...human trafficking activists want nothing to do with a sex worker’s rights based approach as they believe the existence of prostitution is to blame for the plight of forced labor, and sex worker’s want nothing to do with trafficking activists out of a need to distance themselves from anti-trafficking activists (at times) very punitive movement....these two realities are often dealt with by policy makers and activists alike as being mutually exclusive, when they are in fact, not
by Laura LeMoon*
Disease Research & Intervention Specialist at King Co. Public Health Seattle USA
A Bridge between Human Trafficking and Sex Work
Why are human trafficking activists and sex worker’s rights activists at such odds with each other? Spend any good amount of time in the United States …watch our news stories…read our newspapers… and it might appear that all prostitution is human trafficking and all human trafficking is prostitution. Therefore human trafficking activists want nothing to do with a sex worker’s rights based approach as they believe the existence of prostitution is to blame for the plight of forced labor, and sex worker’s want nothing to do with trafficking activists out of a need to distance themselves from anti-trafficking activists (at times) very punitive movement. As a former Sex Worker AND human trafficking survivor, I can tell you that these two realities are often dealt with by policy makers and activists alike as being mutually exclusive, when they are in fact, not.
To give some background on the difference between these two movements, it is important to understand the political movement behind “sex work.” The Sex Workers rights movement began in the 1970’s, inspired by the women’s liberation movement , gay rights movement and the civil rights movement of the 1960’s. The term “Sex Worker” was created at this time as a unifying moniker for individuals engaged in the sex industry, and as a distinct marker of “choice” for ones participation in erotic services. The term “Sex Worker” today, is still a highly politicized term and one used to highlight ones agency and freedom of choice to participate in the sex industry. The sex worker’s rights movement is based on a kind of Marxist worker’s rights approach founded on the concept that sex work is legitimate work and like fishing in the Bering Sea or farming, those harms must be directly addressed and mitigated by tools such as national and local policy making.
Nonprofit organizations in the United States that are rooted in the Sex Worker rights movement have traditionally focused on harm-reduction methods to address issues like sexually transmitted infections, HIV prevention/intervention and primary and gynecological health care. However what these organizations have been woefully behind the eight ball on is the issue of violence in sex work and the management of trauma as a result. Many rights-based nonprofits feel that to focus on the issue of violence (whether professional or personal) is to give unfair air-time to an overpublicized issue in the world of erotic servicer work. Therefore, many pro-rights nonprofits shy away from directly addressing the issues of force, fraud and coercion or overt violence in their programming due to a kind of knee-jerk response to protect the community from further “bad press”. The lack of desire in the Sex Worker community to talk about violence comes from an understandable place; that the community is tired of defending itself against constant attacks from perceived outsiders that seek to blame the problem of forced labor on the existence of prostitution itself. Sex Workers’ rights organizations and activists are also tired of having the focus on them be singular in nature. Of course there are more issues facing people in the sex industry than violence, just as there are more issues facing this community than the need for STI screening and access to free condoms. However, rights activists are not reacting to this in a way that is helpful to the sex working community at large. By not wanting to directly address the issues of force, fraud and coercion and overt violence from the perspective of a rights-based approach, sex worker rights activists are only acknowledging a partial reality of sex work as well as a partial need for services.
Likewise, the many activists involved in human trafficking awareness- often people or organizations with religious affiliations- are not serving trafficking survivors by placing the blame of all the potential harms/risks of sex work on sex work itself and ignoring the complex continuum of choice that can exist in the sex industry for many. In their narrow view of sex work at large, they are cutting themselves off at the knees in their abilities to truly tap into the full spectrum of violence and coercion that can exist for people in the industry, as well as their ability to connect with community members who may have a more complex relationship to sex work than just good or bad, victim or whore, black or white.
What needs to be done is a bridge built between these two activist communities. In actuality, we are not working at cross purposes. As an activist working within the Sex Worker rights community, I see the first steps as both endogenous and exogenous. Sex Worker’s rights organizations must begin to recalibrate programming according to the direct needs reported by communities being served. Not based on providence, or what is most comfortable for activists to address based on our own fears of misinterpretation by “outsiders.” Additionally, Sex Worker activists need to get comfortable reaching across the table to anti- trafficking activists and abolitionists alike who may not share a similar purview on prostitution. Agreement certainly will not always happen, however the schism currently existing between these two ideologies has only proved to impede much needed innovative change in approaches to violence and coercion in sexual economies. We must stop fighting against each other and look to the ways that we can build upon common interest and create bridges based on the mutually held ideal of self-determination and bodily integrity for all those who come to the sex industry.
*Laura LeMoon was born in Washington State, USA in 1985. She earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in Women’s studies at Mills College in California and began her career in research authoring a pilot study on violence in the lives of Sex Workers of all genders at a nonprofit peer-based medical clinic for Sex Workers in San Francisco, California. Laura has continued her Sex Worker advocacy in the red-light district of Kolkata, India at the Sex Workers’ union Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, has worked with famous Sex Workers rights pioneer Carol Leigh, assisted in forming human-trafficking focus groups at the International Rescue Committee and has worked as an ethnographer for the National HIV Behavioral Surveillance run nationally in the U.S. via the Centers for Disease Control, which is focused around HIV and high risk populations. Currently she is working as a Disease Research & Intervention Specialist on the National HIV Behavioral Surveillance (NHBS), which this year focuses on HIV risk and women who exchange sex. She is also the co-founder of a Sex Workers’ collective in Seattle that works to provide harm reduction services to street-based Sex Workers on one of Seattle’s last remaining “strolls.” She lives in Washington State, USA.