The moral panic on the supposed prevalence of trafficking in the global sex industry rests on a lie: that the majority of sex workers are trafficked. In fact, the opposite is true.
However, on the basis of this fiction, the dangerous abolitionist campaigns in favour of the criminalisation of clients as a way to fight trafficking are gaining ground in several EU countries, inspired by the example set by Sweden in 1998. The most relevant problem with the approach aiming at abolishing prostitution through the criminalisation of clients is that it has the potential to further criminalise the entire sex industry, which as a result would be pushed underground, therefore making it easier for sex workers to be exploited and trafficked.
This is what happened in London in the aftermath of the Policing and Crime Act 2009 which which made it illegal to purchase or attempt to purchase sexual services from a person subjected to force. The same goes for the anti-trafficking crackdown on the sex industry around the 2012 Olympics – there was no increase in trafficking during the Olympics, just an increase of very costly police operations that used trafficking as an excuse to close down many sex work establishments. As a result a lot of people, mostly vulnerable migrant women, lost their jobs and had to renegotiate sex work in more precarious situations, which inevitably favour exploitation and trafficking.
The other result of the Olympic anti-trafficking crackdown is that there was a significant decrease in the uptake of critical sexual health services across London. Sex workers were made to be afraid to look after their health. Let me repeat this. They became at greater risk of becoming ill because of anti-trafficking raids and criminalising measures attempting to save them from a job that the vast majority of them had decided to do.
Between 2007 and 2009, the ESRC-funded Migrants in the UK Sex Industry research project gathered the stories of migration and work of 100 women, men and transgender people from the EU (including new accession countries), Russia, Ukraine, North and South America, Asia and Australia. We interviewed migrants working in the main commercial-sex businesses in London, including selling sex as independent escorts and in flats. We contacted migrants primarily through their commercial contacts, but also through anti-trafficking and sex work support projects and the police, in order to tap into a greater variety of people than those usually researched.
The most relevant finding of our research was that a minority of interviewees were exploited and trafficked. More specifically, approximately 13% of female interviewees felt they had been subject to different perceptions and experiences of exploitation, ranging from extreme cases of trafficking to relatively more consensual arrangements. In the majority of these cases, women defined as exploitation the working conditions attached to sex work, not sex work per se as many prostitution abolitionists argue. Only a minority of these women, about 6% of female interviewees, felt that they had been deceived and forced into selling sex in circumstances within which they felt they had no share of control or consent.
The qualitative approach of the research means its findings are not strictly statistically representative. However, the fact that a small minority of female sex workers are trafficked has been subsequently confirmed by other independent studies on the UK sex industry, including by the police, which corroborates our findings. This is also confirmed by the vast majority of ethnographic research at a global level, whenever sex work and the sex industry are engaged with “from below” and “from within”.
Stigma and risk
The second most relevant set of findings regards the issue of criminalisation as a way to fight exploitation, abuse and trafficking in the sex industry. Most interviewees thought their rights could be more asserted and their vulnerability reduced by decriminalising sex work. The few interviewees who had been exploited and coerced in the past underlined the key role played by clients in providing support when they managed to escape. All interviewees thought that restrictive migration policies and the criminalisation of clients and sex workers would make people more likely to take risks and accept undignified and dangerous working conditions.
Contrary to the emphasis given in current public debates to cases of trafficking and exploitation, the evidence gathered in the context of the project shows a great variety of trajectories within the sex industry, which were influenced by factors such as immigration status, professional and language skills, gender and sexuality. The following are just a few emerging results in this respect.
Immigration status is by far the single most important factor restricting interviewees’ ability to exercise their rights in their professional and private lives. Working in the sex industry is often a way for migrants, especially if undocumented or partially documented, to avoid the unrewarding and sometimes exploitative conditions they meet in the low-skilled jobs available to them, such as waiting in restaurants and bars, cleaning, food packaging and so on.
By working in the UK sex industry many migrants are able to maintain living standards that they consider to be dignified, while dramatically improving the living conditions of their families in the country of origin.
The stigmatisation of sex work was the main problem interviewees experienced, as most felt they could not be open about their work with their partners, families and friends, both in the UK and at home. Many underlined that the combination of the stigmatisation of sex work and lack of documentation made them more vulnerable to violence and abuse from criminals. They also underlined that only a small minority of clients were violent or abusive, which is an exception to relations usually characterised by mutual consent and respect.
The Migrant Workers in the UK Sex Industry project shows that, when identifying the best way to fight trafficking, considerable attention should be paid to the fact that only a minority of sex workers are trafficked. This means that the vast majority of sex workers decided to work in the sex industry – so they should not be treated as collateral damage and their livelihood disrupted by moralising repressions of prostitution in the name of anti-trafficking.
The material we gathered shows sex workers interpret and experience these measures as a general crackdown on the sex industry and believe they will be more exposed to criminalisation and therefore exploitation. As a result, they and their clients will be less inclined to co-operate with authorities in fighting the limited cases of trafficking and exploitation actually taking place.
In the UK and in the rest of the world, an anti-prostitution evangelising alliance are willingly distorting reality by presenting all migrant sex workers as trafficked. This is a fiction. And it is on the basis of a politicised and moralising fiction that the livelihoods of sex workers, both migrant and non-migrant, are constantly being disrupted as sex work is willingly conflated with trafficking and the sex industry is criminalised.
Whatever we might think of prostitution in moral or political terms should not matter if we have the interest of sex workers at heart. What matters is to minimise the harms associated with sex work, which are not few. And the only way, as sex workers all over the world have been telling us over and over again, is decriminalisation.