Open Democracy: Palermo 20th anniversary series

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Open Democracy

This week Open Democracy announced the publication of a series of articles by key thinkers who will reflect on the twentieth anniversary of The Palermo Protocol. The Protocol, a supplement to the UN Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime, aims to “prevent, suppress and punish trafficking in persons,” with a specific focus upon “women and children.”

The first three articles published as part of the series are of particular interest to sex workers, as they address the issues of ‘exploitation’, which is not defined in international law or in the Protocol. The articles highlight the consequences for the very people the Protocol and policy makers supposedly aim to protect.

Here we have pulled out quotes that are relevant to sex work, and have included links to the full articles on the Open Democracy website.

What is exploitation anyway?

“A further issue here is the way in which certain categories of work (such as sex work) are framed as essentially exploitative, with clear lines drawn between what is ‘acceptable’ to human dignity and that which is said to be alien to it. The problem is that, once again, those who draw these lines do so according to culturally and class-specific moral frameworks. And these are far from universally shared.

Second, when entire categories of work are constructed as exploitative by default, livelihood strategies can be problematised that may not be problematic for the people living within them. Even worse, when these livelihood strategies are consequently targeted for abolition, the people whose lives depend on them almost always suffer. Sex work and child work are the paradigmatic examples here. Policymakers and civil society actors on all continents have attempted to ‘save’ sex workers and child workers by banning them from doing the work that they rely on to live. In doing so they only cause them ever greater misery. Is this really in the interests of the exploited?”

The case of sex work

“The porous border between everyday capitalist exploitation and exceptional criminal abuse is especially apparent when it comes to debates over sex work and trafficking. The case of trafficking into sexual labour exploitation, which the protocol singles out as an area of emphasis, reveals that the blurring of the boundary is not the result of sloppy thinking or writing by committee. Instead, it is a conscious strategy on the part of the feminist prostitution abolitionists who left an indelible mark on the document.

The conflation of sex trafficking and sex work is a key strategy of extremist abolitionist organisations. The Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, for example, insists that “the exploitation of prostitution and trafficking cannot be separated” and therefore equates the work of any form of prostitution to sexual violence and abuse. The protocol and the national anti-trafficking policies modelled on it have served as tools to reinvigorate the policing and prosecution of sex workers more broadly.

One clear example of this agenda in action is the SESTA/FOSTA bills passed by the US Congress and enacted into law in 2018. The law is intended to combat both prostitution and sex trafficking – the two are consistently linked in the text – by targeting online sites and platforms sex workers use to market their services and screen clients on the grounds that they could also be used by traffickers. The law jeopardises the safety and livelihood of the many sex workers using these tools as part and parcel of the effort to de-platform the small numbers of traffickers who might also use these sites. With assistance from all the sensationalised media stories about sex trafficking, the by now common conflation of sex work and sex trafficking has been a boon to sex work abolitionists in the US.

It is worth noting (although this point deserves a separate argument) that the expansive reach of human trafficking laws is also used as a weapon against migrants and migrant aid networks. Just as the law tends to cast all sex work as trafficking, so too migrant aid has become subject to prosecution as “trafficking in persons.” As a result, humanitarian projects, such as rescue missions in the Mediterranean to aid migrants in distress, have been criminalised and repeatedly charged under anti-trafficking laws.

It is ironic that feminist prostitution abolitionists, who had outsized influence in the drafting of the protocol, actually repeat one aspect of Marx’s argument, albeit in a distorted and limited way. They too reject the division between sex work and sex trafficking. Perhaps, one might think, we could simply expand the frame further from “all sex work is exploitation” to “all capitalist work is exploitation.” But the prostitution abolitionists cannot accept that sex work is like other work; it must remain exceptional, in part because of the fundamentally moral basis of their condemnation. And, as a result, their preferred solution must revolve around criminal prosecution, such as the Nordic model that criminalises the consumers of sexual services in a bid to destroy the sex work sector.

Not rescue and prosecution, but empowerment and organising

“…the adequate strategy to combat vulnerability and exploitation is not rescue and prosecution, but empowerment and organising. First, since most people are recruited into work by means of their economic vulnerability, then the way to address this is to empower them by creating genuine economic security. Endeavours like poverty-reduction initiatives, debt relief programmes, and projects to end homelessness. Second, since the exploited in capitalist society – those exploited in terms of hierarchies of class but also of gender, race, sexuality, and nationality – have a potential power, they are able to organise politically. A genuine solution to the problem of exploitation will thus have to be initiated by modes of coalitional labour organising that are able to address all of these hierarchies together.”

Anti-trafficking is an inside job

“Secondly, we have organisations who have used anti-trafficking and the access and influence it enables to advance other aspects of their agenda. Groups seeking to abolish sex work are the prime culprits here. Abolitionist campaigners have successfully harnessed sympathy for trafficking victims to further criminalise sex work, harass sex workers and their clients, and deny safe and law-bound routes of intra- and international migration for sex workers. Under the guise of anti-trafficking, in many jurisdictions previous victories gained by sex workers have been rolled back and sex workers have become more exposed to the punitive power of the state.

This is a mutually beneficial alliance. The flow of hundreds of millions of dollars in the United States to organisations fighting ‘modern-day slavery’ has played a major role in drawing attention away from government policies on immigration, free trade, employment, the environment, and public welfare. Talking about ‘traffickers’ and ‘smugglers’ is not only an effective way of closing down other conversations, it also enables nation-states who would otherwise be defined by their anti-migrant, anti-environment, anti-women, anti-worker, and anti-poor policies to be viewed as the saviours and protectors of ‘victims of trafficking’.”