Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Rights, rescues and resistance in the global movement for sex workers’ rights – introducing the series

The rights of sex workers are slowly gaining more recognition, but far too many still need to keep their heads down in order to survive.

Borislav Gerasimov Annalee Lepp
23 September 2019, 7.00am
Scott Edmunds/Flickr. Creative Commons (by)

The sex worker rights movement has grown significantly over the past two decades. Sex workers have organised to demand recognition of sexual labour as labour; challenge stigma, discrimination, and all forms of violence, including by law enforcement; improve working conditions; lobby for full human, social, and labour rights; advocate for the decriminalisation of sex work; and provide peer-based support and services. Many sex worker organisations also organise and support migrant sex workers in an effort to address the specific challenges they confront, such as racism and xenophobia, precarity due to their im/migration status, lack of access to health and other services, vulnerability to exploitation and violence, and the risk of detention and deportation.

Since the 1990s, sex workers have also had to contend with the expansion of the global ‘anti-trafficking industry’ with its strong anti-sex work, criminal justice, and border control agendas. Sex worker organisations in Spain, Thailand, and India, for example, pointed out in a recent report from the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women that trafficking was “an issue that was introduced [or indeed imposed] from outside the industry itself, propelled by a moralistic agenda, that organisations have felt obliged to understand, in order to counter the harmful effects of conceptually conflating trafficking and sex work.” In many countries, anti-trafficking policies and interventions have targeted sex workers with highly detrimental impact.

This has taken the form of greater police surveillance of the sex industry; raids on sex work establishments; forced detention in rehabilitation centres; arrests and prosecutions of sex workers as traffickers; and deportations of migrant sex workers. All of these undermine and ignore sex workers’ agency as well as their legitimate demands for better working conditions and human, social, and labour rights.

Further, the crucial role of sex worker organisations in promoting the rights, safety, and security of sex workers and addressing working conditions in the industry has largely gone unrecognised by national and international policymakers, donors, and some non-governmental organisations. The ideologies, assumptions, and agendas that fuel the anti-trafficking industry have also resulted in the exclusion and silencing of sex workers when it comes to the development of policies that directly affect their lives and work. Over the last ten years, this trend has certainly been evident in countries where governments have enacted laws that criminalise the purchase of sexual services.


Twenty years ago, in 1999, Sweden became the first country in the world to criminalise the purchase – but not the sale – of sexual services. The policy was based on an ideological conceptualisation of prostitution as violence against women and an obstacle to gender equality. It was initially introduced with the aim of reducing prostitution by targeting men’s demand for commercial sexual services. However, with the adoption of the UN Trafficking Protocol in 2000, and the last-minute insertion of Art. 9(5) that calls on states to “discourage the demand that fosters all forms of exploitation of persons, especially women and children, that leads to trafficking”, the Swedish model has been promoted as a way to prevent trafficking in the sex industry. Despite the lack of conclusive evidence that it has managed to reduce sex work or prevent trafficking in Sweden, it has been packaged as a mechanism to promote gender equality, protect the vulnerable, and prevent trafficking in the sex industry. As a result, sex purchase bans have been adopted in Norway and Iceland (2009), Canada (2014), Northern Ireland (2015), France (2016), the Republic of Ireland (2017), and Israel (2018).

"Evidence has not been prioritised within the anti-trafficking sector."

– Benjamin Harkins

Over the same period, there has been mounting evidence that the Swedish model exacerbates the stigma against sex workers, forcing them to engage in more dangerous activities and increasing their risk to violence. Evidence for this has come from academics, UN agencies, human rights organisations, medical professionals, LGBTI+ organisations, anti-trafficking organisations, and, of course, sex workers themselves. As a result, many of these groups have vocalised their support for the decriminalisation of sex work.

So why does the Swedish model continue to gain steam? We propose that it is part of a larger global trend towards social conservatism, overreliance on punitive responses to address social issues, and what has come to be termed post-truth politics, where “objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

Sex work in a post-truth world

The archives of the Anti-Trafficking Review contain many articles documenting the simplistic images and narratives used to describe migrant and trafficked women in the sex industry, and the lack of evidence behind many anti-trafficking policies and interventions. In 2016, Andrijasevic and Mai noted that “[t]he stereotypical image of the victim is of a young, innocent, foreign woman tricked into prostitution abroad. She is battered and kept under continuous surveillance so that her only hope is police rescue.” In 2017, Harkins observed that “evidence has not been prioritised within the anti-trafficking sector.” Instead, the processes that have introduced the Swedish model to other countries have been driven more by highly emotive images and stories of victims than by any other type of evidence.

In Northern Ireland, for example, Lord Morrow from the Democratic Unionist Party, the sponsor of the 2015 Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Criminal Justice and Support for Victims) Act, stated that, “I always said that additional research was unnecessary”. A member of the Justice Committee concurred: “[s]ome of us do not need any research or evidence.” For this reason, research from the Department of Justice indicating that most sex workers in Northern Ireland were not trafficked, that the legislation would be hard to enforce, and that it would be detrimental to sex workers was dismissed. Instead, proponents of the law “relied heavily on the personal accounts of a small number of survivors of prostitution, who described the sex industry as inherently violent and supported the ban.”

In France, a survey conducted with 500 sex workers in 2015 prior to the implementation of the 2016 sex purchase ban showed that 98% of respondents opposed the law and that around 7% could have been victims of trafficking, but these findings were similarly ignored. Furthermore, while organisations and individuals supporting the law were involved throughout the process of its development, sex workers and other opponents’ testimonies were largely disregarded, and “MPs already knew they would not be convincing.” Similarly for the Republic of Ireland, it has been argued that “by the time the Committee [tasked with developing a law on sex work]’s work began, the political debate was, in fact, all but over” and that “oppositional views [were rendered] vulnerable to accusations of ‘pimp thinking’: of being an apologist for pimps, brothel owners and the exploitation of women and children.”

Scholars have documented how at the parliamentary hearings on Canada’s Bill C-36, The Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act (PCEPA), which introduced the Swedish-style client criminalisation in 2014, more individuals and organisations supportive of PCEPA were invited to present testimony than those opposing it. Furthermore, committee members were positively biased toward those in agreement with the proposed legislation and at times highly disrespectful to those in opposition to it. Kerry Porth wrote after testifying that “from the very first day, current and former sex workers who spoke out against Bill C-36 have been dismissed, ridiculed, subjected to hostile questioning, and heckled … Remarkable Canadian academics …, who have researched the sex industry in Canada for many years, were regarded as people who are trying to ‘make it easier for pimps and johns to operate openly in communities across Canada’ ... [T]hose who supported the bill were lauded for their courage in coming forward.”

What we see time and time again is that the introduction of a sex purchase ban was made possible largely through the forging of powerful alliances among ruling conservative parties, faith-based groups, and prostitution prohibitionist and carceral feminists. What they share is a highly gendered and racialised understanding of sex work and trafficking. Despite this coordinated attack on sex workers’ rights, the dismissal of academic and community-based research on sex workers’ lives and work, and the exclusion of sex worker perspectives from policy development in a post-truth environment, the global sex worker rights movement is growing and making itself heard.

This week’s series

The articles on Beyond Trafficking and Slavery this week are shortened versions of some of the pieces found in the Anti-Trafficking Review’s new special issue on sex work. If you find them of interest, we warmly invite you to read the complete issue online.

We begin with Sharmila Parmanand’s article on the disastrous impact of the Philippine war on drugs for sex workers. Already a stigmatised community, they are now at extremely high risk of abuse by the police. Some of her interviewees having suffered harassment, arrest, jail time, and loss of partners due to police corruption and extrajudicial killings.

Leo Bernardo Villar uses the Unacceptable Forms of Work (UFW) Framework, developed by the International Labour Organization to address ‘non-standard’ forms of employment, to analyse the working conditions in the sex and entertainment sector in Thailand. Based on interviews with sex workers, social service providers, and government officials, Villar demonstrates that many indicators of UFW are present in the sector, and argues that this framework could be used by sex worker advocates to push for inclusion of the sector within national labour laws and protections.

Alexandra Lutnick reflects on the process of developing the ‘Prioritizing safety for sex workers’ policy in San Francisco in 2016. This policy guarantees that sex workers will not be arrested or prosecuted for involvement in illicit activities when they report violent crimes, including trafficking, committed against them. While not without its challenges, the creation and adoption of the policy was made possible through the forging of an alliance comprised of sex workers, anti-trafficking organisations, service providers, women’s rights policy makers, and law enforcement. Their point of departure was the recognition that no one wants people in the sex industry to experience violence. The policy, then, provides a unique example of how stakeholders who may hold very different ideological positions on sex work can work together towards a common goal.

We end with a plea to funders from Nadia van der Linde, the coordinator of the Red Umbrella Fund. She argues that while there have been some advances made in terms of funding the sex worker rights movement globally, only $11 million in grants were made available in 2013 and much more donor support is needed. Van der Linde makes a passionate argument that donors cannot ‘stay neutral’ on the issue of sex worker rights and need to commit to investing more funds in sex worker organisations and initiatives.

In the face of mounting and incontrovertible evidence, these and the other articles of the special issue gesture toward the conclusion that, like the donors that Nadia van der Linde challenges, no one can claim ‘neutrality’ on the issue of sex workers’ rights anymore. Given the intersectional diversity of sex workers – along the lines of gender, sexuality, racial, ethnic, and class background, im/migration status, etc. – and the differing working conditions in which sex workers labour, it is imperative that more cross-movement alliances be cultivated and forged. In other words, in light of the multiple and complex social and labour dimensions that need to be addressed, organisations that advocate for the rights of women, LGBTI+ people, formal and informal workers, migrants, and trafficked persons, as well as movements that work for social, economic, and racial justice need to join in the struggle for sex workers’ rights and the decriminalisation of sex work.

A longer version of this article first appeared in Anti-Trafficking Review, issue 12.

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