Almost every time I give a lecture or attend a panel, the audience has a similar response. At the end, a woman — probably named something like Emma or Jennifer — will raise her hand and smile demurely. “You’re very brave, Lydia,” she tells me, looking around the audience to make sure that they witness that she respects the whore, “but I’m afraid I simply can’t support sex workers, because of human trafficking.”
Sex work and sex trafficking have been considered diametrically opposed. Lots of sex workers refuse to talk about it at all; certainly it is only in recent years that the UK sex workers I organise with have felt informed enough to engage with the topic with any confidence. Before a serious effort to educate myself, I would parrot the same lines lots of us default to: sex work and sex trafficking are different things. We’re not talking about sex trafficking. We’re only discussing consensual sex work.
Here’s the thing: we are discussing sex trafficking, whether we like it or not. First of all, the legal dividing line between sex worker and trafficking survivor is all but non-existent. The internationally accepted definition of trafficking is known as the Palermo protocol; it describes ‘the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons’ using fraud, coercion, force or deception for the purposes of prostitution or forced labour. In the UK, we have a watered down version of this definition that simply requires that person A assists person B in travelling (even domestically) for the purposes of sex work. Legally, I was trafficked when my ex boyfriend drove me for a brothel shift, despite the fact that he made no money from the activity and was simply saving me a bus ride. But even if we ignore the fact that legal definitions of trafficking are shaky at best, the number of sex workers who would identify themselves as currently or previously trafficked is not insignificant.
The issue is not that we are not discussing sex trafficking. The issue is that when we do discuss it, the average person does not even recognise what we are discussing as trafficking. The woman-probably-named-something-like-Emma asking me pointed questions at the end of my talk has no idea what sex trafficking is. And reader, unless you have a significant background in sex work or trafficking policy and research…