I come from quite a conservative religious background. I remember, as a young girl, feeling upset and sad when walking through the Red Light District in Amsterdam, wishing someday all these women would be ‘free’. No, I could never see myself behind those windows.
Based on my personal ideas and feelings, I assumed that sex work was not a job that anyone would ever choose to do. I imagined that most people working in the sex industry must have been forced somehow. I have learned that my assumptions are not always right.
During my research of sex worker organisations and anti-trafficking measures, I also learned that assumptions can have harmful consequences. I interviewed sex worker activists from twelve organisations about their understanding of and response to trafficking. The stories I heard taught me that sex workers are often far from disempowered. And that all of them are in fact already taking action to influence the debate – as well as the practices – around preventing and addressing cases of trafficking into sex work.
The public discourse
In the public discourse, sex workers are often portrayed as women who are poor, powerless victims who have had no other choice but to ‘sell their bodies’. They may be a victim of unfortunate circumstances or they may have fallen prey to abusive boyfriends or criminals who forced them into the sex industry.
The latter category, often referred to as ‘human trafficking’ is a popular topic. Millions of dollars are invested into anti-trafficking campaigns and programs every year. However, the topic is widely debated with diverse stories, statistics and popular rhetoric, allowing for a distorted image of reality. Discourses around sex work and trafficking are often linked, based on prejudices, morals and somewhat dramatic rhetoric and images. But repeating this conflation time and time again has harmful consequences.
The European anti-trafficking network La Strada International states that:
“unbalanced media coverage on trafficking can … create false perceptions and damage the interests of trafficked persons rather than servicing them”.
They argue that media coverage on trafficking is problematic because of the ‘portrayal of the scope and nature of trafficking, in particular with regard to estimates of the number of trafficked persons and its occurrence in the sex industry or other economic sectors’.
Today, over 200 sex worker-led organizations are members of the Global Network for Sex Worker Projects (NSWP). The Red Umbrella Fund, the only sex worker-led fund for sex worker organizations in the world, has received applications from over 225 different sex worker organizations and networks in the past five years. These diverse groups all stand up for sex workers rights but each have their own priorities, with some more focused on health where others on protection against violence. Others focus on influencing policy-making processes for protective laws and policies on sex work or migration. These organisations generally acknowledge that exploitation and human trafficking happens in their sector, however, not on the exaggerated scale as often suggested by the media and in politics.
Some of these groups have themselves set up programs to combat trafficking in their sector. The Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC) in India consists of over 65,000 sex workers. Since 1997, the DMSC has been highly concerned with human trafficking and established Self-Regulatory Boards to prevent and counter trafficking. These boards consist of both sex workers and other local professionals such as doctors, lawyers and government officials. They ensure that women who start working in their district are not underage, and not coerced into sex work. The DMSC also provides information about the work and about the services and support that are available for sex workers. They note that:
“there was no existing effective mechanism to combat trafficking in destination (of sex work) sites and only a committed group of sex workers could prevent entry of trafficked underage girls or unwilling women into the sex sector.”
Research shows that the self-regulatory boards are an effective solution to prevent trafficking, and that sex workers can play a critical role against trafficking.
The example of the DMSC has inspired other collectives to implement similar initiatives, adjusted to their local context. For instance, the sex worker collective Veshya Anyay Mukti Parishad (VAMP) recently published a book about their own anti-trafficking efforts.
But if these strategies are so successful, why have they not (yet) been widely replicated in other countries?
The Biggest Challenge
One of the challenges faced by sex worker groups is that they are not recognized as partners against trafficking. Because sex workers are often considered ‘victims in need of rescue,’ sex worker organisations tend to spend most of their time and resources in both gaining recognition of sex work as a legitimate profession, and representing the voice of these workers. German sex worker group Berufsverband erotische und sexuelle Dienstleistungen (BesD) has stated that:
“they apparently don’t think it’s important to support sex worker-led organizations in the whole quest of saving and rescuing sex workers”.
Moreover, many anti-trafficking programs in practice are focused on anti-sex work policies, induced by the highly stigmatising popular discourse surrounding sex work. Therefore, many sex worker groups are focused on debunking the myths on sex work and human trafficking, and changing the rhetoric. They feel that the tone of the discussion needs to be changed in order to protect both sex workers and trafficking victims.
“The authorities think that wherever prostitution is practiced, there are women who are forced into it. And we are trying to sensitize the authorities to demystify their myths and prejudices” – representative from sex worker organisation Mujeres del Sur, Peru
Many sex worker organisations monitor and critique existing anti-trafficking initiatives, as they themselves experience the harms resulting from these programmes and campaigns. Sex worker group Empower in Thailand criticises current anti-trafficking ‘raid & rescue’ operations in a playful yet spot-on video.
First do no harm
Although I have adjusted my understanding of sex work and can accept it as a job, I still think I could never be a sex worker myself. Why? Because I think I would feel very uncomfortable setting my own boundaries with my body, my clients and myself. I will never forget the reply I got from a sex worker when I shared this thought: “Well, if you don’t think sex work is for you, then you’re probably right”. And I think he was right. Just like being a banker, a butcher, or a dentist are definitely not the jobs for me either.
But I learned that a young woman’s pity based on assumptions is not helpful for anyone. Rather, what sex workers need is to be recognized as workers. We need to challenge and change the current discourse on sex work and human trafficking. We have to be critical of popular discourses that reduce sex workers to victims with no agency. We need to support sex workers’ rights, decriminalise sex work and fund sex workers’ rights organisations. Furthermore, we should invite sex workers as experts in anti-trafficking spaces and acknowledge them as allies in the fight against trafficking.
Not victims. Rather, sex workers are crucial partners in the fight against human trafficking. Only when we take a human rights based approach, stopping the discrimination and recognising the important contribution of sex workers in this area, can we work together to effectively counter human trafficking in the sex industry.
This blog was written by Wendelijn Vollbehr, who conducted qualitative research in partnership with the Red Umbrella Fund in 2016. Her masters thesis, “Sex workers against human trafficking. Strategies and challenges of sex worker-led organizations in the fight against human trafficking,” was nominated for the FSW Johannes van der Zouwen Masters Thesis Prize 2016 and is available here.
 Weitzer, R. (2007). The social construction of sex trafficking: Ideology and institutionalization of a moral crusade. Politics & Society, 35(3), 447-475.