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.

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Rights, rescues and resistance in the global movement for sex workers’ rights by Borislav Gerasimov & Annalee Lepp

Sept. 23, 2019