Missed opportunities and exclusion: sex workers reflect on two decades of anti-trafficking


Much of this opposition to sex work has come from conservatives, who continue to understand sex in terms of purity and male control over women. However, the most visible champions of the conflation of sex work and trafficking have been radical feminists. Sometimes also described as ‘carceral feminists’, these individuals have made the criminalisation of the purchase of sex their central demand and rallying cry despite the harmful effects it brings to sex working communities.

To help make their case, these radical feminists have amplified the voices of some survivors of human trafficking. But they are highly selective. They don’t want to hear from survivors who demand a rights-based approach to migration and the decriminalisation of sex work. Individual stories of victims and villains must instead take centre stage, while politicians, activists, and the general public are allowed to play the self-gratifying role of saviours. Much less attention is paid to the context within which the crime of human trafficking takes place, or to the root causes and factors that exacerbate vulnerabilities extending far beyond the narrow focus of trafficking.

Sex workers are agents of change regarding issues affecting them!

So what choices do sex workers and sex worker organisations have if they want to address exploitation and vulnerability in the sex industry? Some collectives explicitly state that trafficking and modern slavery are unnecessary concepts that were forced onto the Global South by the Global North. Others try their best, despite a critical lack of funding, to leverage anti-trafficking spaces in order to amplify the voices of sex workers and to prevent harmful policymaking.

Since its inaugural European Conference on Sex Work, Human Rights, Labour and Migration in 2005, the International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe (ICRSE) has always understood and conceptualised trafficking as a migration and labour rights issue. However, this has not translated into sustained engagement with anti-trafficking stakeholders and policymaking mechanisms. This is partly due to a lack of resources. But it also reflects a recognition that sex workers are not welcome in anti-trafficking spaces, where a dogmatic approach to prostitution as a form of slavery prevails. It’s exhausting and dispiriting to routinely enter into conversations where sex workers’ voices are ignored and misrepresented as ‘pro-trafficking’, or as a ‘disguise for pimps and traffickers’, so we have been careful about where and when we engage.

That said, over the last few years ICRSE and several of its members have increased their engagement with anti-trafficking policies and platforms, with various degrees of success. This is reflected in a recent collaborative partnership framework facilitated by ICRSE under the banner of ‘Rights not Rescue’. This framework seeks to add a fifth ‘P’ to the globally established ‘4 Ps’ approach. In addition to prevention, protection, prosecution, and partnership, we would add policies that don’t harm and don’t exacerbate vulnerabilities.

Despite widespread rhetoric regarding the need for victim-centred approaches to anti-trafficking interventions, the viewpoints and experiences of communities that are vulnerable to human trafficking are routinely ignored because they are regarded as politically inconvenient. This is chiefly because the most impacted communities comprise undocumented migrants and precarious and often informal sector workers, including sex workers. Sustained engagement with these groups would reveal that there are no easy solutions, such as punishing individual perpetrators. It would instead underscore the need to grapple with larger questions of security, migration, labour and social justice policies, and the design of economic systems.



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