It’s time for the anti-trafficking sector to stand up for decriminalisation of sex work

We are at a crucial moment for sex workers’ rights within the UK. Last week’s modern slavery debate in Parliament saw three MPs sound a clarion call for introduction of the ‘sex buyer law’ to the UK. This built on the recent final report of the government-commissioned Modern Slavery Act Review, which stated that the reviewers will undertake “a scoping review into laws surrounding prostitution in England and Wales and the extent to which they help or hinder police action against trafficking for sexual exploitation.” It is clear where the MPs who spoke on this topic stand: Maria Miller MP described our current prostitution laws as “acting as a magnet” for traffickers, with Sarah Champion MP stating that “modern slavery for sexual exploitation is happening right here in the UK on an industrial scale.” She went on to call for the UK to introduce the sex buyer law which criminalises clients of sex workers but – allegedly – not the workers themselves. If the reviewers do their job thoroughly, they will find that the evidence on this model does not support the assertions made in this debate. But whether they will report in line with the facts or with a misguided ideology remains to be seen.

Despite working with many anti-trafficking organisers and experts through my professional role, I’ve chosen to publish this article anonymously because of how contentious this debate is. If you speak out in favour of decriminalisation of sex work as a member of the UK anti-trafficking sector, you risk losing partnerships, allies and funding. But the stakes are too high to continue to shy away from this topic. Unless the sector comes to a united understanding on sex work and the laws surrounding it, we risk trafficking being used as a rhetorical tool which harms some of the most marginalised women in our communities.

The major divide on this battlefield is between those promoting decriminalisation of sex work and those pushing the ‘sex buyer law’. Tackling trafficking for sexual exploitation is often used as the reason to support this law: criminalise the clients, reduce demand, and then you’ll reduce the supply of trafficked women. Or, as Champion put it on Wednesday last week, “the basic principles of supply and demand underpin the phenomenon of trafficking and modern slavery for sexual exploitation. Without demand from sex buyers, there would be no supply of women and girls through sexual exploitation.” This approach can feel instinctively right because it punishes the buyers. I don’t know a single sex worker who likes their clients. I’m sure there are some, but they are few and far between. It also makes instinctive sense in terms of ideas about the economy and the interplay of supply and demand. But instinct is not a good basis for policymaking. Instead, the anti-trafficking sector needs to look at the evidence.

Anti-buyer laws: no smoking gun

First, it is plainly obvious that criminalising a sector, in whatever form, does not make the criminal acts disappear. For example, in most of the USA prostitution is illegal yet, according to Fortune, trafficking for sexual exploitation is an “epidemic.” But is the sex buyer law more effective at reducing trafficking than straightforward criminalisation of all parties involved or, indeed, any other legislative approach? The simple answer is that there is no conclusive evidence that it is. It appears to reduce the client base to an extent but leaves behind the clients willing to bear more criminal risk. Such men are more likely to be abusive. The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe has stated that in Sweden, which introduced the buyer law in 1999, “there is no empirical evidence to date that this legal measure has reduced human trafficking for sexual exploitation.”

The benefits of the buyer law in Norway are similarly questionable. The Norwegian government claims the overall paid sex market has reduced, but academics have said this is not based on sound data. They are also quick to note that the commercial sex sector is not synonymous with trafficking. Bizarrely, given Norway’s claim of success, the number of cases of trafficking for sexual exploitation remained stable between 2006 and 2014, despite the law being introduced in 2008. Champion failed to note these crucial evidential points when referencing these countries last week.

Comparative studies are particularly useful. A recent study analysing Sweden (buyer law), Germany (legalisation) and New Zealand (decriminalisation, with the problematic exception of migrant workers) found that there was insufficient evidence to draw conclusions about whether the policies impacted levels of human trafficking. Note that in sex work policy legalisation and decriminalisation are not the same: legalisation refers to regulation of the sex sector, such as requiring registers and licensing, while decriminalisation takes away all sex work-related law.

Finally, the two research papers most cited as showing that trafficking increases under legalisation models (wherein they conflate legalisation with decriminalisation) are not nearly as conclusive as the proponents of buyer laws claim. One, which analysed 150 countries, finds there may be some effect but also states “there is no ‘smoking gun’ proving that” trafficking rises under legalising frameworks. The other, from the European Parliament, finds that rates of trafficking for sexual exploitation may be unrelated to legal models at all. Instead the paper suggests that we may be seeing spurious correlations resulting from some countries having better data on numbers of victims, and/or because economically affluent countries are more attractive destinations regardless of legislation. These countries also see higher rates of general labour trafficking, for example into factories, farms and domestic work. This last study clearly states that “several intervening factors seem to influence the number of women and children trafficked for sexual exploitation beyond the legislative model of prostitution … This makes it difficult to extrapolate a unique causal relationship explaining the number of trafficking victims.”

Harming sex workers to help them

After taking these conclusions to heart, we must also ask whether sex buyer laws increase harm to sex workers and, indeed, the potential risk of human trafficking. The idea that we would support an approach because we think it helps trafficking victims yet ignore the fact that it harms other marginalised women – and may even drive trafficking after implementation – is plainly problematic.

The evidence on this is extremely clear. Research into the impact of sex buyer laws on Norway, Ireland, and France can make for painful reading. Clients demand lower prices in exchange for their increased criminal risk, leading to a decrease in sex workers’ earnings and increased poverty. Poverty is a well-recognised risk factor in becoming trafficked. Clients also use their increased bargaining power to ask for acts which workers do not wish to provide, such as sex without a condom, raising the risk of STIs and HIV. Violence against sex workers also increases. Finally, sex workers are less likely to report crimes against them (including being exploited by third parties, e.g. managers or traffickers) under the buyer law because the police have been found to watch their working premises in order to arrest clients in future, removing their livelihoods and criminalising them by proxy.

The UN Trafficking Protocol defined human trafficking and includes as one of the ‘means’ by which a person may be trafficked ‘the abuse of a position of vulnerability’. This makes buyer laws a very real problem for the anti-trafficking sector. If you make it harder for women to earn their living and therefore make them more vulnerable, you push them towards more exploitative employers. You may indeed directly push them into becoming one of those trafficking victims you’re seeking to protect.

So instead of creating more violence, risk and, potentially, trafficking, we need to stop pitching anti-trafficking work against sex workers and instead work in partnership with them. This is familiar territory from other sectors: who is best placed to ‘spot the signs’ of a victim? The people working side by side with them. The former national police chiefs council lead on prostitution and sex work recognised this when she provided evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee in 2016, stating the necessity of police working more closely with sex workers in order to gain better intelligence on trafficking. This cannot happen without the full decriminalisation of sex work. This is possible, and it would also enable sex workers to improve their working conditions on their own terms: in 2014, a sex worker in New Zealand, which has decriminalisation for non-migrant workers, won damages for sexual harassment against her brothel owner at an employment tribunal. Such a case would be unheard of in the United Kingdom.

Proponents of sex buyer laws portray sex work as inherently violent and an obstacle to gender equality. They see sex buyer laws as a way to overcome the patriarchal commodification of women’s bodies. While there may be truth within all three of those points, we don’t solve this by creating even more violence and risk for women. No anti-trafficking activist should be comfortable with creating collateral damage. Luckily, once one stops concentrating on criminalisation, one finds that there are many more levers available to us for creating positive change within the sex industry and for women’s choices in general. These include improving welfare provision, allowing asylum seekers to work, repealing the ‘illegal working’ offence which pushes undocumented people into the grey economy, and so on.

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Proponents of sex buyer laws are currently gearing up in England and Wales to push for the introduction of this harmful policy, as evident in last week’s parliamentary debate. In response, the anti-trafficking sector has a duty to come together and have tough conversations. We must be vigilant of how anti-trafficking rhetoric is deployed and stand with all women who need improvements to their freedoms, livelihood options and wellbeing. She may be a mother turning tricks because her Universal Credit hasn’t come through, a student paying her way through university by escorting, or an asylum seeker selling sexual services in pubs because government policies prevent her from working. It may also be a woman trafficked and forced into sex work who needs rescue and support. Whatever our instincts tell us, we need to establish one clear principle: the UK anti-trafficking sector cannot support an approach which accepts throwing other marginalised women to the dogs in order to save trafficking victims.

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