Why Freedom United supports the decriminalisation of sex work
The evidence is clear that to build resilience to human trafficking in the sex industry, decriminalisation is the most effective approach, so that is what we support
Fences are not comfortable places, yet when it comes to sex work anti-trafficking organisations are clambering for a perch. They like it up there because it keeps them from being sucked into a long-standing political argument, in which one side declares that all prostitution (never sex work) is exploitation and therefore trafficking, while the other maintains that sex work is work. This division also extends to policy proposals. One side pushes a form of criminalisation softened via ‘Nordic’ references. The other argues that sex workers and sex workers’ rights should be protected, including from trafficking, and that criminalisation hurts rather than helps. This isn’t the only polarising debate within anti-trafficking circles, but it is an especially vociferous one. A lot of people are doing their best to stay out of it.
In this heated political environment, the fence feels like a safe space from which to watch the debate without risking partnerships, allies, funding, and supporters. Many fence-sitters are human rights-centred organisations for whom the decriminalisation of sex work would be a natural fit, yet for one reason or another they are not comfortable taking a public position. A few big names have taken a stand. Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have made strong cases for why decriminalising the sex industry would protect human rights and create resilience to trafficking for sexual exploitation, and both organisations have been heavily criticised for doing so. Their experiences have reinforced existing tendencies within human rights circles to avoid taking a public stand on commercial sex, as other organisations don’t want the same thing happening to them.
Part of the challenge to changing this dynamic is the degree to which commercial sex dominates the anti-trafficking conversation. The consequence of this was that, for a long time, trafficking into other sectors was severely neglected. That disinterest unintentionally created a sheltered space for new entrants. As more and more anti-trafficking organisations appeared, the work largely split between those focusing on sex trafficking through a prostitution lens and those focusing on non-sex-related trafficking – a way to operate without stepping on toes. Using their programmatic focus as an excuse to keep blinkers on has kept the peace, but sex workers and their ability to fight exploitation and trafficking has suffered for it.
Taking our first steps off the fence
In the case of my own organisation, Freedom United, our lack of engagement with debates over sexual exploitation became the proverbial ‘elephant in the room’ as we sought to present to our supporters an accurate and complete picture of modern slavery today. We had been producing campaigns and content which addressed the seemingly endless ways in which people can be exploited and abused, yet we had not been specifically engaging with debates over exploitation in commercial sex. A decision was taken to redress this imbalance. Starting this journey also presented an opportunity to step even further away from projects we found dubious, for example by rejecting invitations to participate in sensationalist films on trafficking for sexual exploitation.
With this submission, Freedom United effectively demonstrated that it had decided that it was no longer worth maintaining a position on the fence in order to save relationships.
Our first step was to educate ourselves on how sex workers’ rights are essential to resilient systems against trafficking for sexual exploitation. To this end, Freedom United interviewed representatives from both Empower Foundation in Thailand and the English Collective of Prostitutes in 2020 in order to better understand how sex worker-led organisations have been excluded from anti-trafficking spaces and why police ‘raid and rescues’ are harmful.
Not long after this event, Freedom United began a campaign focusing upon Pornhub. Our goal was not to shut it down and criminalise the porn industry, as some campaigners wanted, but to instead introduce changes which would help victims of trafficking while addressing the legitimate concerns of piracy raised by adult performers and sex workers. This was sensitive political terrain. We carefully drafted our campaign material to make clear that we were calling on Pornhub to implement measures to prevent the exploitation of victims of trafficking through measures such as age and consent verification, and to thereby address some horrific examples of sexual abuse on their site. Crucially, this campaign also sought to address the long-standing criticism by sex workers in the industry regarding the lack of effective regulation. Mindgeek, Pornhub’s controlling company, had “destabilized and monopolized” the industry, thereby enabling forms of piracy which were seriously impacting the livelihood of performers.
Entering the political fray
This Pornhub campaign made it impossible for Freedom United to sidestep arguments over attitudes and approaches to commercial sex. At the same time, Pornhub was also being targeted by an organisation called ‘Traffickinghub’, which was in turn linked to the fundamentalist group Exodus Cry. Their goal was to stop pornography and commercial sex work without any regard for how this would further stigmatise sex workers. This created messaging challenges. We were afraid that our campaign’s careful wording and language would get lost amongst the noise generated by Exodus Cry, and that compelled us to put more effort into clearly differentiating Freedom United from ‘end demand’ campaigns led by anti-trafficking organisations who favoured carceral solutions.
We further clarified our position on sex work in a submission to a public consultation organised by the Scottish government around the theme of ‘Equally Safe: challenging men's demand for prostitution'. In our submission, we concluded that the available evidence suggested that the partial criminalisation of sex work, the so called “Nordic Model’, would not be effective in preventing human trafficking. With this submission, Freedom United effectively demonstrated that it had decided that it was no longer worth maintaining a position on the fence in order to save relationships.
We knew that we would risk losing some of our supporters by speaking out in favour of decriminalisation, but our survey suggested that the majority would still stand with us.
Once off the fence, we found that it was necessary to take an even stronger public stand. In December 2020 the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool, England announced the ‘ArtXFreedom’ exhibition to visually document opposition to sex trafficking. This exhibition was produced in partnership with Traffickinghub and Exodus Cry, and featured dehumanising imagery which included an image of a naked woman with tape over her mouth and abusive comments plastered on her body. These images were directly contrary to content guidelines which Freedom United developed for our inaugural campaign, My Story, My Dignity, which calls on both the media and other non-profits to adopt guidelines to help end the sensationalism often used when portraying trafficking.
Given the circumstances, Freedom United felt obliged to join many others in speaking out publicly against the Traffickinghub exhibit. In response to this criticism, National Museums Liverpool quickly pulled the exhibition. Many organisations are reluctant to call out other organisations working in the same field, but this exhibit was really harmful for both trafficking survivors and sex workers, so we decided it was important to take a clear public position.
What do our supporters think?
It was important for us to find out where Freedom United’s supporters stood on the topic of decriminalisation of sex work at this juncture, since they are crucial to our social movement theory of change. We therefore conducted a survey that included the question “Would you like to see Freedom United work on tackling sex trafficking through the decriminalization of sex work?” Two-thirds of our respondents answered ‘Yes’. We knew that we would risk losing some of our supporters by speaking out in favour of decriminalisation, but the survey suggested that the majority would still stand with us.
As part of this exercise, we also tried to arrange a live debate on the best way to tackle sex trafficking between decriminalisation advocates and advocates of the Nordic (end demand) model. We invited several speakers from both sides of the argument to participate, but only the advocates for decriminalisation were interested in participating. The ‘end demand’ advocates either rejected or ignored our invitations. As a result our webinar primarily featured voices that spoke in favour of decriminalisation as the most effective solution. This lack of balance was quickly seized upon by end demand campaigners. Even people we invited (and who chose not to respond) found it in themselves to sign an open letter from Nordic Model Now! expressing their “very serious concerns about the webinar”, to which Freedom United also promptly responded.
Funder preferences and requirements are probably one of the most significant factors keeping organisations on the fence.
Now that Freedom United had solidified our position, we also needed to develop and share information and campaign materials explaining the approaches and why we support decriminalisation. We wanted to demonstrate that we would actively engage with sex worker organisations and their concerns. One way we have done this so far has been to submit evidence at recent town hall debates in Ontario, Canada to counter efforts to criminalise massage parlours as an effective strategy to address sex trafficking. To this end, we created a resource hub which pulled together Freedom United’s work on trafficking for sexual exploitation. This growing resource includes an explanation of why we back decriminalisation, Q&A pages, common myths, and a word of caution to the anti-trafficking movement about crying trafficking where it’s not yet been proven.
Funding makes the world go around?
Freedom United has one big organisational advantage over many of our peers: we have independent sources of funding that neither explicitly nor implicitly influence our work. This allows us to chart an independent path when it comes to tackling human trafficking. Such freedom is rare. The human rights movement is not awash with funding, and funder preferences and requirements are probably one of the most significant factors keeping organisations on the fence on sex work. Fears about losing future revenue frequently result in self-censorship, and there are times when not taking a position on sex work is set out as an explicit requirement for support.
Funding from the US government, one of the most influential actors in the anti-trafficking space, comes with an infamous clause that directly prevents recipient organisations from activities that “promote or advocate the legalization or practice of prostitution or sex trafficking”. Similarly, the Anti-Prostitution Pledge requires organisations to have an explicit policy against sex work and trafficking and to agree to not use private funds to support sex workers. This was successfully challenged by US non-profits in receipt of federal funds to fight HIV/AIDS in 2013 as a breach of First Amendment rights to free speech. However, even in this programme the US Supreme Court recently ruled that these kinds of restrictions could still be imposed on foreign-based recipients, a decision which does not bode well for organisations receiving anti-trafficking funding ready to challenge the clause.
This creates a major dilemma. Is the benefit of publicly speaking out in support of sex workers’ rights as a trafficking resilience strategy worth the likely cost of lost funding? The focus must, or rather should be, on pushing for progress towards ending trafficking and fighting measures that undermine it. Therein lies a challenge: to pursue an approach which confronts popularly-held opinions in the hopes that the evidence will shift attitudes (and eventually reach funders and funding policies); but whilst pursuing that shift, maintaining sufficient resources to be in a position to do that.
Now is the time to speak up on sex work
Anti-trafficking organisations have to be prepared to build bridges when they choose to enter the fray and speak out in favour of decriminalisation. The polarisation has understandably caused an ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality, as some anti-trafficking organisations continue to actively impede sex workers’ pursuit of rights, putting them at greater risk of violence, abuse and trafficking.
Yet this need not be a polarising debate. The evidence is clear that full decriminalisation of sex work builds resilience to trafficking by both increasing the negotiating power of sex workers over working conditions and creating space for reporting concerns and holding others to account without fear of penalty. Freedom United is building alliances with organisations that are willing to take a stand and finding ways to create safe spaces for individuals and organisations to explore joining us. Human rights activists often declare that ‘silence is acceptance’. For ‘rights-based’ anti-trafficking organisations sitting on the fence, now is the time to speak up.
Learn more about 'fence-sitting' on sex workers' rights
Joel Quirk, Emily Kenway & Cameron Thibos
Emily Kenway and Joel Quirk
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