Migrant sex work

Source: The Spiked of Review Books
A review of Laura Agustín´s book "Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry". She writes that "the lack of a coherent definition of the term “trafficking” has inspired an avalanche of meetings, conferences and reports all over the world’. The result: ever-more confused and contradictory statistics, and a situation where migrant labour is increasingly viewed with suspicion, indeed, seen almost as criminal by definition". April 2008. [see more]
Talking about migrant sex work is no easy task. First of all, we have to decide whether we talk about ‘prostitution’ or ‘sex work’. On the whole issue - including this apparently trivial question of terminology - the different actors involved do not agree at all.

There are two main positions, one represented by abolitionists and the other by sex workers' advocates. The first view is exemplified by certain feminist NGOs, such as the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women. According to this organization, “prostitution must be recognized not only as part but as a foundation of the larger system of patriarchal subordination of women”. They denounce “patriarchal capitalism” for driving women, through social, political and economical imbalances, into the sex trade. There is no choice whatsoever for the women involved. Furthermore, prostitution “reinforces gender disparities of rights and status”.

They strongly resist the term ‘sex work’. They point out that this debate is “no mere semantic quarrel”, since if prostitution is recognized as a legitimate form of labour, that removes it as an issue from the violence-against-women agenda. They strongly criticize NGOs that claim that this terminology dignifies prostitutes. They argue that it “doesn’t dignify the sex worker; all it dignifies is the sex industry - the pimps, procurers and traffickers. […] The term “sex work” doesn’t convey the exploitation of trafficking and prostitution”.

With respect to legislation, abolitionists seek the decriminalization of prostitution. They criticize repressive policies against prostitutes, but promote the prosecution of customers and pimps, who are to blame for the exploitation of women. They oppose regulationist systems that control prostitution through zoning, licensing and, in some cases, mandatory health checks. They say that it promotes the illegal trafficking of women into regulationist countries. Some abolitionist NGOs aim to rescue women from prostitution and train them to find alternative careers or security in marriage.

Advocates of sex workers' rights defend a different view of prostitution. According to this group sex work (be it migrant or not) is not always forced. They challenge the traditional conception of female prostitutes as victims and men as clients/exploiters. The activist and researcher Laura Agustín recognizes that the majority of sex workers are still women, but highlights the fact that the number or transgender and male prostitutes is rising. She also adds that customers are not only men but also women and transgenders.

The key point, sex workers' advocates argue, is to distinguish whether sex work is forced or not. They recognize that there are people who are forced without their consent into the sex trade, through violence and threats, but, as Agustín puts it, “many, many migrants doing sexual jobs do not describe themselves as 'forced' or as having no other options in life. They may well have fewer options, or fewer agreeable options, than some other people, but they have them. Moreover, among those who suffer from poverty, bad marriages and the entire array of possible root factors, not everyone opts for sex work, just as not everyone opts to migrate. Theories of determinism cannot account for the human phenomenon of choice, while every choice is influenced by questions of class, gender, ethnicity, economic level and present social conditions (war, dictatorship, famine, violence, unemployment, etc). Actions occur within geopolitical and economic structures and dynamics.”

Sex work advocates recognize the advantages in sex work (flexibility in working hours, the possibility of earning cash and bring it home the same day in the case of street prostitution, among others) and disadvantages, most of them due to its clandestine character (lack of social security and protection in case of violence, or exploitative practices by pimps or brothel owners).

Regarding legislation, sex work groups seek decriminalization of all aspects of prostitution. They argue that if customers are prosecuted, their work will be more risky since it will be even more clandestine.

As for the migrant dimension of sex work, the two perspectives summarized above also have opposing views. Abolitionists state that the distinction between prostitution and trafficking is used “to make some forms of prostitution acceptable and legitimate, revising the harm that is done to women in prostitution into a consenting act and excluding prostitution from the category of violence against women”.

UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, Radhika Coomaraswamy, stated otherwise in a report on Trafficking. According to her, it is “the non-consensual nature of trafficking that distinguishes it from other forms of migration […] At the heart of this distinction is the issue of consent.” She also comments on the work of some NGOs that promote the rescue of women working in brothels: “some women’s organizations are fuelled by a moral imperative of ‘saving’ innocent women. Thus, some programmes derive from the perception that women need to be ‘rescued and rehabilitated’, rather than supported and granted rights”.

Her report quotes a sex workers’ manifesto in an effort to give them a voice: “charity organizations are prone to rescue us and put us in ‘safe’ homes, developmental organizations are likely to ‘rehabilitate’ us through meagre income generation activities, and the police seem bent upon to regularly raid our quarters in the name of controlling ‘immoral’ trafficking. Even when we are inscribed less negatively or even sympathetically within dominant discourses we are not exempt from stigmatization or social exclusion”.

Sex workers’ rights activists are concerned about abuse of women migrant sex workers, but they link this more to government anti-immigration policies than to the inherent exploitative nature of prostitution. If women are working illegally, they cannot denounce any kind of violence or ill treatment, since they will be instantly deported. According to the Special Rapporteur’s report, the law-and-order approach adopted by governments to combat trafficking are “often at odds with the protection of human rights and may create or exacerbate existing situations that cause or contribute to trafficking in women” .

The issue of trafficking has been on the international agenda since the late nineteenth century. The first United Nations convention that addressed trafficking was the 1949 Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others. This instrument reflected the abolitionist approach, stating that "...prostitution (is) incompatible with the dignity and worth of the human person…” and it prosecutes pimps and other third parties.

More than fifty years later, another instrument was approved within the scope of the United Nations: The Protocol to Combat International Trafficking in Women and Children Supplementary to the Convention on Transnational Organized Crimes (2000). Although it has been acknowledged that it provided the first definition of traffic, the Human Rights Caucus stated that the Protocol would “do almost nothing to protect the rights of trafficked persons who do not become witnesses”. Another criticism voiced is that this complex issue has been addressed in an instrument designed to combat crime rather than as a human rights treaty.

The Network of Sex Work Project states that “rather than developing measures which might reduce the risks faced by specific groups, the Protocol proposes punitive, anti-immigration measures that confuse the 'perpetrators' and 'victims' of trafficking and focuses exclusively on illegal documentation instead of violence, deception and human rights abuses”. They also point out that the focus on women and children leaves aside men and transgender persons who are also vulnerable and need human rights protection.

An International Labour Organization report published in 1998 got a warmer reception among sex workers' advocates. “The Sex Sector: The Economic and Social Bases of Prostitution in Southeast Asia” was considered “progressive and humane” and “a victory for diversity”. It acknowledges the sex industry’s great contribution to the region’s economies and calls on governments to recognize it as just another income-generating activity. This would imply the extension of labour and social rights to sex workers, including health protection against HIV/AIDS.

Articles and reports quoted above:
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Monday, April 28 2008
Sex at the margins: migration, labour markets and the rescue industry
(Source: The Spiked of Review Books)
Wednesday, March 12 2008
Contributing to ‘development’: money made selling sex
(Source: L.. Agustín Web-page)
Monday, July 02 2007
Well-meaning interference
(Source: The Philadelphia Inquirer)

From traffic to migrant sex work

Sex at the margins: migration, labour markets and the rescue industry (The Spiked of Review Books)

Poverty, gender and human trafficking in Sub-Saharan Africa

Loose women or lost women? (Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex, Brighton, UK)

Migrants in the Mistress's House: other voices in the "trafficking" debate (Soial Politics)

A migrant world of services (Oxford University Press)

Migrant sex workers (WHRnet)

Working in the European sex industry: Migrant possibilities (SWIM)

Challenging 'place': leaving home for sex (NSWP)

Resource lists

Resources on sex workers mobility (NSWP)

Commentary on Sex Work and Migration (SWIMW)

Resources and contacts on human trafficking (Global Rights)

HumanTrafficking.org links section

Eldis on sex workers

International Labour Organization (ILO)

The Sex Sector: The economic and social bases of prostitution in Southeast Asia (ILO)

The Sex Sector: A Victory for Diversity

The debate: the UN Trafficking Protocol

UN Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime

Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children, Supplementing the United

Protocol Against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea and Air, Supplementing the United Nations Convention Against Tra

The Prostitutes' Education Network

The Annotated Guide to the new UN Trafficking Protocol (NSWP)

Commentary on the Draft Protocol To Combat International Trafficking In Women And Children Supplementary To The Draft Co

UN Trafficking Protocol: lost opportunity to protect the rights of trafficked persons (GAATW)

Statement by some NGOs rejecting the term “consent”


Questioning Solidarity: Outreach with Migrants Who Sell Sex (London Metropolitan University)

More traditional approaches

Globalisation, trade and trafficking in women in Latin America

Fact Sheet on Trafficking (GAATW)

Trafficking (Anti-Slavery)

The UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, Radhika Coomaraswamy, Report on Trafficking (2000) (UNHCHR)

Human traffic, human rights: Redefining victim protection (Anti-Slavery)

The debate: migration and “anti-trafficking” laws

Contributing to ‘development’: money made selling sex (L.. Agustín Web-page)

Well-meaning interference (The Philadelphia Inquirer)

The anti-sex work anti-trafficking agenda: a threat to sex workers' health and human rights (NSWP)

Analysis & commentary by NSWP

Migration, Sex Work, and Trafficking in Persons

10 Reasons for Not Legalizing Prostitution (CATW)

Prostitution as violence against women: NGO stonewalling in Beijing and elsewhere (CATW)


United Nations Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of Prostitution of Other (UNHCHR)

Legislation & Conventions (NSWP)

Human Rights Standards for the Treatment of Trafficked Persons

December 18 on trafficking

Civil society

Network of Sex Work Projects


Coalition Against the Trafficking of Women- CATW

The Sex Worker's International Media Watch

The Global Alliance against Traffic in Women (GAATW)

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