Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

What we talk about when we talk about trafficking

Being a feminist anti-trafficking organisation means being against a lot of what passes for ‘anti-trafficking’ these days.

International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe Livia Valensise
4 November 2019, 11.33am
Sex workers demonstrate in Berlin.
Hexe/Flickr. Creative Commons (by)

Trafficking in human beings is a serious offence against one's personal self-determination. No one is for human trafficking, everyone is against human trafficking. However, the practical consequences that should follow from this stance are far less clear. And as a feminist NGO, you often find yourself in doubtful society.

Unwanted companions: two lessons

An unwanted, self-proclaimed combatant in the fight against human trafficking is Matteo Salvini. The openly racist Italian former interior minister is a man from whom organisations like Ban Ying, a feminist counselling centre against human trafficking in Berlin, have had to delineate themselves for years now. He is someone who has called for the end of human trafficking, it’s true, but for him this means the criminalisation of either smugglers or NGOs.

Other groups are happy to put this into action. In the summer of 2017, the sign ‘Stop Human Trafficking’ appeared off the coast of Sicily. The ship on which the banner hung was being run by members of Génération Identitaire, a radical right-wing group that wanted to halt refugees’ and migrants’ arrival by sea in what they called operation ‘Defend Europe’. They sought to hinder a Doctors Without Borders ship from leaving port to search for migrants in distress, a group they accused of trafficking in the Mediterranean.

Lesson one: trafficking in human beings is not the same as smuggling people, and the former will not be stopped by criminalising smugglers and stricter borders. On the contrary, it is precisely these uncertain and dangerous migration routes that contribute to people ending up in exploitative conditions. Creating legal, secure and long-term immigration and employment opportunities, including in the low-paid sector, would be a first step in protecting migrants from exploitation.

Feminism and its strange bedfellows

The fact that Salvini uses the term human trafficking for populist reasons is not surprising.

But what about those who, like Ban Ying, see their role as supporting women who have been victims of this exploitative crime? Even among feminist-defining organisations, there are clear disagreements. The pivotal point is usually the attitude to sex work. The entire field of anti-trafficking seems to be divided into two camps with opposing assumptions about which circumstances are responsible for human trafficking – and accordingly, how to fight the phenomenon.

Both evangelical organisations and some self-proclaimed feminist groups regard every form of sex work as exploitation, and therefore as the main cause of human trafficking. They seek an end to the entire sex industry, and their method of choice at the moment is the so-called Nordic model, or the criminalisation of buying sex. The association Terre des Femmes has split over this dispute.

Initial consent does not erase the responsibility of the perpetrators, but it does make the question of desired remedies less clear than abolitionist organisations would like.

Individual situations are frequently more complicated. Many women decide to work as sex workers, but are later on deceived regarding the actual working conditions and find themselves in situations that meet the legal criteria of trafficking. Legally speaking this initial consent does not erase the responsibility of the perpetrators, but it does make the question of desired remedies less clear than abolitionist organisations would like.

Lesson two follows: sex work is not the same as human trafficking. Not every form of exploitation has to do with sex work, and not every form of sex work is exploitation or trafficking.

The problem with conflating sex work and trafficking in human beings is that women are made to be victims even when they have consciously decided to work as sex workers. The ‘rescue industry’, as the scholar Laura María Agustín calls it, attributes victim status to persons, mostly women, who have rationally and consciously decided to engage in sex work and who, at least in the moment of making their decision, do not see themselves as victims.

What is considered ‘voluntary’ is crucial to this debate. The anti-sex work camp argues that, while there are probably some young students from good families who enter the profession for pleasure, they are an absolute minority within the sex industry. In their view, that minority should not legitimise the vast majority, which does not sell sex ‘voluntarily’ from a privileged situation.

But what does rational, voluntary, conscious decision mean in times of extreme (global) inequalities? Why is there so much reliance on allegedly free will in a world so decisively controlled by economic constraints, especially with regard to sex work?

According to Luca Stevenson, the coordinator at the International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe, this position reflects a very white middle class approach. "Very few people are free to choose their jobs and many factors contribute to someone working in informal, precarious or even dangerous industries such as sex work. The criminalisation of sex work does not create economic options, but makes sex workers more vulnerable, more precarious."

We do not have to believe that sex work is the greatest, most emancipating work in the world. Certainly there are qualitative differences between sex work and other work sectors such as care work or household work. Yet, it has to be acknowledged that sex work remains a choice for people with very few options available to them, and that those who choose sex work should enjoy maximum security and access to rights. Therefore, Ban Ying calls for the real protection of all sex workers, irrespective of residence status.

What is feminist anti-trafficking work?

Feminist anti-trafficking work means that women must be counselled in a way that neither tries to convert them nor condemns them, but accepts their migration, work, and life history as told by them. This means that among clients, there are women who may never want to work in a massage parlour; and women who may have worked in their home country in the sex industry and continue to pursue their profession after migrating somewhere else. We must accept this, even though some of them have since become victims of trafficking, deprived of their wages and exploited.

Furthermore, it means:

  • To accept and respect the decisions of clients
  • To enforce the rights of victims of exploitation and human trafficking while at the same time being aware of the problematic categorisation of migrants, refugees, victims of trafficking
  • The vulnerability of women to exploitation and/or human trafficking is not seen as a natural condition but as a result of global structural constraints on women, including employment in informal work, unequal access to social security benefits
  • Challenging the portrayal of women as passive victims, as often seen in the anti-trafficking field
  • Advocacy for legal, safe, long-term immigration routes, including in the low-paid sector.

And finally, all of this requires continually dealing with one's own position in the contentious field, questioning it and remaining open to what the future holds.

A previous version of this article was originally published by Missy Magazine in German in September 2019.


This article has been translated by the International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe (ICRSE) as part of its 'RnR- Rights not Rescue’ project, aiming to empower migrant sex workers in tackling exploitation and trafficking in the sex industry. The programme, funded by OAK Foundation, brings together sex workers and allies from sex workers' rights organisations in 10 European countries for exchange, national and European advocacy and knowledge generation. For more details about the project, check the ICRSE website:

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