Beyond Trafficking and Slavery: Feature

There is no neutral position on whether sex work is work

'Neutrality’ is based on the assumptions of the anti-sex work camp, which makes abstention a political stance in its own right.

Inga Thiemann
27 August 2021, 6.00am
Guy Corbishley/Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

Many anti-trafficking organisations and first responder organisations within the European National Referral Mechanism system try to avoid taking a stance on sex work. This is not a new phenomenon. When I first engaged with anti-trafficking organisations’ views on sex work in 2014, I encountered clear positions but I also received a number of answers like these:

‘I think there are two sorts of views. There is an official view and there's a sort of widely held unofficial view. The official view is, we are a [faith-based organisation], so our thoughts on prostitution are aligned with the teachings of [the Church]: ... it's sinful for both parties, but special consideration and sympathy must be given to the person who is selling the service. ... The unofficial position, which most people in our organisation hold, is … about ‘is anyone suffering?’. (A UK-based charity)

‘As a Christian organisation our view is based on faith. We do believe that sex is created for couples to express a loving relationship. … [Yet] we work around the world with women who are working in prostitution, in the sex industry, and we would be very careful not to be judgmental and careful not to treat people in a way that might make people feel inferior or judged.’ (A UK-based charity)

‘We have very heterogenous member organisations, due to their history or their political positions, so we integrate and represent very different organisations. But generally speaking we would view ourselves as ‘in the middle’ [with regard to views on sex work].’ (A Germany-based umbrella organisation)

This last interviewee went on to explain that, in practice, members of the organisation were pragmatic: they were focused on helping victims of trafficking rather than those voluntarily engaged in sex work, so their views did not matter for their work. They were ultimately staying out of the debate.

Not much has changed in the years which have passed. There continue to be many organisations who seem unsure of where they stand, or try to stand everywhere at once, or simply do their best to avoid the conversation. This tends to be justified in pragmatic terms: by occupying the middle ground they avoid both the puritanical zealotry that is sometimes associated with opposition to sex work and the controversy that would certainly come with endorsing decriminalisation. Moreover, it also comes with the advantage of insulating anti-trafficking organisations from potential changes in government policy. If the laws governing commercial sex change, it is less likely to damage your relationship with government if you don’t have a clear position.

These appeals to pragmatism are frequently tied to concerns over funding. Many governments favour faith-based organisations with long histories of charitable work, and therefore award contracts and funding to established organisations with politically ‘safe’ profiles. A good example of this larger dynamic is the position of the Salvation Army as the UK government’s preferred service provider for the National Referral Mechanism, which handles suspected trafficking cases. For charities and service providers, proximity to government and a reputation for neutrality can be a major competitive advantage in an environment where non-governmental organisations struggle to survive. As a case in point, the Salvation Army replaced another organisation, the Poppy Project, which folded shortly thereafter.

Apart from concerns over funding, I was also told that ‘staying out of it’ enables organisations to more effectively focus on victims’ needs without any ‘distractions’. According to this logic, abstaining from the debate over sex work means taking the moral high ground.

‘Staying out of it’ means becoming a bystander

There is much more going on beneath the surface. One of the main problems with these appeals to ‘neutrality’ is that they reduce the political and personal stakes associated with the status of sex work to an intellectual abstraction. ‘What to do with sex work’ becomes a hypothetical moral question that might feel personally important but which carries no real weight. The claim that staying neutral allows organisations to get on with the ‘real work’ of victim services reinforces this approach.

Yet that understanding of the problem is anything but neutral. It accepts the anti-sex-worker premise that abstract questions of morality and specific views on feminism are able to outweigh concrete safety issues. In doing so, it affirms that the sex work policy debate does not have to centre on sex workers’ livelihoods, safety and their rights as workers, but can also be about what ‘we’, as a society, believe is ‘right’.

It is definitely a position to insist that – in contrast to any other industry – workers’ rights make no difference to vulnerable or exploited sex workers.

Anti-trafficking organisations’ neutrality also implicitly endorses a second key anti-sex-worker assumption, namely that sex work is fundamentally different to other types of work. Indeed, that sex work is not real work at all. How? By giving equivalence to workers’ calls for greater protection of their rights at work and ‘end demand’ groups’ calls to ‘protect’ sex workers from their work. In no other sector would anti-trafficking organisations feel so comfortable giving both positions equal value, and the only route to doing so here is by accepting the idea that sex work is different from, and lesser than, other forms of work. Only if that is the basic premise does it make sense to ignore sex workers’ assertions that decriminalisation would make them safer, because only then can their safety at work be seen as irrelevant or optional.

Thus, it is not a neutral position to claim that workers’ rights in the sex industry are irrelevant to anti-trafficking organisations’ work on the ground. Anti-trafficking organisations claim to exist to end exploitation in the world of work and to help survivors of trafficking. Given that, it is definitely a position to insist that – in contrast to any other industry – workers’ rights make no difference to the situation of vulnerable or exploited sex workers. It is a position to not care whether improved access to labour protections could improve working conditions within the sex industry. And it is a position to suggest that victims of trafficking in the sex industry, unlike victims of trafficking in any other sector, should not be compensated for the wages they did not receive. (As I explain elsewhere, the avenues to rights and compensation are under-utilised for victims of trafficking in the sex industry in comparison to other sectors, even in countries in which sex work is legal.)

By claiming neutrality, anti-trafficking organisations ultimately reinforce the notion that sex work is not work and that there are two entirely separate types of human trafficking, sex trafficking and labour trafficking. This enables an approach to human trafficking into the sex industry which leaves only temporary service provision and ‘rescue’ without access to rights, and it pushes rights-based approaches to exploitation within the sex industry even further to the fringe.

If stakeholders do not engage with the question of whether or not sex work is work, it becomes possible to assume the question is simply unimportant. A matter of personal viewpoint that doesn’t have an effect on anything. In reality, rights-based approaches depend on stakeholders’ affirmation that sex work is work. It’s time to come off the fence.

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