‘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

24 thoughts on “‘Sex Work is Not Sex Trafficking’: An idea whose time has not come

  1. steve

    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?

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  2. Laura Agustín

    ‘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.

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  3. Cliente X

    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.

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    1. laura agustin Post author

      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.

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  4. Asehpe

    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?

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    1. Laura Agustín

      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.

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      1. Asehpe

        Sorry if I misunderstand your concept; I was sincerely trying to understand it. Do you then mean to say that the complexity that cannot be reduced to two different pop-style labels imply that ‘trafficking’ is really a useless label, best abandoned than redefined or restricted?

        I am really not trying to criticize or offend, just to understand. Perhaps you have a post or article somewhere that addresses what you see as my basic misunderstanding here — if so, let me know where I can find and read it.

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        1. Laura Agustín

          Yes, the idea of trafficking has been so misused and caused so much confusion and disappeared so many stories that those of us working for better migration and sex-industry policies consider it useless. The fact that it’s taken over in the mainstream does not affect my analysis. I’ve written about that many times, here and in other publications. You might check blog post titles under All Posts or the publications tab at the top – it’s what most of my work is about.

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  5. Jocelyn

    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

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    1. Jocelyn

      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.

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      1. laura agustin Post author

        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.

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      1. John Kane

        I’ve let my blog slide while I aggressively study demography. There is much to learn there regarding this subject. As the world approaches 10 billion population it is already apparent that people out number jobs especially unskilled and semi-skilled jobs. When we demonize so called modern day slavery we are also shutting the door to many forms of work that might be necessary in the future. The indentured worker, the person who works communally on a large farm and yes the sex worker might be the salvation of many people who are now churning their way toward Britain for a meal and an opportunity. The TIP program does not ignore this but takes a criminal justice view to use globalized trafficking laws just as visas and fences are used now to control movement of people, poor people. In the USA it is the most extreme feminists who use trafficking as a way to attack all prostitution. In Europe it is linked to abolitionists apparently per this block language. But in the long run trafficking hyperbole is a symptom of migration and population change. It is better if people start thinking that now rather than later.

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    2. laura agustin Post author

      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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      1. Jocelyn

        Thanks Laura, yes I’ve started working my way through some of these. It is incredibly frustrating that some people in positions of power work so hard to keep their minds closed to different perspectives and change. Thank you for your post for opening my mind to my own stereotypes/prejudices.

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  6. fojap

    I happened to come to your blog while searching for information on something completely different, but I have to say that I’m happy to come across someone who as nuanced views on this issue.

    How do you feel about the term “sex work?” I’ve come to dislike it myself because it seems to me to group under one term quite a few different activities that have very different characteristics. Stippers and other live entertainers, pornographic actors and prostitutes I’ve known personally have mostly not crossed lines from one occupation to another. Yet I hear people talk about “sex workers” in general terms more and more. Prostitute alone is a category so broad that I would hesitate to make any generalizations about it or the people in it.

    More recently, I’ve found myself rather surprisingly at odds with some “sex positive” activists and bloggers (don’t really know what to call them) because I feel that they gloss over some of the more difficult question in, what seems to me, a quest to seem edgy. Have you noticed this? Do you have any thoughts on this?

    Reply
    1. Laura Agustín

      Welcome. I’ve written often about labels and terms – you might scroll through titles of blog posts since I began this site, or check publications elsewhere on the top menu or for the best setting-out of my approach see my book Sex at the Margins.

      In other words, there are many ways to look at the issue you bring up. For the rights movement of people who sell sex, sex work is the correct term because the activity is labour, but exactly who gets to call themselves a sex worker is continually debated. If you look for ‘the cultural study of commercial sex’ on this site, you’ll find my own writings on diversity. Words do not have identical meanings the world over, either, thank goodness.

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  7. jcee

    fojap said: “How do you feel about the term “sex work?” I’ve come to dislike it myself because it seems to me to group under one term quite a few different activities that have very different characteristics.”

    Umbrella terms of this sort never adequately address what actual people actually do. In a funny sort of way, the term “sex work” sounds vaguely union and beefy, with the suggestion of sweat and grunting involved, also probably the prospect of overtime. Also it makes sex sound as functional as operating a backhoe or digging spuds or an item you might add to a must-do list.

    It is preferrable though to terms with obvious negative or derogatory connotations such as street walker, call girl, ho, hooker and even prostitute, because the term “worker” does lend a certain legitimacy and even dignity. It also equates sex “work” with other types of work and the business of legitimate earning. It is probably preferable to some of the terms used for males such as gigolo, or the nicknames coined for guys who work carribean resort areas known to attract class of white female tourist i.e. “rastitutes”… “foreign service” etc… some of which have a condescending colonial sound to them.

    Also in print, say in a news story, the term “sex worker” has a clean, neutral ring to it. It comes across as relatively generic and non-judgmental and thus eliminates the type of running sub-text which tends to accompany stories in which more obviously pejorative terms are used.

    Reply
    1. Laura Agustín

      sex worker preferable to ho and other insinuating bad-girl terms – probably indisputable. sex worker to signify dancers, sexshop staff, peepshow and massage parlour workers, camgirls and boys, phone-sex workers – disputed by many. plus an enormous number of those selling sex don’t call themselves anything, or want to. there simply isn’t one solution that sounds fair for and to all.

      originally sex worker was thought as alternative to prostitute, and some are dedicated to banning the p-word. but there are plenty who want to reclaim the word prostitute as professional.

      please note there are hundreds of other languages involved, so disputing about it in english is a little blindered.

      Reply

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