Continuing (belatedly) my series of posts on sex work, public health and feminism, in this post I will discuss how I think anti-sex work feminists have coopted the movement against human trafficking in their political campaign against the sex industry. I have shown before that I don’t think moralist campaigners against sex workers have the best interests of the women in the industry at heart, and that anti-sex work feminists show a similar instrumentalization of the women in the industry: both groups aim to use sex workers as pawns in their broader social reform agendas. In pursuing this agenda, I think these campaigners have also worked to try and redirect the focus of national and supra-national movements against trafficking, and have stirred up alarm about the level of criminality and security risk associated with the problem. I also think their academic contributions to the issue have been weak and biased.

Human trafficking and people smuggling

Human trafficking is defined in the framework convention against trafficking as the

recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs

Sex trafficking is a part of this, and is a serious crime against humanity. Human trafficking doesn’t necessarily involve just sex trafficking, however: it can happen on European fishing boats or even to hair-dressers on US army bases. It’s also different to people smuggling, which is the movement for profit of humans across borders, without the intention of exploiting them upon arrival. Many women use people smugglers of varying degrees of nastiness and depravity to cross borders illegally to do sex work, but this doesn’t mean they’re being trafficked. For example, when I started working in public health in the 1990s Asian sex workers would come to Australia under very tough contracts to work as sex workers. These contracts would require them to work for 6 months or a year without receiving payment, in order to repay the “cost” of being smuggled into the country. Most of the women in these situations knew what they were getting into, and weren’t particularly interested in cooperating with customs and immigration agents. Their working conditions were harsh and very bad things could and did happen to them, but they weren’t generally deceived or coerced into the work, and were willing to take the risks because of the potential lucrative benefits that would accrue to them after they discharged their contract. Conflating these women with trafficked women is a dangerous error.

But conflating people smuggling and sex trafficking, and exaggerating the security and public health risks of the latter, is an important tool in the rhetorical arsenal of modern anti-sex work campaigners. As the developed world began to bend its considerable state power to the abolition of human trafficking, anti-sex work campaigners saw an opportunity to use the apparatus of border control and the rhetoric of slavery to ratchet up the pressure on the sex industry generally. Domestic campaigns against the legalization of prostitution have tried to have all prostitution redefined as coerced, and a similar approach has been used in attempts to get human trafficking laws in the USA changed to remove the requirement for evidence of fraud, deception or coercion (such as happened in New York). Simultaneously, campaigners have exaggerated both the numbers of people involved and the seriousness of the organized crime involved and its security ramifications for countries “at risk.” Shifting the goalposts so that all prostitution is redefined as trafficking serves the anti-prostitution movement well, but it has bad effects in both diverting attention from more serious forms of human trafficking, and in stigmatizing and criminalizing sex workers. It also tends to lead to more punitive immigration law, which affects poor women coming from poor countries without visas in increasingly harsh ways. Sex worker organizations are clear that these laws don’t work to protect women in the industry, but make their lives harder and more dangerous.

False statistics and shoddy research

Although successful in bringing state power to bear on poor women, and redefining prostitution as slavery, anti-trafficking campaigners have had remarkably little luck in proving that the problem is significant. Although they claim that Sweden’s anti-prostitution laws led to a large reduction in trafficking, they have very little evidence of the presence of trafficked women in the developed world. For example, a 6 month intensive project in the UK failed to find evidence of a single trafficked worker, and the major report into trafficking in the UK, Big Brothel, was greeted with harsh criticism by public health researchers for both its methods and its ethics. This report in the Guardian shows how 71 arrests for trafficking in 1998 became a Daily Mirror headline of “25,000 sex slaves in the UK” by 2008, through a series of misrepresentations by organizations that obviously have increasing amounts to gain from misrepresenting the issue. Academic critics of the Big Brothel report wrote that

The report builds a damning picture of indoor sex work on the basis of data whose reliability and representativeness is extremely doubtful and a methodological approach that would be considered unethical by most professional social researchers. It makes claims about trafficking, exploitation and the current working conditions of women and men employed in the indoor sex industry on the basis of that data.

Unfortunately, these activists had the ear of governments in Sweden and the UK, and laws were changed redefining any form of sex work as exploitation. The result of this in Britain was that women were forced to work alone, without managers, receptionists, colleagues or security staff, in dangerous privatized settings – the worst possible scenario for sex workers. This doesn’t stop women doing sex work, which is lucrative and flexible work; it doesn’t stop poor women risking their life savings in the hands of people smugglers to come to the UK to work; but it certainly makes this process less reliable and more dangerous. Meanwhile, other forms of slavery – on construction sites and fishing boats and farms all around the developed and developing world – receive much less attention than the headline issues of sex slavery. Furthermore, anti-sex work campaigners have exerted considerable pressure on developing nations, such as Cambodia, through organizations such as the US State Department, to try and get them to redefine the internal, voluntary movement of poor rural women to sex work in the city as “trafficking.” Given the large demographic and labour market shifts occurring in some of these countries, it is inevitable that women will move to the city to do sex work, and such redefinitions will simply see them cast out of the industry they chose and forced into more dangerous and less rewarding industrial jobs. Why should they lose this choice, just because some western feminists want to change the nature of social relations in their own backyard through rhetorical gains against prostitution overseas?

Globalization, sex work and reaction

The free movement of global labour has thrown up a lot of challenges to both the old right and the old left, and some of their responses to those challenges haven’t been particularly pretty. Both sides of politics have responded to this aspect of globalization with knee-jerk isolationism and racism. When sex and prostitution enter the mix, especially the sleazy low-rent end of the sex industry that migrant labourers often fill, the responses can become hyperbolic. But although it may be particularly seedy and unsavoury, it is ultimately an industry like any other – where a need exists and people are willing to fill it, they will; and where the profit is to be made, people will act as brokers for the movement of labourers in and out of the industry. Just as in the construction, cleaning and other service industries, this will often mean that unscrupulous dealers attempt to cut immigration corners, and in this case the high profits that they may obtain mean that both the brokers and the labourers are willing to risk a lot of money on the enterprise. This may make the brokers seedy and unpleasant, but it doesn’t necessarily make them slavers. It also puts many poor women from poor nations at odds with the law, places them in vulnerable and dangerous positions, and seriously increases the risk that bad things will happen to them. But the answer to this is not to redefine the behaviour of these people as slaver/victim, to create false statistics and attempt to bring the full might of the US state to bear on both the originating countries and the women in question. Rather, it is to liberalize immigration laws, to make immigration enforcement as humane and reasonable as possible, and to always insist on a clear line of understanding between the types of crimes involved – prostitution and people smuggling are not the same as trafficking, and redefining trafficking will not protect the women who willingly risk immigration prosecution to make money in this or any other industry.

Of course, none of this is inconsistent with the real goals of anti-sex work campaigners, which are to alter the nature of gender relations to a reactionary, illiberal model that has little in common with the aims and aspirations of most people, and certainly does not serve to liberate women. In my last post in this series, I will use the evidence I’ve gathered so far, and the public utterances of key figures in the movement, to describe why I think the ultimate goals of the radical feminist anti-sex work movement are reactionary and dangerous for women everywhere, and why I think this movement is both misogynist and backward-looking.