal is not sufficiently political
One of the key findings of this survey is that there is a disconnect between personal views and organisational positions. Based on our findings, many people working for anti-trafficking organisations have concluded that the criminalisation of the commercial sex industry increases harms for workers and helps to enable trafficking to occur and thrive. However, these personal positions are not widely reflected in organisational policies, with political considerations, organisational priorities, and concerns about peers and funding generating pressures to avoid taking a clear public position regarding the status of commercial sex.
This in turn makes it hard to have policy conversations about governance and regulation. Many tools have been developed to prevent and address trafficking in other commercial sectors: ensuring workers have access to rights information and language education, regular and rights-based labour law enforcement, and trust in authorities to provide support. As demonstrated by the Rights not Rescue programme run by the International Council for the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe, these kinds of tools can be effectively used in the commercial sex sector to build resilience to exploitation and to aid identification by creating safe spaces, using outreach for peer identification, and by creating bonds of trust with authorities. There will always be scope for further improvement and refinement when it comes to policy, but it is very difficult to get to this point in the conversation when most anti-trafficking organisations have a policy to not talk about policy as far as sexual labour is concerned.
Learn more about 'fence-sitting' on sex workers' rights
Joel Quirk, Emily Kenway & Cameron Thibos
Emily Kenway and Joel Quirk
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