‘Sex for rent’ and ‘anti trafficking’

*This image depicts candles I lit to commemorate International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers 2020. May you rest in power*.

Globally sex workers are under attack.

During a global pandemic which has disproportionately harmed and killed the poorest and most marginalized in our societies, people are advocating to further attack the incomes of sex workers.

During a global pandemic people are amplifying the danger sex workers face and exacerbating existing inequalities and stigma. Let that sink in.

For the avoidance of doubt I advocate for the model of decriminalization as the best way to support those currently working in the sex industry, and to support survivors. Please click here for the Sex Work Research Hub policy briefing on this.

Sex workers are facing unprecedented and highly coordinated attacks from those purporting to be advocating for the end of sex trafficking, sexual exploitation, child sexual abuse, and ‘slavery’. Anti-trafficking is big business.

Let me be very clear: as a survivor of sexual violence and as a feminist I abhor abuse

But abuse cannot be eradicated without addressing the structural inequalities and drivers.

People sell sex because they need money. We all need money. Some of us have a different range of constraints and flexible options available to us. Some of our lives and health diagnoses are very complicated. And some people (such as one of my Ph.D participants) reject the capitalist lie that we should be be working 40 plus hours a week with a holiday, then back to it.

If you criminalize aspects of sex work during a pandemic you are criminalizing poverty.

If we want to address gendered violence and abuse then we need to openly challenge the patriarchy. Beware the mostly Christian right ‘anti trafficking’ groups who want to end ‘sex trafficking’ but make no mention of sexual abuse in the church, domestic violence, and the spiritual abuse of ‘purity culture’. Beware those who point the finger at others but not at themselves. We are all complicit in globalized exploitation from the products we consume and the prices we wish to pay for goods.

If we want to end trafficking we need to end structural and endemic racism and classism, and stop with the Christian right projects of cultural imperialism.

As I teach on my third year module SOCI349 Crime, Justice and the Sex Industry at the University of Liverpool (click here for details) gendered violence and sexual exploitation exist within a complex system that facilitates the abuse. Conflating ‘trafficking with ‘migrant sex work’, and conflating all sexual commerce with exploitation and coercion, does nothing to help victim survivors.

As I also argue on the module, many of the white middle-class white ‘rescue industry’ saviours reinforce exploitation against poor women, migrants and women in the global south. Look at their charities, who is on the board? Are they addressing hostile immigration policies and campaigning against the expansion of the prison estate? Or are they happy to control and funnel more women into the system?

Here is a video of Cambodian sex workers forcibly ‘rescued’ (against their will) from a brothel and coerced into factory work, making garments for the west.

And who can possibly forget Project ROSE?

Project ROSE, a partnership between the Social Work department at Arizona State University, police, prosecutors and Bethany Bible Church. Please watch this great video here.

The founder of Project ROSE, in this video, admits that criminalisation is the problem.

For people who genuinely care about sex workers and survivors (and for those people who identify in both categories) then campaign for the removal of the laws that harm them.

Trafficking, rape and abuse are already illegal. Yet these crimes keep happening. Expanding the carceral state will not help survivors. However shifting existing resources to focus where and then they are needed (under a system of decrim) is a way of helping current workers and victims.

The laws that sex work prohibitionists are pushing disproportionately harm sex workers.

We know this from where the Nordic/Swedish model has been implemented. It is sex workers being raided and imprisoned. It is sex workers being deported. It is sex workers being demonized.

Where are these ‘anti trafficking’ groups when sex workers are raided? When they are sat in prison? When they are in court getting hit with a POCA order?

We know from expert Dr Laura Connelly that many of ‘anti trafficking’ orgs are apparatus of imperalism.

The Global Network of Sex Work Projects writes that ‘Sex Work is not Trafficking’ in their summary paper here.

In the USA FOSTA (Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act) and SESTA (Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act) amended Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act 1996. Closing down sites such as Backpage has hit sex workers hard.

Does the closure of websites stop sex work or exploitation? Nope. The less options somebody has the more likely it is that they will end up in an exploitative situation. Imagine that, the more we take away someone’s rights and options, the more vulnerable we make them.

Take away someone’s access to making money online and you displace them elsewhere. Indeed as Molly Smith writes here in the Guardian, if you push sex workers online you push them onto the street.

Yet still the sex work prohibitionists push the Nordic/Swedish model in the UK. In the US they are now pushing SISEA (Stop Internet Sexual Exploitation Act).

These acts don’t stop child sex abuse or trafficking, as we can see from infamous cases currently in the media, the powerful are protected. It is peculiar how the ‘anti trafficking’ orgs never mention the Epsteins of the world. They never tweet about all the powerful men (and some women) who are charged with/ or convicted of abusing children. They never point out how many child sexual exploitation cases happen with the church. The evils of child abuse and rape must be combated, but we do that by shining a light on the truth, not with misleading and disingenuous campaigns that only engage with the ‘right’ kind of survivor, and not those campaigning for safer working rights and less state interference.

Sam Cole of Vice.com writes here about how the Exodus Cry campaign against Porn Hub got 2 million signatures.

Sam cites my blog, the post you may remember about the rise of the religious right and the purity culture movement.

In the UK we now have MPs launching a campaign against ‘rent for sex’, wanting to extend criminal powers without addressing the drivers. If you want to stop people being offered free rent for sexual services then you need to address poverty, make affordable housing, stop the predatory behaviour of millionaire landlords with their ‘property portfolios’ pimping off the poor. You won’t stop a social problem with further criminalization. You will however displace people into homelessness. We need to stop individualizing such issues and radically address the immoral divide of wealth in society. If people are having sex for rent: lower rents. Pay higher wages. Cancel student debt. Make it easier for single people to avoid housing rather than cohabit with abusive partners. Address the feminization of poverty.

To answer these complex issues we need to do better than slogans and moral panics. If you want to help sex workers and survivors there are no quick fixes, we need to challenge the distribution of resources in our society and recognize our complicity in them.

Happy to connect about these issues.

Gemma x