For decades, the relationship between sex workers and traditional anti-trafficking advocates has been tense. The origin of sex workers’ rights organizing can be traced back to January 25, 1917, when 300 sex workers in San Francisco marched to protest the looming closure of the city’s brothels. Decades later, as part of the U.S. queer liberation movement of the 1960’s, the country would see a growth in more formal organizing led by transgender sex workers. As this activism expanded across the globe in the following decades, sex workers struggled to fight social stigma, criminalization, and the HIV/AIDs epidemic’s impact on their community. In the 1990’s, a new challenge would arise: the burgeoning anti-trafficking movement.
As the number of anti-trafficking organizations around the world grew, funding and government support also became increasingly conditional on an anti-sex work stance. The United Nation’s 2000 Palermo Protocol failed to specifically define “prostitution,” or “sexual exploitation,” allowing individual states to determine how they would differentiate, or conflate, these issues. At the same time, an “anti-prostitution pledge” was implemented for all non-profit recipients of U.S aid grants, and the State Department’s Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report began rating foreign government, in part, on their efforts to reduce demand for all forms of commercial sex acts and sex tourism.
Today, prostitution abolitionists maintain a strong hold in the anti-trafficking world. Comprised of an unusual coalition of “radical feminists” and religious groups, they view the selling of sex as inherently exploitative and immoral. They generally do not recognize the reality that not all sex workers are victims of trafficking and argue that the entire sex trade must be abolished in order to protect vulnerable women.
In order to achieve this goal, most abolitionists promote the “Nordic Model,” also referred to as the “Equality Model.” This strategy, first implemented in Sweden, decriminalizes selling sex and seeks to reduce demand by criminalizing the purchasing of sex. Some anti-trafficking groups support this approach due to the belief that the demand for commercial sex will increase if purchasing is made legal, thereby fueling trafficking for sexual exploitation.
Many sex workers assert that this strategy will, in reality, force them into more dangerous working conditions as their clientele retreats into the shadows. As a result, several major human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women, the ACLU, the World Health Organization, and Human Rights Watch oppose the Nordic model, and have instead called for the decriminalization of consensual sex work.
Like all other industries, there is a broad spectrum of working conditions in the sex trade. I recently discussed this issue with RJ Thompson, Managing Director of the Sex Workers Project of the Urban Justice Center, as well as Zola Bruce, Director of Communications, both of whom have years of experience in sex work and sex workers’ rights advocacy.
Thompson says that he thinks about this issue as a spectrum of choice, circumstance, and coercion. Many sex workers do indeed enter the industry because of limited choices in the formal job market. And as he notes, “someone can be a sex worker and a survivor of trafficking,” just like a fruit picker or seamstress. “But when we’re talking about adult, consensual sex work- it doesn’t have anything to do with force or coercion,” Thompson affirms. When adequate safety measures are in place, Bruce adds “sex work can be an affirming and empowering choice” for some individuals.
According to Thompson, Bruce, and a host of other sex worker’s rights activists, some mainstream anti-trafficking efforts have perpetuated significant harm in their communities. They point out that efforts to crack down on trafficking often result in higher levels of surveillance, police violence, and fear of law enforcement among those who are freely and willing selling sex. Im/migrant sex workers, including LGBTQ individuals fleeing persecution, are especially vulnerable. In addition to the pervasive cultural stigma around this kind of work, migrant women of color are often stereotyped as helpless victims in need of a savior. Commonly referenced red flags of trafficking like “fears revealing immigration status,” “does not speak English,” and “gathered in a large group of women of the same nationality,” may be used to justify violent police raids and mass deportation.
Sex workers’ rights groups have also criticized the trafficking rescue industry. Empower, a long-standing sex worker organization in Thailand, reports a litany of human rights abuses in the raid and rescue process led by NGOs and law enforcement there. They describe disturbing stories of entrapment, invasive medical testing, deportation, and involuntary detention within rehabilitation programs. Rather than providing a mean of escape from forced prostitution, these well-intentioned initiatives may end up victimizing women who never asked or wanted to be rescued.
Despite these issues, there are many ways that anti-trafficking advocates can achieve their goals while working to reduce harm and pursue more ethical initiatives to combat exploitation. This starts with ensuring that sex workers have a seat at the table during policy conversations and research projects, from which they are largely excluded. There is also an important opportunity for collaboration to more adeptly identify victims of trafficking in the field. In fact, many sex workers rights groups are also anti-trafficking groups; the Sex Workers Project of the Urban Justice Center, for example, provides both asylum and legal assistance to survivors. In turn, traditional anti-trafficking groups can bring their resources and expertise in fighting labor abuses in other high-risk sectors, like agriculture and textiles, to a more nuanced approach to the sex trade.
Aubrey Calaway wrote this blog post when she was a research fellow at Human Trafficking Search. She is currently a correspondent at Earth Refuge and a podcast producer at Brightline Defense.