Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Sex workers speak: who listens?

Across the world sex workers organise to resist abuse, exploitation, and trafficking. For two weeks we will air their voices. Let us listen.

Giulia Garofalo Geymonat P.G. Macioti
29 February 2016


Stuart/Flickr. (CC 2.0 by-nc)

The sex industries around the world are associated with serious forms of marginalisation, violence, exploitation, and even forced labour. Media, research, and fiction tell stories of sex workers being abused, exploited, and trafficked. They do it so often that we become almost indifferent to it, as almost always happens in front of horror. A sex worker killed in the Italian countryside, a sex worker robbed in Rio de Janeiro during a transaction, a sex worker leaping to her death from a brothel in Seoul. Poor people, what a life.

Gendered, racist, classist, homophobic, and transphobic violence haunts the world of sex work, and many of us believe that states, intergovernmental organisations, and NGOs should do more to help. Yet a lot is being done. Indeed, one finds that, especially following the 2000 UN Palermo Protocol, the last decade has seen a multiplication of interventions ‘against sex trafficking and exploitation in prostitution’ (see for instance UNODC). The problem is the efficacy of these interventions, as it is abundantly clear that the situation has not demonstrably improved in the intervening time. Poor people, what a world. But is there something more to know?

We believe there is. This series addresses the violence, exploitation, abuse, and trafficking present in the sex industries, but it does so from the perspective of sex workers themselves. These are the women, men, and transgender people who are directly touched by the abuse, exploitation, and trafficking under discussion, and they are the people who actively and collectively resist all forms of violence against them. By publishing their voices directly we hope to help readers resist indifference, on the one hand, and to become more critical of states’ interventions, which are widely regarded and legitimated as necessary to combat ‘trafficking’, on the other.

All the authors of this series are involved in sex workers’ organising or have been in the past. This means that they are or have been part of organisations composed of, or at least led by, people who have direct experience selling sex.

It is our hope that their contributions over the next two weeks will convey some of the radical richness and diversity of knowledge produced within the contemporary sex workers movement. This movement is fragmented, stigmatised, and under-funded, yet it has continued to expand since its birth in the mid 1970s in Europe, the US, and Latin America. It now involves at least 273 groups that are part of the Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP), and many more individuals all over the continents. They have organised despite the fact that speaking out as a sex worker puts your relationships and families at risk. It exposes you to threats from your ‘employers' and may lead to harassment or arrest by the police, especially if you are an undocumented migrant. You may lose your political credibility, and even be accused of representing the interests of ‘pimps’ and taking money from them. Nowadays, thanks to transnational migration, the internet, and their impact on transnational social movements, sex workers are speaking louder, more often, and more clearly than ever before. Yet, it is still difficult to listen to them.

Part of the problem may be that superficial readings of slogans like ‘sex work is a work like any other’, ‘sex work is my right’, or ‘prostitution is my choice’ cause observers to mistakenly assume that sex workers’ groups are self-interested, ultraliberal, apolitical organisations that dismiss the deep and political problems of their industry. As social researchers who use participant methods, we know that the answers also depend on the questions posed and the person who poses them. It may not be a surprise that, when responding to people hell-bent on criminalising their income generating activity and patronising them as unaware victims of violence, many sex workers put aside analytical complexity and become ‘protective’ of their industry or their ‘choice’.

To avoid that pitfall, we have explicitly asked our authors to write about the ways in which they resist exploitation and criminality in their own industry; what they think about states’ policies on trafficking, the sex industry, migration, poverty; and what, in their views, are the socio-economic structures that construct them as exploitable workers. In other words, we have spoken the language sex workers elaborate, which is that sex work is work.

The response has been extremely rich, for sex workers speak not only as sex workers, but as women, LGBTIQ, migrant, working class, and colonised people. Authors have written as individuals or collectives, or, supported by allies, experimented with co-writing. Organisations show a great scope of resisting actions: from concrete struggles for economic sustainability and keeping their livelihoods when work places are shut down and streets ‘cleaned out’; to protesting against arrest, corruption, and violence enacted by the police; to trying to reduce exploitation by third parties and abuse from clients through unions and cooperatives; to challenging social stigma through theatre and art. The readers will find accounts of groups filing court cases, reporting violence, investigating murders, writing and distributing reports, collectively sweeping the streets in which they work, publicly issuing bills to prominent politicians who buy their services, lobbying at national and international levels, allying themselves with other social movements, participating in events and forums as experts on their own condition, performing and playing football.

Sex work regulation and resistance

The first week of this series is dedicated to contributions from Europe, while the second week includes views from Latin America, Asia and Africa. We are based in Europe and are active here as researchers – members of ProsPol researchers’ network on prostitution policies in Europe – and organisers in the field of sex workers’ rights. Europe is also the place that has produced, and still produces, the main policies in the field of prostitution that are then exported across the world. This trend arguably began at the beginning of the nineteenth-century with ‘regulationism’ forcing sex workers to work under strict state medical and economic control, without receiving any rights in return.

Then, came the ‘abolitionism’ of the late 1800s, which recognised sex workers as victims who in principle should never be criminalised, controlled, or exploited by either the state or any other third party. This perspective found expression a century later in the famous UN Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others of 1949. Now, most recently, we have the ‘neo-prohibitionist’ form that focuses on the criminalisation of clients – the so-called ‘Swedish model’ that first appeared in 1999.

All these approaches to prostitution have spread across the world, are still in place to various extents, and are discussed and criticised by sex workers’ organisations. In contrast to these approaches, the sex workers’ movement, ever since its early political documents, has largely supported ‘decriminalisation’. New Zealand is currently experimenting with this, and the concept recently made the mainstream headlines thanks to the so-called 2015 ‘Amnesty Resolution’ supporting it.

Decriminalisation means that there are no special criminal laws for prostitution, and therefore violence, abuse, rape, and exploitation are addressed with the same means as they are in any other economic or sexual activity. This approach, sex workers’ organisations insist, is less damaging for sex workers and more likely to support their empowerment than other ‘sex work regimes’, including the comparatively progressive regulatory regimes implemented in the Netherlands, Germany, and some parts of Australia. Even if they are in principle oriented to the promotion of sex workers’ rights, such rule-heavy approaches produce many spaces of illegality for those sex workers who cannot comply with the rules – typically undocumented migrant sex workers – as the Berlin-based Hydra’s Peers argue in their contribution. Moreover, these very rules may easily infringe upon sex workers’ basic right to decide how, when, and with whom they will have sex.

The issue is not straight forward, for in sex work “you put a very special part of yourself on the line”, as the Committee for Civil Rights of Prostitutes from Italy well puts it. Indeed, decriminalisation itself is conceived by some of the writers only as a first step in the fight for sex workers' rights. As Ava Caradonna from X:talk Project stresses with regards to Britain and Europe, any law that recognises sex work as work, including decriminalisation, may be used to worsen the already difficult situation of undocumented migrants. Indeed, in the present regime of criminalisation of migration, simply the act of working can make you a criminal. Recognising sex work as work is therefore not enough. A change in migration policies is a priority, a point France’s STRASS equally emphasises, as is the removal of obstacles to collective organising and the development of alliances with other social and workers’ movements.

The readers will find ‘first wave’ voices in several of the articles in this series, those organisations that have existed since the 1980s such as the Committee for Civil Rights of Prostitutes in Italy, Empower in Thailand, and Hydra in Germany. We’ll also hear from feminist researcher and activist Gail Pheterson, who played a crucial role as an organiser in that first phase and still inspires prostitutes’ thinking nowadays.

Other groups, such as SWEAT (South Africa), AMMAR (Argentina), and Davida (Brazil), were created in the 1990s. Many were born out of the global AIDS crisis, which brought sex workers across the world together for collective education and organising, much like the gay community. Finally, a number of organisations – Steel Roses (France), ICRSE (Europe), SWAN (eastern Europe and central Asia), GG (South Korea), Hanteo (South Korea), STRASS (France), X:talk Project (Britain) – have grown in reaction to the waves of repression and criminalisation that emerged in the new millennium as part of ‘anti-trafficking’ strategies.

The failure of ‘anti-trafficking’

All very different contexts, with different economies; levels of welfare, inequalities, and education; gender relations; migration histories; colonisation; class division; social mobilisation; and so on. Certainly, sex workers’ analyses and demands are always also context-specific. However, what strikes us when reading the articles is that, from different organisations at opposite sides of the globe, all authors have something strong to say about ‘anti-trafficking’.

By ‘anti-trafficking' they mean the set of interventions that are presented to the public as necessary for combatting ‘sexual exploitation’ and ‘trafficking’ within the sex industry, as well as for ‘rescuing the victims’. Only very rarely, the authors report, do ‘anti-trafficking’ policies really support the emancipation of people in the industry. As Comitato from Italy tells us, a partial exception is represented by famous article 18 of Law 286/1998 (Italy), which gives the possibility of full residence permits to victims. Instead, ‘anti-trafficking’ interventions largely translate into actions against sex workers, including arresting, fining, raping, and pushing them into more dangerous situations. In Europe, migrants working in the sex industry become the specific targets of police repression, detention, and deportation. In practice, ‘saving prostitutes’ means taking away their livelihoods, and, when they are migrants, removing them from the national territories. Sex workers’ groups are clear on this point: all sex workers end up more vulnerable to exploitation, abuse, and coercion as a consequence of ‘anti-trafficking’.

Yet, ‘anti-trafficking’ is still the dominant project, finding consensus across the political spectrum from conservative and ultra-religious positions all the way to parts of feminism and the left. Its attraction is partly due to the simplicity of its message: ‘fight violence against women’, at all costs. As a sentiment this is hard to disagree with, but the collateral victims of their methods have been sex workers, who are themselves largely women, LGBTIQ people, and migrants.

As the work of Gail Pheterson reminds us, there is another kind of feminism, of a materialist genealogy, in which sex workers' organising is strongly rooted. A feminism that recognises its own location and honours the struggles of women, migrants, and LGBTIQ people under capitalistic regimes of neo-colonial, racist, and heterosexist dispossession, exploitation, violence, and abuse. As Empower from Thailand sharply notes: “We don't do sex work because we are poor, we do sex work to end our poverty … we cannot choose from options we don't have.”

Speaking about sex work as work means speaking about precarious and exploited work in times of austerity, war and the increasing criminalisation of people’s movement. It also means speaking about resistance, and about acknowledging our own relative locations, privileges, and inequalities. That might be why for many of us it is not easy to listen.

As SWEAT from South Africa well puts it, “talking about sex work also places some uncomfortable realities before those who would rather not talk critically about capital, labour and gender, rescuing women into a utopia of second-hand clothing sales and beading.”

This article is published as part of the 'Sex workers speak: who listens?' series on Beyond Trafficking and Slavery, generously sponsored by COST Action IS1209 ‘Comparing European Prostitution Policies: Understanding Scales and Cultures of Governance' (ProsPol). ProsPol is funded by COST. The University of Essex is its Grant Holder Institution.

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