Human Trafficking: A Sex Worker Rights & Harm Reduction Narrative

Alisha OstbergBlog, harm reduction, human rights, sex work

At Shift, we don’t spend a whole lot of time talking about human trafficking.

In 2014, we provided ongoing support and case management to 125 registered program clients; only a handful of these individuals had experienced trafficking.  In the 8 year history of Shift, people experiencing human trafficking and other forms of sexual exploitation have remained a small minority of the individuals we support.

Across Canada and the United States, conversations about human trafficking have steadily grown in size and scope.  Many voices have added to these conversations, but the voices of sex workers and sex worker organizations are notably muted or absent.  Human trafficking is often conceptualized as being an issue separate from autonomous sex work.  Conversely, human trafficking is also frequently conflated with sex work and incorrectly talked about as if the two are the same.  The result is an overall climate where anti-trafficking efforts are broadly understood to be anti-sex work, further limiting the voices of sex workers and their allies.

On a more localized level, conversations about human trafficking are happening far more often than conversations about sex work.  In the wake of new prostitution laws which greatly undermine the health and safety of thousands of sex workers, the focus remains on a much smaller population of trafficked individuals.  Shift frequently responds to, and participates in calls and invitations for trafficking-related research, events, and information.  As a sex worker program with one of the largest client bases in the province, we do interact with a number of those who have been identified in cases of trafficking and other forms of sexual exploitation.  These cases have allowed us to build a strong and positive working relationship with the local Action Coalition on Human Trafficking (ACT) to identify and support those who have been trafficked.  These cases have also provided us with opportunities to share a different narrative in the trafficking discourse, and to promote the importance of sex worker rights and harm reduction as it relates to trafficking supports and prevention efforts.

In our experiences working with individuals who have been trafficked, there are common themes and histories.  Most have been white Canadian women, most have experienced significant past traumas, and most were a sex worker before they were trafficked.  In broad terms, the risk factors for these experiences of human trafficking were related to substance abuse, criminalization, poverty, and trauma.  These are not suburban housewives being kidnapped and sold into sex slavery; these are sex workers on the margins being targeted by traffickers for their vulnerability and isolation.

The experiences of trafficking we have seen in our work at Shift do not fit with the popular discourse because they are unpopular realities.  They are connected to larger, more contentious issues of sex worker rights and criminalization.  Most often, the women we have worked with who have escaped from their traffickers have exercised their choice and free will to return to sex work, and very often to substance use.  Timely access to safe, affordable, harm-reduction housing has been the top need identified by those we have supported after fleeing trafficking.  This is also a need that has been almost impossible for us to address.  Existing emergency and transitional housing programs do not provide the space to make decisions about sex work involvement or readiness to address substance use issues.  Local harm reduction housing programs do exist, but the lengthy application process and waiting times make this an unrealistic option for someone fleeing an unsafe situation.  The unfortunate result of these gaps in services often means that we see individuals return to unstable housing, substance use, and high-vulnerability sex work – without the opportunity to engage in supports that will address the impacts of the traumas they have experienced.

We cannot talk about preventing trafficking without talking about how we support the rights and safety of those who choose to be a part of the sex industry – whether this choice is made with full autonomy or constrained by financial needs or other related factors.  Harm reduction also needs to be significant part of the trafficking conversation – in all areas of policy, prevention, and support.  Supporting those who have been trafficked requires a significant amount of time and resources.  This small number of people has a very high level of urgency and needs.  On a National level, the prevalence and strength of the anti-trafficking movement has contributed to a funding shift away from investing in sex worker support programs. While they are often viewed as separate entities with different focus areas, these organizations are working against trafficking every day by supporting the rights and safety of sex workers, and by reducing risk factors for the most vulnerable segments of the industry.  These are also the organizations that offer the most flexibility in their support to those affected, allowing a space for people who have been trafficked to reclaim their autonomy and name their needs.

Human trafficking is undeniably an atrocity worthy of the empathy, compassion, and passion it attracts.  The stories of abuse, control, and violence that have been shared with us by those involved have left a powerful and lasting impact.  For anyone compelled to give their voice, their time, or their money to fighting human trafficking – we have a responsibility to ask ourselves what impact this work is having on the health and safety of those who choose to be a part of the sex industry.  Extreme anti-trafficking activism often risks putting rescue before rights, advancing policies and laws which put all sex workers at increased risk.  Sex workers and their customers are one of the greatest resources and allies in preventing human trafficking; let us make space for their voices and actively include them in the fight against trafficking.  All voices must be included and must be heard to support effective anti-trafficking efforts and policies which aim to eliminate violence for all areas of the sex industry.