October 18th is “EU-Anti-Trafficking-Day”, an opportunity to raise awareness about trafficking in human beings.
Trafficking is a global problem, driven by poverty, and all forms of trafficking are a gross violation of human rights. Many countries, including Ireland, have specific laws to deal with trafficking.
People are trafficked into various situations, but what we’d like to talk about today, is trafficking into the sex industry.
Sex trafficking and sex work are two very different things. Sex trafficking is the illegal trade of human beings for the purposes of commercial sexual exploitation. Sex workers are persons who choose to engage in providing sexual services for money.
As former president of Ireland Mary Robinson said in 1999, when she was UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, it is important to “…ensure that well-intentioned anti-trafficking initiatives do not compound discrimination against female migrants or further endanger the precariously held rights of individuals working in prostitution.”
However, sadly sex work and sex trafficking are now completely conflated in Ireland. Anti-sex work organisations, who regard all prostitution as violence and therefore don’t see a great difference between sex trafficking and sex work, are successfully using trafficking as a smokescreen to gain support for their long held anti-sex work views. The lack of reliable statistics on trafficking does not help.
Many people support Turn Off the Red Light (TORL) because they think most persons selling sex in Ireland are trafficked. This is not the case, even according to Ruhama, the driving force behind TORL, who recently estimated trafficking at 10%, but TORL statements like “Very few women choose to willingly engage in prostitution” cause confusion.
Although we have not seen any convictions for trafficking in Ireland yet, and TORL claims regards trafficking are often very questionable, we too are concerned about sex trafficking. The sex industry is driven underground in Ireland and this environment enables criminality, including abuse, exploitation and trafficking. Many sex workers in Ireland are concerned about trafficking. Accusations that people choosing sex work do not care about people being trafficked are wholly untrue. Many Irish sex workers are very involved in supporting others in the sex industry, and want very much to help end abuse.
It is a shame that sex workers have been excluded from discussions on sex trafficking to date, as arguably those who work in the sex industry know best what is going on and are best placed to help. Likewise, those who buy sex would have very useful experience they could share here.
A key problem with the main organisations currently providing services to sex workers is that they have an approach to sex work, where they will only see it as violence, and by taking this stance they obviously alienate some persons in the sex industry. This leads to a situation where the main organisations providing services to sex workers themselves have a reduced idea what is going on in the sex industry.
Ruhama are very keen to point out that, whilst they are an “exiting” agency, the Women’s Health Project (WHP) covers “harm reduction”. However, whilst it is accepted that the WHP does provide harm reduction services, they appear to be anti-sex work too. Director of the WHP, Linda Latham, wrote a paper called “Harm Reduction is Not Enough; The case for a feminist Women’s Health Project” in 2006 and openly states she believes “prostitution is a form of violence against women”. The WHP also joined the National Women’s Council of Ireland which is well known for it’s hateful views on sex work.
We do not believe that sex work is inherently abusive. We believe people should be able to choose sex work and not be branded as victims against their will for doing so. However, we are equally willing to accept that selling sex is not a choice for some people. Despite claims to the contrary, we are not trying to promote a “happy hooker” image of the sex industry. We fully recognise that there are problems within the sex industry and we want to talk about these issues.
Trafficking is an issue where there is probably some agreement between TORL and TOBL. For example both TORL and TOBL have spoken out in support of the recent case in New York, where a trafficking survivor had her criminal record for prostitution wiped. We would also acknowledge that Ruhama has done some good work in regard to advocating for victims of sex trafficking.
However that is probably where agreement between TORL and TOBL ends. Confusing sex workers with trafficked persons erases the voices of sex workers and increases discrimination. The policies of suppression that anti-sex work organisations argue for drive the sex industry underground, worsen working conditions, and actually enable sex trafficking. TOBL is simply about the well-being of all persons in the sex industry, regardless of how they got there, not religion or morality.