Visibly Invisible – Sex Workers in the EU

Visibly Invisible – Sex Workers in the EU

Visibly Invisible – Sex Workers in the EU

The formation of the European Union (EU) in the 1990s turned a stark spotlight onto migration, trafficking, and smuggling across EU borders, with particular focus on the ‘problem of prostitution’. Due to a lack of evidence based research when drafting current policies, sex workers and sex trafficking survivors have been effectively silenced making them visibly invisible in the process of their own “protection” with no regard for their lived experience and a removal of their agency

The “problem” of sex work has increasingly been used to justify repressive policies on sex work across the EU with their origins in the Nordic or Swedish Model which criminalizes the clients of sex workers rather than the sex workers themselves. The aim of this model is to protect sex workers from criminal prosecution on the assumption that they are always victims of some form of exploitation or human trafficking. 

However, data shows these policies are having the opposite effect on the potential victims of trafficking that legislation purports to protect. Rather than protecting sex workers and preventing trafficking, by criminalizing clients conditions have become even more dangerous and precarious as the trade is driven further from view. Contemporary scholars on the issue of sex work refer to the current European approach as ‘sexual humanitarianism’ and stress how these punitive policies are resulting in harm to vulnerable groups. There is also a historical colonial understanding of sexuality and migration to consider as part of understanding the sexual humanitarianism and the western dominated attitude to sex work in general. 

Work to effectively understand and address the relationship of sex work and human trafficking must begin with a study of the intersection of sex work, gender, migration, class, and racism. The dregs of historical positions of sexism and racism, with migrants seen as potentially “different kinds of human beings with deviant erotic practices”, still linger as part of the conversation in Europe today. These attitudes also underlie the broad political anxiety and sexism around migration and social inequalities. By conflating migration and human trafficking in popular discourse, and framing sex work and sex trafficking as a ‘women’s rights issue’ the scope and effectiveness of any policy response is severely limited. Two terms, ‘carceral feminism’ advocating for increasing prison sentences for issues with a feminist and gender component and ‘femonationalism’, the association of nationalist ideology with feminism and often xenophobia, form the foundation of a less prominent but still relevant policy approach to sex work in Europe, in distinction to the Swedish Model. These views underpin a shift of responsibility on the issue of misogyny and patriarchal domination to minorities and migrants due to their “differentness and deviance”. 

In distinction to the Swedish Model, carceral feminism and femonationalism still see trafficking as primarily a women’s issue, but long-term policy solutions should exert more control over women and their bodies while still wrapping legislation in the guise of gender equity. The voices of women affected by these policies are also invisible and silenced, just as with the Swedish Model. This loss of agency is characterised by delegitimizing these women as “other” and “victims” with a lack of available spaces to communicate their own needs and lived experiences to affect change reflective of their own narratives. The current discourse as a whole also suffers from a gross lack of understanding or acknowledgment of the scope of sex work concerning men and LGBTQIA2+, who are completely absent in both of these frameworks. The concept of male and LGBTQIA2+ sex workers presents a challenge to the carceral feminists’ position on human trafficking and sex work in particular due to their framing of it as solely a women’s rights issue. 

Sex workers in both of these models are automatically considered victims, either of exploitation or trafficking. This view stands in sharp contrast to that of sex workers around the world who do not see themselves as victims and choose this type of work. Fundamentally these policies demonstrate a lack of consideration for the agency and voice of sex workers, migrants, or non-migrants, and their needs. Through the criminalization of sex work, it is kept an informal industry where workers are unable to openly advocate for themselves, create unions or enjoy legal protections. It also prevents sex work from being covered under international protections related to the right to work as part of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which most European states are party to. If sex work was decriminalized in Europe for workers and clients, lawmakers could use the framework proposed by the International Labour Organisation to combat actual sex trafficking and forced labor. 

Decriminalization would foster communication and collaboration between individuals and businesses as well as a variety of stakeholders like the healthcare sector. It would lead to a safer, more transparent work environment, regulated and bound by laws. Regulation and decriminalization of the sex industry would not only help combat sexual exploitation and trafficking, it would also help prevent child sexual trafficking by allowing more substantive counter measures and enforcement mechanisms to be put in place. Currently invisible workers would be safeguarded from the abuse and violence they often suffer in this line of work, as they could access regular law enforcement channels without fear. This is particularly true for migrant sex workers and irregular migrants who are often victims of sex trafficking and violence due to their vulnerable immigration status. That is why it is even more imperative to implement progressive steps and measures that include the lived experiences of the sex workers and sex trafficking survivors themselves and put their voices at the forefront of the conversation. It is only by including the voices of these invisible workers and survivors that we can create safer, healthier policies and practices for those who choose sex work, while directly tackling the issue of sexual exploitation and human trafficking.

To read more about human trafficking and modern slavery in Europe and see a list with definitions of regional trafficking terms, download and read the Human Trafficking Search European Research Guide.

Angela Khalife is a Research Fellow for Human Trafficking Search. She holds a BSc in Security and Crime Science from the University College London and is currently pursuing a Master of Human Rights and Humanitarian Action at SciencesPo Paris.


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