When I first began working in the anti-trafficking movement, I had a decade of experience working as a rape crisis center responder. I was familiar with trauma-informed care, non-judgmental provision of services, and the ways in which victim-blaming, rape culture, and sex-negative messaging impact both survivors and our efforts to end sexual violence. At that time, it had been decades since I’d been trafficked, and decades since I’d been engaged in any meaningful way with sex work. I was unfamiliar with the history and political dimensions of the anti-trafficking movement. I was unaware of how much of our understanding of trafficking, even down to the separation of labor and sex trafficking itself, was politically motivated, infused with racial biases, and built upon moralistic narratives that aim to delegitimize sex work.
The first year I worked in the movement was like being in a carnival fun house, in which words that were familiar to me from my anti-sexual violence work—like “trauma-informed,” “public health,” “survivor-centered,” and “prevention”—were being used, but in ways that made no sense to me. It felt as if anti-violence words were being laid over moralistic or criminal justice frameworks like ill-fitting garments, used to “modernize” the language of a movement without making substantial shifts to the frameworks themselves.
For many of the activists I’ve met in the anti-trafficking movement, there are a few assumptions that are baked into their frameworks—assumptions they have been hesitant or unwilling to challenge, even when research disproves or questions these assumptions.
The primary assumption is that human trafficking within the sex trades is fundamentally and uniquely different from human trafficking in every other industry or form of labor, and that the dynamics of force, fraud, or coercion in the sex trades are likewise unique.
From this assumption, several other assumptions are created and upheld:
- That dynamics of violence within the sex trades are fundamentally and uniquely different from dynamics of other forms of sexual violence.
- That dynamics of grooming and manipulation of minors into the sex trades is uniquely different from grooming and manipulation of minors into other industries or forms of labor, including criminalized labor.
- That ending trafficking within the sex trades requires entirely different prevention and response strategies than ending trafficking in other industries or forms of labor.
- That ending trafficking within the sex trades requires minimizing, ending, or demonizing the sex trades or those working in it, whereas ending trafficking in other industries or forms of labor requires labor rights, legal protections, structural change, and powerful anti-oppression practices.
- That people cannot consent to work in positions in the sex trades if there are identity or income-based power differentials, economic desperation, or other life instability. This denies the complex role of consent in precarious work in all industries and forms of labor and how other forms of labor also have identity or income-based power differentials, workers struggling with economic desperation, or other forms of life instability among workers (See: Are you better or worse off? Understanding exploitation through comparison). It also negates the agency of people with limited options, reducing them to victims of their circumstances without addressing structural inequality.
These assumptions have largely proliferated unchecked in the anti-trafficking movement, and even many of the attempts at creating evidence-based interventions and prevention have been rooted firmly in these assumptions rather than testing the initial validity of the assumptions themselves.
These assumptions do not align with my understanding of the evidence on force, fraud, and coercion, dynamics of trafficking, reducing trafficking in the sex trades, or how sexual violence works (and sex trafficking is a form of sexual violence).
Through listening to queer and trans sex workers and trafficking survivors of color, I have come to see more clearly how these assumptions propagate approaches to ending trafficking within the sex trades that further stigmatize both sex workers and trafficking survivors; that create real barriers to exiting the sex trades when it is desired; that leave vulnerable Black, Brown and immigrant people in the sex trades through consent or coercion at the mercy of law enforcement and immigration officials who often harm and further abuse or exploit them; that allow law enforcement to claim undercover prostitution stings that find no traffickers or victims as “human trafficking operations;” and that encourage the conflation of consensual and trafficked involvement in the sex trades in ways that deny bodily autonomy and self-determination.
Bodily autonomy and self-determination for ALL people are foundational to ending sexual violence using an anti-oppression framework, and they must be applied consistently, even for sex workers. To deny sex workers’ bodily autonomy and self-determination is to perpetuate narratives that normalize violence against them. Anti-violence initiatives should challenge violence-perpetuating narratives rather than build our messaging upon their faulty frameworks. To criminalize and target consensual adult sexual behavior is a throwback to laws that criminalized LGBTQ sexuality and interracial relationships, and does not have any place in an anti-oppression approach to ending violence.
I have come to believe that we will never end trafficking or other forms of violence within the sex trades without working tirelessly to ensure safety, recourse, and supports for people in them. We will never end trafficking within the sex trades without taking a labor rights approach. We will never end trafficking within the sex trades as long as traffickers can use stigma and threat of criminalization as part of their coercion.
Over the past year, I have engaged more and more with a labor rights approach to ending trafficking within the sex trades, and during that time, I have seen the ways in which animosity towards the sex trades has been constructed and leveraged by anti-pornography, anti-sex work organizations operating under the “anti-trafficking” banner. I have had conversations with so many current sex workers and sex worker rights activists who are also survivors of trafficking. For some of them, they started their work in the anti-human trafficking movement, perhaps even as survivor leaders, and were pushed out or left due to feeling unwelcome if they didn’t consistently demonize sex work. Some of them were viciously bullied by anti-trafficking activists and “survivor leaders,” retraumatized by constant gaslighting about their own experiences in consensual versus trafficked sex work. Many of them have never disclosed their trafficking survivorship publicly, not wanting to align themselves with a movement that is so quick to dismiss the things they say would keep them safer. Some survivors who still maintain ties to the anti-trafficking movement are so scared of harassment and bullying or of losing their status or income as survivor leaders that they will only speak about their support for sex worker safety in private. Some have anonymous puppet social media accounts to engage with sex worker rights issues as well as LGBTQ, anti-racist, and social justice issues, worrying that their association with these issues would get them blacklisted within much of the anti-trafficking movement.
I sometimes worry about that myself.
On the other side of this coin, many of the sex workers I’ve talked to (including the subset who have also survived trafficking) note a lack of spaces within sex worker rights movements to discuss the harm and violence they may have experienced in the course of their work. Many sex workers, afraid any discussion of harm within the sex trades will be leveraged by anti-trafficking crusaders for an anti-sex work narrative, silence themselves or others to avoid being further exploited for someone else’s agenda. But they need access to those spaces. They need opportunities to name the violence they’ve experienced, both as part of their healing journeys and in order to come up with real, experience-informed solutions to build safety for people in the sex trades.
Initiatives designed to end violence within an industry should not make those within the industry more scared to come forward about harm. That is a telltale identifier of places where current anti-trafficking strategies are failing.
Over the course of my work to end human trafficking, I have come to believe that we cannot end trafficking within the sex trades without giving sex workers safety and rights. I am still 100% an anti-human trafficking advocate and expert and a survivor of human trafficking; my support for sex worker safety is not an abandonment of my anti-trafficking principles, but a key part of them. I want to work actively with organizations doing sex worker advocacy so that I can be a part of ensuring that no person endures the specific form of exploitation, coercion, and manipulation that I did.
My lens is no different now than it was over a year ago. In my anti-trafficking capacity I am still more than willing to collaborate with anti-trafficking agencies who do not share my commitment to full decriminalization of the sex trades—I am familiar enough with systems work to know how to collaborate with stakeholders I don’t agree with. I am averse to collaborating with stakeholders who intentionally conflate consensual sex work with trafficking: Conflation kills by redirecting attention, resources, funds, and services away from actual victims of trafficking who need help, denying bodily autonomy and agency, and causing harm to sex workers and other marginalized people. I am averse to working with people who do not support sexual freedom, or who do not have a commitment to ensuring the safety of LGBTQ individuals, BIPoC, or immigrants and asylum seekers. That has been the case for me all along and is also not a change.
If you are an anti-trafficking advocate who is interested in how to do your work without creating additional harm to sex workers, feel free to reach out for resources. If you are a sex worker safety advocate who is interested in identifying or partnering with anti-trafficking agencies with a solid human rights, harm reduction lens, feel free to reach out for connections. Those who keep sex worker safety advocates and anti-trafficking advocates divided have much to gain from it, but working together I believe we can end human trafficking in the sex trades. And only by working together.