Scroll Top

Rights, Rescues and Resistance In The Global Movement For Sex Workers’ Rights – Introducing The Series

The sex worker rights movement has grown significantly over the past two decades. Sex workers have organised to demand recognition of sexual labour as labour; challenge stigma, discrimination, and all forms of violence, including by law enforcement; improve working conditions; lobby for full human, social, and labour rights; advocate for the decriminalisation of sex work; and provide peer-based support and services. Many sex worker organisations also organise and support migrant sex workers in an effort to address the specific challenges they confront, such as racism and xenophobia, precarity due to their im/migration status, lack of access to health and other services, vulnerability to exploitation and violence, and the risk of detention and deportation.

Since the 1990s, sex workers have also had to contend with the expansion of the global ‘anti-trafficking industry’ with its strong anti-sex work, criminal justice, and border control agendas. Sex worker organisations in Spain, Thailand, and India, for example, pointed out in a recent report from the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women that trafficking was “an issue that was introduced [or indeed imposed] from outside the industry itself, propelled by a moralistic agenda, that organisations have felt obliged to understand, in order to counter the harmful effects of conceptually conflating trafficking and sex work.” In many countries, anti-trafficking policies and interventions have targeted sex workers with highly detrimental impact.

This has taken the form of greater police surveillance of the sex industry; raids on sex work establishments; forced detention in rehabilitation centres; arrests and prosecutions of sex workers as traffickers; and deportations of migrant sex workers. All of these undermine and ignore sex workers’ agency as well as their legitimate demands for better working conditions and human, social, and labour rights.

Further, the crucial role of sex worker organisations in promoting the rights, safety, and security of sex workers and addressing working conditions in the industry has largely gone unrecognised by national and international policymakers, donors, and some non-governmental organisations. The ideologies, assumptions, and agendas that fuel the anti-trafficking industry have also resulted in the exclusion and silencing of sex workers when it comes to the development of policies that directly affect their lives and work. Over the last ten years, this trend has certainly been evident in countries where governments have enacted laws that criminalise the purchase of sexual services.


Twenty years ago, in 1999, Sweden became the first country in the world to criminalise the purchase – but not the sale – of sexual services. The policy was based on an ideological conceptualisation of prostitution as violence against women and an obstacle to gender equality. It was initially introduced with the aim of reducing prostitution by targeting men’s demand for commercial sexual services. However, with the adoption of the UN Trafficking Protocol in 2000, and the last-minute insertion of Art. 9(5) that calls on states to “discourage the demand that fosters all forms of exploitation of persons, especially women and children, that leads to trafficking”, the Swedish model has been promoted as a way to prevent trafficking in the sex industry. Despite the lack of conclusive evidence that it has managed to reduce sex work or prevent trafficking in Sweden, it has been packaged as a mechanism to promote gender equality, protect the vulnerable, and prevent trafficking in the sex industry. As a result, sex purchase bans have been adopted in Norway and Iceland (2009), Canada (2014), Northern Ireland (2015), France (2016), the Republic of Ireland (2017), and Israel (2018).

“Evidence has not been prioritised within the anti-trafficking sector.”

– Benjamin Harkins

Over the same period, there has been mounting evidence that the Swedish model exacerbates the stigma against sex workers, forcing them to engage in more dangerous activities and increasing their risk to violence. Evidence for this has come from academics, UN agencieshuman rights organisationsmedical professionalsLGBTI+ organisationsanti-trafficking organisations, and, of course, sex workers themselves. As a result, many of these groups have vocalised their support for the decriminalisation of sex work.

So why does the Swedish model continue to gain steam? We propose that it is part of a larger global trend towards social conservatism, overreliance on punitive responses to address social issues, and what has come to be termed post-truth politics, where “objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

Sex work in a post-truth world

The archives of the Anti-Trafficking Review contain many articles documenting the simplistic images and narratives used to describe migrant and trafficked women in the sex industry, and the lack of evidence behind many anti-trafficking policies and interventions. In 2016, Andrijasevic and Mai noted that “[t]he stereotypical image of the victim is of a young, innocent, foreign woman tricked into prostitution abroad. She is battered and kept under continuous surveillance so that her only hope is police rescue.” In 2017, Harkins observed that “evidence has not been prioritised within the anti-trafficking sector.” Instead, the processes that have introduced the Swedish model to other countries have been driven more by highly emotive images and stories of victims than by any other type of evidence.

In Northern Ireland, for example, Lord Morrow from the Democratic Unionist Party, the sponsor of the 2015 Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Criminal Justice and Support for Victims) Act, stated that, “I always said that additional research was unnecessary”. A member of the Justice Committee concurred: “[s]ome of us do not need any research or evidence.” For this reason, research from the Department of Justice indicating that most sex workers in Northern Ireland were not trafficked, that the legislation would be hard to enforce, and that it would be detrimental to sex workers was dismissed. Instead, proponents of the law “relied heavily on the personal accounts of a small number of survivors of prostitution, who described the sex industry as inherently violent and supported the ban.”

In France, a survey conducted with 500 sex workers in 2015 prior to the implementation of the 2016 sex purchase ban showed that 98% of respondents opposed the law and that around 7% could have been victims of trafficking, but these findings were similarly ignored. Furthermore, while organisations and individuals supporting the law were involved throughout the process of its development, sex workers and other opponents’ testimonies were largely disregarded, and “MPs already knew they would not be convincing.” Similarly for the Republic of Ireland, it has been argued that “by the time the Committee [tasked with developing a law on sex work]’s work began, the political debate was, in fact, all but over” and that “oppositional views [were rendered] vulnerable to accusations of ‘pimp thinking’: of being an apologist for pimps, brothel owners and the exploitation of women and children.”

Scholars have documented how at the parliamentary hearings on Canada’s Bill C-36, The Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act (PCEPA), which introduced the Swedish-style client criminalisation in 2014, more individuals and organisations supportive of PCEPA were invited to present testimony than those opposing it. Furthermore, committee members were positively biased toward those in agreement with the proposed legislation and at times highly disrespectful to those in opposition to it. Kerry Porth wrote after testifying that “from the very first day, current and former sex workers who spoke out against Bill C-36 have been dismissed, ridiculed, subjected to hostile questioning, and heckled … Remarkable Canadian academics …, who have researched the sex industry in Canada for many years, were regarded as people who are trying to ‘make it easier for pimps and johns to operate openly in communities across Canada’ … [T]hose who supported the bill were lauded for their courage in coming forward.”

What we see time and time again is that the introduction of a sex purchase ban was made possible largely through the forging of powerful alliances among ruling conservative parties, faith-based groups, and prostitution prohibitionist and carceral feminists. What they share is a highly gendered and racialised understanding of sex work and trafficking. Despite this coordinated attack on sex workers’ rights, the dismissal of academic and community-based research on sex workers’ lives and work, and the exclusion of sex worker perspectives from policy development in a post-truth environment, the global sex worker rights movement is growing and making itself heard.

A longer version of this article first appeared in Anti-Trafficking Review, issue 12.

This article was originally published on

Cover Image: Flickr

Leave a comment