Sex work and human trafficking are often conflated, but what if – instead of voiceless victims – sex workers were seen as active agents working to prevent exploitation within their own sector?

The Sex Workers Project at the We Can End AIDS Mobilisation during the 2012 International AIDS Conference in Washington, DC. PJ Starr/FlickrCC (by-nc)

Last year, I conducted research on how sex worker-led organisations are dealing with the issue of human trafficking. I interviewed members of 13 different sex worker-led organisations in 13 different countries. At least eight of my respondents were sex workers themselves. The interviews addressed how the respondents defined and approached the topic of human trafficking, how they experienced anti-trafficking policies and practices, and if and how their organisations dealt with trafficking situations. The research, commissioned by the Red Umbrella Fund, showed that sex worker-led organisations use different strategies to fight trafficking within their sector and work at various levels to strengthen their communities.

Sex workers against human trafficking

The Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC), a sex workers’ collective of over 65,000 members in India, has demonstrated the positive potential of involving sex workers in anti-trafficking initiatives through their use of self-regulatory boards. Each board is made up of sex workers as well as social workers, health workers, police officers and local government officials. When a new person enters the red light district, sex workers arrange an interview to inform their new colleague about their rights, available services, and to check that person’s motives and make sure he/she is not forced or underage.

A similar model was subsequently implemented by another Indian sex workers’ collective, called VAMP. Their conflict redress committees were developed to both empower and protect their communities and also to “keep track of new entrants to ascertain that they are adults and in sex work of their own volition”. VAMP, part of SANGRAM, also published a graphic novel that shows the complexity of a person’s story and explains their model for identifying, supporting and ‘restoring’ a woman who worked in a brothel against her will.

Other groups I interviewed all shared different stories of how sex workers and their organisations are able to help their colleagues either avoid exploitation or extricate themselves from it. Some of the points they mentioned include:

• Information sharing: sex worker-led organisations share information with people working in the industry. Information includes practical knowledge about the job, safe spaces to work, sex workers’ rights as well as the laws and policies governing sex work, and reliable organisations or lawyers to contact in case of a problem. Information is shared through websites, workshops, pamphlets, walk-in-centres, and peer educators. The goal is to empower sex workers and to make them less dependent on others and therefore less vulnerable to exploitation or abuse.

• Campaigning for decriminalisation: the sex worker-led organisations I spoke with all argued that full decriminalisation of sex work is essential to a safer work environment for sex workers and will decrease their vulnerability and risks. When sex work is fully decriminalised sex workers can report problems to the police and be supported by the legal system in case of any wrongdoing. Decriminalisation is also a necessary step in addressing public stigma and discrimination against sex workers. Therefore, sex worker-led organisations are lobbying for full decriminalisation of sex work and a safe working environment.

• Signalling: Many sex workers work together with others or at least know others working in their sector. In work places such as brothels, clubs, and other ‘hot spots’ where they meet with clients, sex workers also meet each other. These direct personal contacts can be valuable. Not only can they work to keep each other safe before things go wrong, but if or when they do sex workers may be the most accessible people to reach out to for help. This is especially true when the law is hostile to sex work, as fellow sex workers are unlikely to report them to the police or judge them for what has happened. Through this personal contact, people can also be referred to trustworthy support organisations, when available.

Despite these efforts, why is it that sex worker-led organisations are often not at the table during anti-trafficking policy-making processes that affect their sector?

The discourses on trafficking are distorted

Some sex worker organisations are reluctant to engage with the trafficking framework or do so primarily from a position of critique. Why? Because the trafficking discourse is soaked with distortions in which sex work and trafficking are conflated. While all the people I interviewed accepted that human trafficking into the sex industry happens, many emphasised it does not happen at as large a scale as is often suggested. Sex workers also stressed that trafficking does not occur exclusively in their sector. While some groups such as the DMSC and VAMP are successfully engaging with the trafficking framework, other groups stated that their main concern is to separate sex work and human trafficking.

According to the website of the Global Network of Sex Work Projects, many sex worker-led organisations explicitly state that one of their main issues is to “critique the trafficking paradigm that conflates representations of sex work, migration, and mobility”. As a representative of the Kenyan sex worker-led organisation Bar Hostess Empowerment and Support Programme (BHESP) told me, “as a sex worker organisation we are very keen to point out that difference and to detach ourselves from any trafficking”.

Other groups argued that human trafficking is used as a cover for implementing restrictive laws on migration or sex work. When asked about anti-trafficking measures in Thailand, a representative from the long-standing Thai sex workers’ organisation Empower foundation stated that “it was never about protecting women. It was about border control, it was about controlling migration and it was about abolishing sex work”. Other groups I spoke with expressed similar sentiments, pointing out repeatedly that the conflation of sex work and anti-trafficking, as well as distorted images and misleading statistics on trafficking, lead to criminalising policies and practices. These are not only harmful for sex workers, but also ineffective for those who have actually experienced the types of exploitation that are often included under the term ‘trafficking’.

Restrictive laws and harmful policies

Some sex worker organisations also lack the opportunity to engage with anti-trafficking debates because either engaging in or supporting sex work remains criminalised in many countries. As Empower explained, the way Thailand has implemented the trafficking framework has resulted in ineffective policies that neither make sex work safer nor improve labour conditions for workers:

While women are working in labour conditions much better than 20 years ago, labour conditions still need to be improved. But this whole trafficking framework doesn’t help them at all. The definitions that people use, the way to tell if it’s trafficking or not, and then the final solution of being arrested, detained and deported is not a solution that people in bad working conditions want.

A sex worker in the United States from the Red Umbrella Project emphasised the importance of decriminalising sex work and a good relationship with the police when it comes to helping those who have been trafficked. At this moment sex workers in the US can be arrested and detained by the police when they report something and in some states even be charged with trafficking themselves. She explains how much more effective self-monitoring would be if those obstacles weren’t there:

We are noticing! Sex workers are around other sex workers all the time. If we are noticing trafficking or somebody who has been trafficked, we can then report those things because we would have a system of communication.

Not taken seriously as anti-trafficking ally

A third argument for not being directly involved with the formal work of ‘anti-trafficking’ is that sex worker-led organisations are not considered a partner in the fight against trafficking. One of the respondents from the Netherlands was of the impression that her organisation Proud was not recognised as ‘representative’ of the people working in the sex trade, and especially not of individuals experiencing exploitation. She emphasised that it is difficult to both challenge the current discourse on trafficking and at the same time be recognised as allies in the fight against trafficking. She explained:

As long as we don’t ram out those idiotic non-evidence based ideas, we can’t do much. But we want to do so in a way that is respectful to those people who are in such a situation [of exploitation]. And that is very difficult. Because what we hear, when trying to nuance that image, is “you don’t care about them [people in exploitative situations]”. Well, that is the splits we’re in, because we only do this because we care about them!

This lack of trust results in limited access to decision making spaces and very little funding for sex worker rights organisations, while every year millions of anti-trafficking dollars go to often ineffective, and sometimes even harmful initiatives.

Conclusion: only rights can stop the wrongs

My interviews with members from sex worker-led organisations demonstrate that these groups have the potential to be valuable allies in the fight to protect sex workers from exploitation, including the sort of exploitation that gets labelled as trafficking. However, that opportunity is lost as long as they remain excluded because: a) potential partners are unwilling to incorporate sex workers’ critical stance toward many aspects of mainstream trafficking discourse; b) other parts of the legal system criminalise their profession and put sex workers at risk when they interact with law enforcement; and c) an external perception exists that if they are organised and open practitioners of sex work then they do not represent the targets of anti-trafficking policies.

Recognising that everybody is working for the same ostensible goal – to better protect sex workers – is the first step towards effective collaboration and progress in the fight against exploitation. This means listening to the opinions and experiences of sex workers and taking their critique of the prevailing ‘trafficking’ discourse seriously. Sex worker-led organisations understand the realities of sex workers, their motives, their challenges and their vulnerability. They can give insight into what goes on in their sector, explain the consequences and (in)effectiveness of current anti-trafficking laws and policies, and provide an invaluable monitoring function when given the space and security to do so. To that end, criminalising sex work is counterproductive when it comes to protection and can actively harm people in vulnerable situations. After all, as sex worker-led organisations argue, ‘only rights can stop the wrongs’.