Beyond Trafficking and Slavery: Feature

The common cause of drug reform and sex workers’ rights

Supporting sex workers’ rights shouldn’t feel like a reach for the drug reform movement. Both exist to reduce the harm wrought by criminalisation

Anastacia Ryan
3 September 2021, 7.00am
Artwork by Carys Boughton. All rights reserved.

Global outrage regarding human trafficking and sexual slavery has had a major effect upon how women engaged in sex work are represented. No longer publicly imagined as morally corrupt or bad women per se, they are now more likely assumed to be victims of sexual slavery and trafficking. As a result, punishment and discipline have given way to more neoliberal mechanisms of control under the guise of ‘rescue’. Prostitution has been increasingly re-classified as a crime that uniquely victimises women and children, and as this US-led conflation of prostitution with trafficking has spread ‘raid, rescue and rehabilitation’ operations have increased throughout southeast Asia and other Global South contexts. These morality-based agendas make help and support conditional on exiting sex work and/or abstinence rather than prioritising rights, recognition and respect.

This politics of ‘rescue’ has resulted in multiple forms of abuse, and opposition to the approach has galvanised sex workers across the globe. This activism and advocacy, however, has been undercut and ignored. Friends have also been difficult to find. There has been a distinct lack of support from other communities and organisations negatively impacted by discrimination and criminalisation. Instead of taking up calls for decriminalisation and labour rights, potential allies have remained on the side-lines rather than standing in solidarity.

For many sex workers, the main problem is not the ‘smugglers’ or ‘traffickers’, but the state, its agents, and civil society supporters.

This is true of most anti-trafficking organisations. The image of the feminised sex slave has become so enmeshed in the public imagination that NGOs are afraid to embrace sex workers’ rights amid concerns that backing decriminalisation will potentially erode public and state support for trafficking victims. They are also worried that taking a stand in support of decriminalisation would open up their organisations to attack and put their funding and donations at risk.

Perhaps more perplexing has been the lack of engagement with sex workers’ rights by those spearheading campaigns for the decriminalisation of illicit drugs, including in the UK. Some drug policy reform organisations do see the parallels and are vocal in their support. Yet for others, there is a clear sense of ‘fence-sitting’ when it comes to supporting the full decriminalisation of prostitution. This is hard to understand. Both sex workers’ rights groups and drug reform groups understand the harms created by criminalisation and stigma, and spend their days fighting to reduce them. They also have overlapping constituencies. Yet despite this common ground many refuse to offer their support. Perhaps most concerning are the politicians who champion the right of people to use drugs, yet somehow find it in themselves to also embrace the ‘rescue’ of sex workers.

‘Rescue’ as state-sanctioned violence of sex workers

The brutal realities of the criminalisation of sex work and the conflation of prostitution with trafficking are fundamental to sex worker activism. Many of these problems have been creatively documented by Thailand’s Empower Foundation. Their advocacy was a highlight of the International AIDS Conference in Melbourne in 2014, where the audience was captivated by a performance of sex workers that captured the day-to-day challenges they faced: condoms and earnings confiscated, raids on their workplaces, and bribes in the form of free sexual services to authorities. In Thailand, as elsewhere in the world, rape, arrest, detention, and police brutality haunt the daily experiences of sex workers.

I first saw Empower’s performance while working with the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Work Projects (APNSW) in Thailand. At this project, I heard countless stories of sex workers taking dangerous routes across borders to search for work in neighbouring countries. Women recounted how vulnerable they were to rape, violence, and extortion by both border officials and those they paid to facilitate their journey. But one of the most significant problems, they said, were the attempts by the police and NGOs to ‘rescue’ them. For many sex workers, the main problem was not the ‘smugglers’ or ‘traffickers’, but the state, its agents, and civil society supporters.

The lobbying power of ‘mutant feminism’ has led to scaremongering tactics so militant that even those renowned for integrity on women’s rights have chosen to sit on the fence.

Caught between the ‘Tiger and the Crocodile’, sex workers continue to experience the double-edged sword of repression. They can be either bad women motivated by self-interest to sell sexual services, or fallen victims of malicious male violence, abuse and trafficking. Both conceptions are vastly oversimplified, yet they have been the driving force of varying degrees of state regulation and surveillance for decades. Despite the rhetoric of ‘rescue’ – a deeply gendered, paternalistic and misogynistic concept – most sex workers primarily encounter the state through state-sanctioned violence.

The lobbying power of ‘mutant feminism’ has led to scaremongering tactics so militant that even those renowned for integrity on women’s rights, like UN Women, have chosen to sit on the fence on the issue of sex work law reform. It’s not hard to imagine why, for they have seen what happens when groups choose a side. Amnesty International’s announcement that it would support decriminalisation attracted ferocious attack from groups that prioritise the eradication of prostitution over all else, including the safety of sex workers.

Shared experience as the basis for solidarity

Whilst potential conflict may partly explain ‘fence-sitting’ by those advocating for the decriminalisation of drugs, the benefits of solidarity between the drug reform movement and the sex workers’ rights movement are well established. This begs the question as to why a shared platform of advocacy for rights, recognition and respect has not emerged within the landscape of UK activism.

For UNAIDS bodies, including the World Health Organisation, the shared context between sex workers and people who use drugs (alongside men who have sex with men, people in prison, and trans persons) is their identification as “key affected communities” at risk of HIV. This recognition provided a platform for solidarity and cooperation, and allowed groups to leverage their collective bargaining power to address the structural conditions that put these populations at greater risk of HIV infections: unjust laws, discrimination, violence and stigma. Solidarity between sex worker-led and drug user-led advocacy movements forced the impact of punitive laws on HIV-risk to become a key focus of the landmark 2012 Report from the Global Commission on HIV and The Law. Many subsequent calls for decriminalisation followed.

The common risks to sex workers and drug users extend far beyond health and HIV risk. The criminalisation of drugs has created an illicit market that contributes to violence, breeds corruption and fuels conflict. The criminalisation of sex work, likewise, has created an underground sex market where exploitation and violence, including vulnerability to trafficking, can flourish. Poverty is a driving force for involvement in both contexts, yet because these are illicit markets anybody who participates in them is at risk of experiencing harsh enforcement measures. It goes without saying that there are globally racist and classist dimensions to these wars too.

Misplaced notions of sympathy and understanding, and conditionalities placed on access to support, cause more harm than good.

There has been an arising hysteria of ‘county lines’ drug operations in the UK, whereby drugs are moved from major cities to rural areas and small towns by recruiting vulnerable children to transport and deal them. Such media hype is commensurate to reporting on human trafficking, with media articles often heralding police crackdowns as great rescue operations in which victims are saved and criminals are ‘hunted’ and brought to justice.

There are of course documented problems of exploitation and violence associated with the sex trade, the drug trade, and people smuggling. But phenomena such as trafficking, ‘county lines’ and trafficking ‘gangs’ – currently the entry point and preoccupation of policy makers, NGOs and the media – are a by-product of criminalisation, an approach that has consistently failed to develop indicators of ‘impact’. These narratives of harm steer attention away from the structural conditions that render children vulnerable to drug gang recruitment; the vulnerabilities caused by the absence of labour rights for sex workers; and the lack of safe and legal routes for migrants to work in the UK. In not addressing the root causes of victimisation, ‘county lines’, anti-trafficking and anti-migrant narratives justify more state and police powers, ever expanding prison numbers, and increased enforcement budgets.

The utility of trauma

27 May 2021 marked 50 years since the UK’s Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 received royal assent. This pivotal anniversary propelled charities, scientists, ex-police, public health specialists, bereaved family members, and over 50 MPs and Peers from all parties to call on the Government to urgently review legislation criminalising some psychoactive substances. This call to acknowledge a record of policy failure – reflected in the UK’s booming illicit markets and record number of drug-related deaths – did not extend to coalition building around reform of sex work.

Despite advocating for drug policy reform, some leading politicians in this field in the UK reject full decriminalisation of sex work. While emphasising the importance of evidence-led drug policy, listening to those with ‘lived experience’ and embracing the campaign call for decriminalisation is not something these politicians seem willing to do. This political and intellectual inconsistency has been foregrounded by various, so far unsuccessful, attempts by Labour MP Diana Johnson to bring a package of measures purported to ‘bust the business model of sex trafficking’. These proposed measures would increase criminalisation to end demand and punish those ‘profiting from sexual exploitation’. The sex workers’ rights movement has mobilised against these laws and pointed to evidence from other contexts that this approach increases risk and violence against workers. Even if the claims to want to ‘help’ people in prostitution are genuine, if they continue to support any aspects of criminalisation then they are failing to consider the gendered, paternalistic and misogynistic underpinnings of such rescue-based approaches.

Trauma-informed understandings of stigmatised behaviours have come to permeate debates in the UK and particularly in Scotland. Whilst seemingly well-intentioned, a trauma-based understanding of why people engage in ‘bad’ behaviours is often used to justify legal, policy and service approaches that fail to acknowledge agency, autonomy and the ability to regulate one’s own life. Such approaches come with a warning from the sex workers’ rights movement. Misplaced notions of sympathy and understanding, and conditionalities placed on access to support, cause more harm than good. Migrant sex workers can sing a song about this, as their access to justice has become conditional on conformity to victimhood, including having to identify as a ‘victim of trafficking’ to support residency status applications.

An approach that urges us to look beyond the ‘drug user’ to see the ‘traumatised addict’ is no less infantilising then looking beyond the ‘sex worker’ to see a ‘victim of exploitation’. They claim these approaches will support rather than punish people for their misfortune, but in reality this is just another form of control that makes rights conditional on acceptance of ‘help’. When an unrepentant drug user or sex worker refuses to abstain and to assimilate to ‘responsible’ citizenship, the result is a further casting to the margins of criminality. Persistence of ‘bad’ behaviour leaves the individual alone, left to navigate stigma and discrimination without protection of the law.

Broaden your fight against harm and stigma

A call for solidarity is an invitation to see one’s own story as bound up and interdependent in the story of others. Whilst this may at times prove uncomfortable, solidarity brings shared knowledge and, more importantly, collective bargaining power. The call to affirm the life, dignity, and rights of people who use drugs while remaining neutral on the issue of sex work is siding with the forces that oppress both communities, including approaches that merely repackage prohibition as conditional support.

As organisations, activists, and politicians that campaign at the intersection of drug policy and sex work reform, we must recognise and see the value of working in solidarity. For the drug policy reform movement, the support of sex workers’ rights and decriminalisation must be a core and explicit value, as the drug laws and those laws that prohibit sex work often collide, criminalising those who are the most visible to law enforcement. It is imperative that stakeholders from both camps discuss, strategise, learn from each other, and advocate in ways that end unjust laws and discrimination, increase safety and harm reduction, and advance rights-respecting agendas.

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