Ending exploitation, or human trafficking, has now been in a public discourse for several decades. And in spite of the verbal gymnastics, people who trade sex, regardless of circumstance, have been the greatest influence in identifying the root causes that lead to exploitation around the world than all of the “anti” human trafficking rescue organizations put together. Sex Worker Rights advocates have also been a key resource and making legislative recommendations, crafting policy and developing effective programming that would fully account for the nuanced and complicated nature of how people end up being exploited within all of our labor industries. But our messaging has repeatedly fallen on the deaf ears of policy makers and legislators and the result has been that things continue to get worse.
We need to really understand exactly what we are up against. The history of slavery, enslavement and exploitation has been around since the beginning of time. The history of slavery spans many cultures, nationalities, and religions from ancient times to the present day. Likewise, its victims have come from many different ethnicities and religious groups. The social, economic, and legal positions of enslaved people have differed vastly in different systems of slavery in different times and places, but they all have commonalities that are unavoidable. As far back as 3500 BCE, Mesopotamia instituted a “social stratification” that created the perfect storm for the exploitation of people. Slavery was, and is, an “established institution” and was widespread in the ancient world. It was found in almost every ancient civilization, including the Roman Empire. In simpler terms, people who achieved power took advantage of other people without power in order to advance their own legal, economic and social influence.
Slavery of any kind is now illegal in every part of the world. But no government has ever addressed the root causes of exploitation, so it continues. The solution to the ending explanation ends when we finally acknowledge how it started and undo the harmful structures that create inequitable access to our communities.
There are three major, intersecting “status” issues that must be resolved in order to end exploitation. They are not standalone issues.
Social stratification refers to a society's categorization of people into groups based on socioeconomic factors like wealth, income, race, education, ethnicity, gender, occupation, social status, or derived power, whether it be social or political. There are many situations that can lead to an increase or decrease in social status. War, or “conflict” within a society can lead to higher degrees of exploitation. Social inequality is exacerbated by a lack of resources of “people who labor” on behalf of “people in power”. It is targeted specifically to exploit the people who are most vulnerable within the society and have the fewest economic resources. Social inequality is also generational as people who are “born” into impoverished, disenfranchised and marginalized communities, are rarely able to break the cycle of poverty because, already lacking social mobility, their disenfranchisement intentionally silences their ability to participate in the institutions that foster the socioeconomic makeup of the society they live in.
Economic status can be the precursor or the result of an inequitable society. People without wealth and power have less opportunity to achieve it. Economic status is also inextricably tied to race, gender, ethnicity, religion, occupation and education. In fact, education is a key factor in being able to advance one's economic status. There is a large gap in access to education between people of marginalized identities worldwide and therefore lower access to having an opportunity to increase wealth or have an influence on power dynamics within their society. Institutional inequities don’t just end at education - they are in every institutional structure within modern society - but access to education is a critical component of implementing change. As “harm reductionists'', we are supposed to celebrate “any positive change”. And, of course we do. But that in no way reduces the need for sweeping change in all of our societal and institutional structures in order to achieve a more equitable society and reduce the opportunity and access of exploitative systems to exploit vulnerable people. And it's pretty damn hard to celebrate anything when the people who make up our communities - the people we love - are literally dying.
The legal status of individuals or groups of individuals within a society has an enormous impact on their ability to thrive. Laws have real power. Laws are drafted, passed and implemented by people in power - very often usurping the will of the much larger - but also much less powerful - group of people impacted by the laws. In particular, people who have an “illegal status” within a community or society are very much at risk of exploitation and abuse. This includes people who are trading sex, people who use drugs, people who are poor, people who are experiencing a mental health crisis, people who are homeless and particularly people who identify as LGBTQ and people of color.
The “rule of law” is a formidable opponent of social justice and equity because lawmakers are powerful people and even though - in theory - they are supposed to represent the will of the people they serve, they most often fail miserably. Instead, they tend to represent their own peers - people who have power, wealth and “access” - and create a “vacuum” of powerful and wealthy people who are afraid of sharing power.
And the one thing wealthy and powerful people don’t want to talk about is Eradicating Poverty to End Exploitation. They fail to hear that we need fewer laws and greater freedoms. They dismiss our desire to live our lives without the threat of overarching policies, agendas that are rooted in evangelical and religious hypocrisy or the very basic universal human rights of bodily autonomy and freedom of expression belong to everyone that is human. They lack the capacity to understand that none of us are free until all of us are free. They don’t see that an equitable society benefits everyone because more people are able to participate in their community economics and as individuals are free to thrive, their communities are able to thrive.
It's way past time to end exploitation. No one disputes that. Efforts to end exploitation without including sex workers is nothing short of ridiculous. Making more laws that lead to discrimination and marginalization, increasing restrictions on agency and bodily autonomy, demonizing people who trade sex, and saddling people with civil and criminal penalties with lifelong hardships only perpetuates the cycle of poverty and increases likelihood of violence and exploitation..
And if you get nothing more from this post than this one thing - understand that generational poverty is the cause of the human trafficking phenomenon.
Ending exploitation starts with ending poverty.