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The Naked Anthropologist · 'Sex Work is Not Sex Trafficking': An idea whose time has not come | The Naked Anthropologist

‘Sex Work is Not Sex Trafficking’: An idea whose time has not come

Sex-Work-Is-Not-Trafficking-300x292Anti-prostitution advocates routinely use absurd over-simplications to make their crusade crystal-clear easy to understand. Campaigning works better when arguments are black and white and slogans are catchy, obviously, so I realise why some sexworkers’ rights supporters are now using a slogan that also reduces complexity to two opposed states: Sex Work is Not (Sex) Trafficking (sometimes ‘sex’ is omitted). The purpose is to clarify the volition of sex workers who demand labour rights, but for those who struggle against the framing of undocumented migration and people-smuggling as ‘organised crime’, with the only two roles possible perpetrator and victim, the concept is morally bankrupt.

sanjoseCRSex Work is Not Sex Trafficking arose (first) from the common refusal by abolitionists to recognise that anyone sells sex voluntarily and (second) because they early on began fiddling any distinction between prostitution and trafficking. Claims like No woman would ever choose to prostitute herself and the cries of unhappy ex-victims that their experiences are true for everyone led naturally to an opposing insistence that many do opt to sell sex – some loving their jobs and others just preferring it to their other options.

thaiBut to say Sex Work is not Sex Trafficking is to reify the current trafficking narrative, accepting that it refers to something real and bad that must be fought against. The slogan tries to make a sexworker identity clear by distinguishing it from a trafficking-victim identity – the Free versus the Unfree. Saying Some of us are willing to sell sex draws attention to those who are not willing - a distancing mechanism characteristic of identity politics. To maintain I don’t need your help or pity means you accept that other people do need it – those who are really trafficked.

This is to accept the repressive policing, infantilisation of women, colonialism, anti-immigration policy and a range of Rescue Industry offerings: just not for real sex workers. It says You win to anti-trafficking campaigners, even if you don’t mean it to. It throws under the bus all migrants, documented or not, who don’t much like selling sex and don’t call themselves sex workers but don’t want to be saved or deported. It Others the many who have limited control over their lives, feel pressure to earn money however they can or want to get the hell out and go somewhere else and will do whatever it takes to get there. This includes teenagers who leave homes they hate and end up on the street or avoiding the street by trading sex for a place to live.

nocturnoThe entire range of complexity and diversity nowadays thrown into the term trafficked is denied. Years of attempts to bring justice and nuance to a bad criminal framework are ignored. The myriad different ways to feel forced, obliged or coerced into leaving home or having sex for money or giving some of your money to someone else are disappeared. And yes, I understand that Rescue-Industry victimisation makes folks feel anxious to provide something graspable to wider audiences. But the catch-phrase Sex Work is Not Sex Trafficking only contributes to the reductionism pushed by anti-prostitution and anti-trafficking campaigners.

It’s deplorable. Avoid it.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist



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  1. How about Sex Workers Against Trafficking? This gives the delightful acronym SWAT. So sex worker activists could descend on committee meetings, public talks and presentations, as SWAT teams (dressed presumably in colorful outfits) and burst in promoting common sense, intelligent approaches to all areas of trafficking and demanding labor rights for all informal sectors, not just sex work.

    Worth a thought?


  2. ‘Sex Workers Against Trafficking’ has been used, without the acronym and without being invited to meetings. Sex workers have often argued their expertise should be utlised by law-enforcement. Not quite the same as the title concept, though.


  3. Yeah, thats what happens here in Spain also. “Pro-rights” associations claim that trafficking must be fought, thus endorsing repressive anti-immigrant policies. Instead they should point that the traffick stories are a myth which objetive is to fight all prostitution, in fact for abolitionsts ALL migrant prostitutes are trafficked (and this is not a simplification, is what they say FOR REAL!). When prostitution and sex trafficking are employed as synonims is bcause they are, in the mind of abolitionists.

    The real problems immigrants prostitutes face do not come for beign forced to work in prostitution, commercial sexual slavery is absolutely anecdotic -if exist- in our societies. But they are subjected to several forms of violence, abuses, extortions and other kinds of coertion by those authorities who claim to beign “helping” them.

    Oh, Laura, I’d like anyone to speak so clearly about prostitution as u do in my country. But sadly there is nobody. All media and institutions are abolitionists, and the few activists and academics that are not barely are allowed to talk and they also haven’t any intention to work together or create any organization.


    1. I spent many years in Spain and from 2000 to 2006, maybe, did a lot of writing and public speaking. Being an ngo means needing funding, and being in the business of helping victims puts one in touch with – victims. One has to be outside institutions, perhaps, to say what I do.


    2. Great post Laura, totally agree


    3. Thanks for that, Elena. I’m going to tag you on the facebook conversation about this (in case you ever go there) as there are conflicting opinions, as I expected.


    4. Wow! Civilized and so very appropriate.
      Thank you Laura
      Tom Cunningham


      1. Ha thank you. ‘civilised’ – hardly the norm nowadays in this field, eh what?


      2. Even though I agree that the Rescue Industry does spin stories of trafficking mostly to keep itself afloat, feeding from the collective imaginary, I wonder if you are not exaggerating in the opposite direction. Any topic is complex, and includes all kinds of real-life experiences. I suppose selling sex also includes experiences that are, say, well-described by the word ‘trafficking’. In other words, isn’t there a real-life reality, albeit exaggerated out of proportion, to which this word may be applied in the world of sex work? And, if so, isn’t it a good thing in the fight for a better appreciation of the complexities involved to not seem as if one is denying this fact, simply to stress how much the ‘other side’ exaggerates?

        How would you describe ‘real’ human trafficking for sex work — free from the exaggerations and misrepresentations of the Rescue Industry? Is it a minor part of the entire realm of experiences of sex workers? Does it deserve (= i.e., is it important enough) to be mentioned as something to be fought against in reality, in a balanced way that does not disempower those whom it does not affect?


        1. I think you have not understood or maybe don’t keep up with my writing, and the whole point of this short piece is to insist on a complexity that cannot be reduced to two different pop-style labels. Those of us who do listen to insider real-time migrant and worker stories believe the ‘trafficking’ framework is only destructive in terms of the serious problems that exist and for which policies should change. You are seeming to buy it now that the mainstream reproduces it so relentlessly.


        2. Hi there,

          I really like this piece as it made me think about my own language (yet I probably fail a bit in this comment, it’s a learning process).
          However, I think that a kid whose circumstances mean that selling sex provides a way out is still sex work and I wouldn’t describe it as trafficking (yes, I see I’m falling into this false dichotomy). We are all forced by circumstances to accept certain jobs we don’t want to do, but that gives us certain freedoms. That is still a choice. I also believe that to be true of anyone who moves to any new place that sometimes you take (what you consider to be) a crappy job to get your feet on the ground.

          That said, some wo/men may have made arrangements to come to a particular country under one pretence and end up in different circumstances that to the individual may be considered worse than their home situation. In this case, wouldn’t indentured labour be slavery? And second, surely people don’t always seek migration at all costs? Presumably, for some it is, and for some it isn’t, depending on circumstances at home.

          So while I would agree that the response to the gamut of trafficked individuals in a manner prescribed by legislators (which might include deportation) is like using a guillotine to perform open heart surgery; I would however like to know, and perhaps I’m falling into the same trap as people you’re criticising, for men, women and children who are enslaved, what type of assistance would you advocate?
          Also while we live within this system of legislature should it be a question of re-defining “trafficking”?
          There was a really interesting article about how Sonagachi sex workers’ collective formed an industry regulatory body to uncover cases of child exploitation. And no surprises, the results showed that the self-regulatory body was more successful at identifying trafficking than conventional methods. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24179187


          1. And by assistance, I mean what sort of change should we be pushing for when we don’t have decrim of sex work?

            Frankly, it seems to me that decrim of sex work, promoting unionisation/ collectivisation of sex workers to demand safe working conditions is the most logical course to defending sex workers’ rights. And as the cited article shows, organised self-regulation is an effective tool for prosecuting the cases that are true exploitation.


            1. Sure if you are dealing with those professionalising people who have grouped as sex workers. Fine. That’s not the majority of people, and once you’ve crossed borders it’s migration policy impeding you, not anti-prostitution policy.


            2. Given the enormously complex and variegated human projects involved around the world there isn’t a formulaic answer to your question. That’s really what my work has been about since the beginning. The reduction to who-really-wants-to and who-doesn’t is all wrong, and I don’t advocate using slavery-language for anyone but those actually in chains. ‘The traps’ you mention can’t be reduced to a list. Migration and labour policies need serious work, outside the dysfunctional ‘trafficking’ framework. If you are interested I have many resources on this website to browse and mull over.



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