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Only Rights Fix Wrongs: Sex Workers and the Anti-trafficking Debate

Darby Hickey
Date Published: 
August 01, 2005
    Sensationalized and over-simplified, talk of sex trafficking in mainstream debate has too often been devoid of the political intricacies it deserves. By equating sex work with exploitation and human trafficking with sex trafficking these analyses both ignore the agency of sex workers and the many other reasons humans are trafficked or forced to migrate. Additionally, how do some anti-trafficking groups and U.S. policy fail to address the realities and rights of sex workers, preferring moral stances rather than actually improving the lives of those who are trafficked? Darby Hickey explores these contradictions and complexities through unraveling recent debates, policies, and campaigns surrounding sex work and trafficking.

The latest salvos in the battle over human trafficking, prostitution, and their relationship blasted away in succession at the end of April and on into May of this year. First came the Bush administration’s decision to apply a global gag rule on prostitution to domestic funding for HIV & trafficking, followed by critiques from sex worker & human rights groups, as well as some in Congress. Then on April 29th simultaneous versions of a new bill to “End Demand for Sex Trafficking” were introduced in the US Senate & House of Representatives. Next, Brazil’s national AIDS program announced it was rejecting $40 million in HIV prevention money from the US because of the funding restriction requiring a condemnation of prostitution. Lastly, but certainly far from the final act in the drama in the debate over human trafficking, the US government backed off from trying to apply the prostitution-related funding restriction to the grantees of multilateral groups to which the US contributes, such as the Global Fund for AIDS, Malaria and Tuberculosis. However, any organization receiving money directly from the US for HIV prevention or anti-trafficking work would be forced to sign the condemnation of prostitution. And it seemed that plans were still moving ahead to apply the restriction domestically as well, despite pressure from over 200 groups and several politicians not to do so.

So what’s the big deal? Why so much back and forth over what most people call “a modern version of slavery”? Therein lies the rub. The definition of human trafficking, particularly its connection to prostitution, is cause for serious debate about not only what the problem is, but also how to fix it.

Exploitation or Choice?

On one side are some feminist groups, like the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW) and the Gabriela Network, along with the US and Swedish governments. On the other are sex worker organizations, human rights groups, and other feminist groups, plus a number of countries in the global south, like Brazil. While the former groups see trafficking as inherently linked to prostitution, and both of them damaging to women, their opponents insist that there is a fundamental difference between engaging in an activity involving sexual exchange, and being forced to do so against your will.

On the CATW website, Janice Raymond states her side’s perspective succinctly: “Prostitution is not ‘sex work;’ it is violence against women.” Unsurprisingly, advocates for the rights of sex workers have a different view. “Absolutely not,” is the response to Raymond’s statement from GiGi Thomas, a sex worker rights advocate in DC, “Prostitution is a job, and for many it's a way of survival.”

The US position has moved steadily towards that of the feminist groups like CATW. According to the Department of State website, this evolving perspective is what resulted in the new funding limitations on HIV and anti-trafficking money. In a document named “The Link Between Prostitution and Trafficking,” which steadily references Raymond and others associated with her perspective, the State Department not only repeats CATW’s argument that “prostitution is inherently harmful,” but also describes how it affects the awarding of grants. “As a result of the prostitution-trafficking link, the US government concluded that no US grant funds should be awarded to foreign non-governmental organizations that support legal state-regulated prostitution,” reads the document, continuing: “Prostitution is not the oldest profession, but the oldest form of oppression.”

US policy is far from universal, even if its effect is widely felt because of the government’s resources. At the 49th Commission on the Status of Women at the UN in early March (also known as Beijing +10), a proposal to more thoroughly integrate the US perspective into UN policy met resistance. Trafficking was a hot topic at the Commission, and the US proposal was one of the more controversial items, along with a US motion concerning abortion and reproductive rights. Although the US was able to push through its proposal focusing on ‘demand for trafficking’, it was significantly modified due to concerns of human rights advocates and countries like New Zealand, South Africa, and Brazil. "The first week we worked a lot on the [abortion] declaration, and the second week we had to focus on trafficking," said Adriana Maroto of the Asociación Demográfica in Costa Rica, who was at the Commission as part of the Youth Caucus. She and others saw the US proposal as a crackdown on prostitution disguised as an effort to help victims of trafficking. "It’s definitely a theme which worries us a lot. The [US] resolution was about prostitution and not trafficking. It would violate a lot of people’s rights, especially the rights of young women, in the way that the US government presented it." Those arguing against the US position, like Law & Policy Project’s Alice Miller, maintain that a human rights perspective, rather than a law and order approach, would better address the needs of victims of trafficking. “The criminal justice system [is] not a system in control of, and often [not] accountable to, the most disenfranchised people,” she said during the Commission. “So often criminal justice approaches can be dangerous for women, even as we need them.”

Stopping ‘Demand’?

On the ground, the different approaches can have significant impacts says Sealing Cheng, who has worked extensively with sex workers in South Korea. She tells the story of what happened when the South Korean government, responding to pressure from the US, implemented new laws to ‘reduce demand for prostitution.’ “This led to unprecedented large-scale protests by sex workers in the thousands. It further led to the hunger strike of 15 sex workers in November of 2004,” says Cheng, Professor of Women’s Studies at Wellesly College. “They were demanding that their means of livelihood be recognized. In their many public statements and interviews, women’s organizations did not acknowledge or respond to the demands of these sex workers, the mass rallies & protests, nor the hunger strikers. Sources reported that one of the reasons that women activists refused to meet with the sex workers was because they were criminals.” The failure of anti-prostitution women’s groups to listen to sex workers voices is ultimately anti-feminist and anti-woman, say some sex worker rights advocates.

Laws and policies aimed at reducing demand are a direct outgrowth of some feminist perspectives that view prostitution as violence against women by men. But such analyses fail to address the fact that men as well as transgender people also participate in sex industries around the world. Despite this, Janice Raymond, a prominent proponent of the view that prostitution is violence, gained notoriety with her book Transsexual Empire late seventies that characterized transsexual women as the ultimate form of men raping women’s bodies—actually taking them over. “Personally, I don't consider myself to be a man or woman, [rather] a human being,” says GiGi Thomas, who is transgender, and actively trying to uplift her community. “I feel that as time goes on there will be more transgender people coming out and this will call for more education and
trainings,” she continues. “Everyone has a right to his or her opinion. I understand that some people have different opinions about transgendered people, but that's life. It's so important that we continue to show [examples of healthy lives] for the younger generation of transgendered people, just like other girls have done before us.” Part of the refusal of Brazil’s government to take US HIV money rather than condemn prostitution was a result of the high level of involvement of grassroots groups of sex workers and transgender people, communities which are well organized in Brazil.

After failing to push its agenda successfully on the international level, the critics of demand turned to the US Congress, where Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) and Congresswoman Deborah Price (R-OH) introduced the End Demand for Sex Trafficking Act of 2005 at the end of April. This was hailed by feminist groups like CATW, as well as conservatives like Concerned Women of America. But some organizations working on the ground, like Global Rights, criticized the bill. “Unfortunately, the conclusions… restated in this finding, are based upon questionable research. The findings assert, as matters of proven fact, a number of statements, which, given the state of information on both trafficking and prostitution worldwide, are unsupported or unproven by valid research methods and data,” says a report on the bills, submitted to Congress by Global Rights and other groups. “For example, this finding asserts that toleration of prostitution ‘nearly always’ leads to an increase in trafficking into commercial sexual activities. According to this finding, the greatest concentration of trafficking into prostitution should be in the Nevada counties where prostitution is legalized. However, we are unaware of any disproportionate incidence of trafficking in those counties while trafficking into the sex sector is pervasive throughout the rest of country where prostitution is criminalized. Obviously, something other than legalization or criminalization is responsible for the presence of sex trafficking in the country.”

Whose interest?

Such laws don’t support the well being of women in sex work, says Professor of Anthropology at New York University Don Kulick, but rather negatively impact them, as in Sweden, which Kulick has studied extensively. “The issue of how the law would affect sex workers was of relatively little interest,” to the groups that helped get the law passed, says Kulick. “When these groups were confronted with the possibility that the law might drive sex workers underground and make sex workers more vulnerable to exploitation by profiteers, representatives consistently responded that the purpose of the law was to mark a stance, and send a message, that society did not accept prostitution. So what that meant was that the impact of the law on prostitutes was of little concern.” Kulick’s research is supported by what happened in South Korea. “The new law outlined two possibilities,” says Sealing Cheng referring to the South Korean law designed to ‘reduce demand’ by targeting clients of sex workers, as in Sweden. “First, for those who file a report and are being investigated as a victim of sex trafficking, they would be allowed to be temporarily exempted from deportation in order to file a suit and claim damages, but would eventually have to leave the country when the suit is over. Second, for those whose visas had expired or were found to have violated any condition of their stay, they would be deported immediately.”

Even if they disagree about the definition and intensity of the problem, those arguing against the US government’s approach agree that something must be done about trafficking in humans. Empowerment of people who are vulnerable to trafficking is an important goal they say. Penelope Saunders of the Best Practices Policy Project, an advocacy group for sex worker policy, says that supporting people’s human and political rights is key. “One way that sex worker organizing was impeded by laws was [that] if three or more sex workers gathered together it was considered an old crime of consorting,” she says, recalling her days in South Australia. “And you didn’t even have to be charged with a prostitution-related crime, you just had to be a ‘known prostitute.’ It’s a very serious issue, undermining the organizing power of sex workers worldwide.” Agniva Lahiri of the Network of Asia-Pacific Youth agrees. “Trafficking, really migration, is a very complex issue,” she says. “I think it’s [used as] a way to not give us, sex workers, our rights.” Despite the ways in which current approaches to trafficking further harm sex workers, Lahiri says she “welcome[s] all this debate about trafficking, which is going on right now. It gives us space to talk about our needs, our demands, and that’s a way for us to go forward.”

Worker Empowerment

Svati Shah sees support for sex workers’ rights as one step to a better understanding of how to address trafficking. “The way that we’re talking about trafficking inhibits the way to really deal with the kinds of issues [we’re] talking about,” says Shah, Assistant Professor Faculty Fellow at NYU’s Center for the Study of Gender & Sexuality. “By conflating trafficking with prostitution, we aren’t talking about trafficking as it happens. So we’re not talking about domestic workers or other people who are trafficked. By equating prostitution with slavery, we’re excluding other industries where there are labor abuses.” This perspective is backed up by research done by Juhu Thukral, Director of the Sex Work Project at the Urban Justice Center. According to a recent study completed by Thukral’s organization of indoor sex workers, of the 46% of sex workers who were migrants, only 8% identified themselves as trafficked. While Thukral says that many if not a majority of trafficking victims in the New York City area are involved in domestic work, not prostitution, the way trafficking laws are implemented often perpetuates a good woman/bad woman dichotomy. This leaves migrant sex workers who were not trafficked without access to services, says Thukral, even though they have similar needs as victims of trafficking such as lack of English language skills and an uncertain legal status. Members of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, advocating for migrant farm workers in southern Florida, agree. While working to identify and end circumstances of enslavement in the agricultural industry of southern Florida, the Coalition is also organizing all migrant workers to demand respect for their rights from their employers.

The experience of tomato pickers in Immokalee Florida, immigrant sex workers in New York, and migrants across the globe point to a commonality that is often missed in conventional trafficking discussions: the influences of structural pressures on people’s lives and the decisions they must make are not always predictable. From poverty and racism to gender oppression and immigration laws, a complex matrix of discrimination, lack of access, and inability to provide for one’s self and family fuel the economic and life choices of people across the globe. Activists critiquing the conventional trafficking wisdom say they wish that if as much money were put into eliminating poverty and promoting rights as into criminal anti-trafficking efforts, the problem might be solved more quickly. This is perhaps best explained by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ stance, paralleled by many sex worker rights groups: “Both aspects of the Anti-Slavery Campaign, the day-to-day investigative efforts and the longer-term work to eliminate the market conditions that allow modern-day slavery to flourish, operate on the common principle that the most effective weapon against forced labor is an aware worker community engaged in the defense of its own labor rights.”


Darby Hickey lives and works in D.C. as a radio journalist and as drop-in center coordinator for Different Avenues, an organization that works with formal and informal sex workers. You can contact her at [email protected].