The dangers of conflating trafficking with sexwork

You may have seen some of the recent press on trafficking in the local and regional press last week – this is the letter we wrote and was published in the YEP last week in response. 

June 6th 2017

Dear Editor,

I am writing in relation to your article on “pop – up” brothels on June 5th. Trafficking is a serious crime and those responsible for trafficking any person should be prosecuted and victims should be supported.  As Basis Sex Work, a charity that has nearly 30 years of experience of supporting sexworkers and accurately identifying victims of trafficking and exploitation, we would suggest that the list of signs to look out for as quoted in the article are largely indistinguishable from signs that would indicate indoor sexwork is taking place – in many cases women who are sexworking out of choice and not held against their will. Real trafficking victims are often not as obvious for the outside world to see. As the law currently stands, brothels are illegal and therefore women often move around and to remain unidentified. “Pop up brothels” does not necessarily imply trafficking.

As highlighted by experts in this field, conflating the issue of sexwork and trafficking is dangerous; it may cause those that are truly in need of support as victims of trafficking to go without support as efforts are focused on sexworkers as a whole – including those who are working out of choice. People are also trafficked for reasons other than sexual exploitation – such as forced labour.  Conflating trafficking with sexwork also increases the risk of migrant sexworkers being disproportionately targeted by the police. Our partnership with the police is based on the understanding that by conducting unjustified investigations on migrant and other sexworkers, the women will develop a greater distrust of the police as well as tying up scarce police resources.  Indeed, a sexworker who doesn’t trust the police is not likely to call the police for support when they are in real danger – or request any support for themselves or any other woman if they are actually victims of trafficking.

We were recently awarded a national GSK Impact Award.  One of the factors that contributed to this was our strong and innovative relationship with the police in Leeds, recognising our expert input into the response to sexwork in Leeds.  We feel strongly that articles and campaigns such as the above do little to support the real victims of trafficking and in fact may make things worse. While we fully support efforts to protect victims of trafficking and prosecute the perpetrators, its important to remember that sexworkers, migrant or not, are not always victims of trafficking.

Gemma Scire

CEO Basis Yorkshire