Updated: Jul 30, 2021
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.