Sex Work and Human Trafficking: The Role of the Advocate

Is legalized prostitution safer? The most recent installment of the NYT “Room for Debate” series jumps squarely into the middle of an important issue that Break the Chain staff have to address sometimes in the course of our work on human trafficking.

While our work for the past 15 years has focused on trafficking and exploitation of migrant domestic workers (nannies, housekeepers, caregivers), because we work in the human trafficking field we often have to educate folks about  human trafficking in general. Particularly the fact that trafficking for purposes other than sex (e.g., for domestic servitude, agriculture, construction, restaurants, etc.) is a huge problem that gets much less attention by media and policymakers. Rather than engaging in a neverending “what’s worse” debate, we try to neutralize the sex vs. labor issue by keeping a focus on the definition of human trafficking accepted by international law, which clarifies that not all forms of sex work are trafficking, that men and boys can be trafficked, and that people are vulnerable in every industry. This keeps us out of the prostitution discourse… most of the time.

Other times, like now, we feel compelled to comment because of our foundational belief in human rights, client-led decision-making, harm reduction, and yes, feminism. To put it plainly, we respect the fact that there are thousands of perfectly capable and organized women who believe that sex work can be voluntary, and, as they are the ones doing the work and living the lives, they are the experts and our best allies in helping identify survivors of violence and trafficking in that population.

Last Friday, I was invited to attend an event at the Open Society Foundation about the “End Demand” strategy of combatting trafficking for sex. The crux of the discussion was whether the end demand strategy was effectively protecting victims of trafficking.

To my relief, the panelists affirmed that one can be radical feminist and still believe that the “end demand” approach, which involves criminalization of sex work, and concurrently regarding all women as victims (as some of the debaters in the NYT piece have done), is a flawed approach.

First, I want to clarify that this post should not be construed as lessening the very real situation of force and coercion in sex work – trafficking for sex exists in the US and around the world. Here I am talking about the idea of voluntary sex work.

Around the world, there are social service agencies that take a harm-reduction approach to sex work- offering sex workers assistance in leaving the life if they choose to, but mechanisms to protect themselves in the meantime-  and who know from experience that the “end demand” approach is not only ineffective, it is in fact increasing harm and risk for people engaged in the sex trade. They too are concerned about violence and risk, but say that when they listen to actual people involved in the sex trade, the source of violence and risk they identify is first- opportunistic law enforcement, second- broken social service systems, and only third – pimps and “johns.”

Furthermore, they noted that increased criminalization and attention on policing, the crux of the so-called “end demand” approach, pushes people into more dangerous locations that are less monitored, and increases power of police to exploit. This point was echoed by one of the debaters in the NYT piece.

So, what is our role as service providers and advocates?

To be truly human-rights based practitioners, we must listen to the experiences and desires of the people we are purporting to help. This principle is universal, yet is often lost when sex is the subject- perhaps because some believe that women need to be spoken for. What services do people in this situation say they need? What solutions have THEY identified?

During Q & A, a young white man in the audience asked the panelists, “so, I’m just trying to get to the point, are you saying you believe prostitution is OK?” And proceeded to rudely interrupt one of the panelists as she answered.

“It doesn’t really matter what we think or believe,” she responded, “as long as there are only 200 beds available for 4,000 homeless youth in NYC, someone will be trading sex to survive.” She went on to note the severe deficiencies in prevention and shelter for LGBTQ youth, and the fact that a large percentage of those in the sex trade there are men and boys, whose social service needs are largely unmet.

From my observation, one of the most fundamental debates is whether someone CAN BE in the sex trade voluntarily. I was concerned when I heard one panelist, a former sex worker from Sweden, explain that when someone says they are working voluntarily, they are commonly regarded as “too traumatized to see what is actually happening to them” or “ they just don’t understand the patriarchy they are victims of” or, the worst, they “must be mentally ill.”

To be clear, I have no doubt that people can traumatized to the point of denial, and many of my own clients did not consider themselves “victims” even with an open and shut human trafficking case right in front of both of us. We have to be careful, I think, to differentiate when something is dissonance between documented evidence of a crime and self-regard, and when it is a disconnect between a rigid moral theory and a person’s willingness to be pigeonholed into it. I don’t think that we need to even enter into the voluntariness debate to safely say that there is a problem with any approach that claims to give “voice to the voiceless” when there are voices, they’re just being silenced.

It is fundamental for any human rights advocate who wants to help people in vulnerable situations to start by addressing the most urgent needs identified by the people themselves. If one insists on an approach that has been proven to actually increase risk, then what good is really being done? I am deeply worried that many anti-prostitution advocates have lost sight of their ultimate (and honorable) goal of empowering women to be free from subjugation. It is important that all of us in anti-trafficking organizations remain conscious of our role, and ensure that we do not resort to pressing forward a philosophical agenda that has less to do with empowerment than it does with being rescuers.

In social work, we have a few well-worn mantras “start where the client is” and “the client is the expert on his/her own life.” Organizations that use a harm-reduction, judgment-free approach to serving sex workers are the ideal allies to help identify trafficking (and best respond) within this population, because they are the experts. Anti-trafficking human rights advocates should focus on listening to real stories and collaborating with people in the sex trade, and youth in streets and shelters, to come up with real solutions. The only way to build these relationships is by respecting and valuing peoples’ voices and experiences.

In his opening remarks to the OSF event, State Dept. Trafficking Ambassador Luis cDeBaca said we must “reject the notion that people are powerless and naïve.” They may have been vulnerable, but they are not powerless. When we really look, we don’t see helpless people who need to be “plucked out by righteous rescuers,” we see survivors. We should not see ourselves as rescuers, but as people who help survivors connect to the opportunity to pursue the lives they choose. If the help we’re offering makes people feel silenced, shamed, and re-victimized, on top of actually putting them in more danger, then are we really connecting them to empowering opportunities? 

Even though Break the Chain as an organization doesn’t normally take deep dives into the discussion about sex work, we feel the NYT piece and the OSF event have stirred up a fundamental question about the role of anti-trafficking advocates that falls within our purview. That said, since this isn’t our specialty, here are some more links to consult. Please feel free to add more!

- Tiffany