Trafficking Policy Should Focus on Empowerment, Not Coercion

I have been studying the sex industry for nearly 25 years and been a feminist for even longer. Over this period I have seen many changes in the sex industry as well as how feminists and others talk about it. But for many Americans, feminists included, one point has remained steady: the belief that sexual intimacy should not be bought or sold.

Even Pretty Woman—that iconic film released 25 years ago, which is a popular whipping post for anti-prostitution activists based on the accusation that the film “glamorizes” prostitution—suggests that a sex worker’s highest dream is to have a client fall in love with her, and then track her down in order to “rescue” her into a loving (but not explicitly paid) sexual relationship.

Given the persistence of anti-sex-work beliefs and storylines, it makes sense that since the first Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) was passed in 2000, many Americans have focused on “saving” women and girls from prostitution.

The problem is that anti-prostitution efforts (offered under the guise of anti-trafficking efforts) are increasingly driving in the opposite direction of advice from leading health and human rights experts. They also threaten basic principles of sexual rights and freedom for consenting adults, conflate commercial sex with human trafficking, direct public funds to police rather than to victim prevention and support, and make sex work more stigmatized, criminalized and dangerous for everyone.

Human trafficking—defined by the State Department as labor induced by force, fraud, or coercion —occurs in numerous industries and is most prevalent in domestic work and agriculture. Human trafficking does occur in the sex industry, but a vast number of individuals who sell sex do not fit the definition of trafficking victims. They are also not all female born. Nor do they all want to be “rescued.”

Fifteen years after the first TVPA was passed, the assumption that all sex workers are female trafficking victims who need to be rescued has led to many harmful policies, including several new bills coming from an “End Demand” approach (a.k.a. the “Nordic Model”) recently considered in Washington state.

“End Demand” logic maintains the old notion that all women and girls who sell sex must be “rescued.” But it also emphasizes that all men who buy sex must be punished. The hope of End Demanders is that the fear and shame of punishment will ultimately curb men’s desire for purchasing sexual services. (For the record, it doesn’t).

The bills in Washington are part of a national initiative waged by a core of anti-prostitution activists who promote “End Demand” policies. The details vary by jurisdiction, but what unites these policy efforts are assertions that all men clients are predators or traffickers, that the solution to sexual predation and human trafficking is to criminalize and stigmatize clients of sex workers and that police should focus their energy on capturing potential clients. Even when this includes posting fake internet sex ads using photos of women without their consent. And even when this deploys the same exploitative tactics such as civil forfeiture that Attorney General Eric Holder has condemned when used in the name of the war on drugs.

The main problem with End Demand logic is that criminalization and stigma actually increase harm for individuals in the sex trade. This includes increased rates of child coercion, violence and rates of HIV/AIDS. Because of this, leading AIDs scholars and the World Health Organization have called for the complete de-criminalization of prostitution. Advocates for sex workers around the globe have also shown that criminalization, aggressive policing and forced “rescues” harm the well-being and human rights of individuals in the sex industry as well as their children and families.

The logic of End Demand is also mismatched with anti-human-trafficking efforts in other industries. Imagine attempting to save children and adults who are coerced into domestic labor by shaming and criminalizing all customers of house cleaners. Or rescuing individuals from “the life” of migrant apple picking by waging campaigns against the apple industry and sending apple eaters to jail.

End Demand efforts are not about empowering people to gain better control over their work and life conditions, nor do they increase health and safety protections for workers, their families or their clients. They also fail to offer more safe housing options, health care, or alternative work opportunities for vulnerable youth and adults.

Because of the harms of criminalization, local sex-worker advocates from the Sex Workers Outreach Program (SWOP–Seattle) and Gender Justice League have spent the past several weeks lobbying against six proposed End Demand policies in Washington state. For now, it looks like their efforts are starting to pay off, as five out of six bills have stalled. While sex worker advocates including myself are tentatively cheering this victory, we are also bracing ourselves for the next round of misguided attacks against individuals who engage in commercial sex.

Justice for individuals in the sex trade, including those who are coerced or trafficked, cannot be achieved through top-down police-orchestrated rescue/punish methods like those increasingly enacted in Washington and nationwide. Anti-trafficking policies should be held to the same principles by which they are fighting: they should not use force in the name of capturing non-violent individuals, fraud in the name of luring people into police traps, or coercion in the name of “rescue.” Instead, true justice is built with and by individuals and communities defining for themselves what they need in order to lead lives free of force, fraud and coercion. Even when this includes life choices that diverge from one’s own personal preferences.


Photo via SWOP-Seattle



Kari Lerum is a researcher, scholar, educator and social justice advocate. She is an associate professor in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences at University of Washington Bothell, an adjunct professor in gender, women and sexuality studies at University of Washington Seattle. For more information about her work, see: