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Sex workers say the fight against trafficking has become the ‘new reefer madness’

Lighting a candle in New York City to remember colleagues lost on the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers.
Savannah Sly

Savannah Sly

Savannah Sly is a retired sex worker in Seattle who remains quite active as an organizer campaigning for the de-criminalization of prostitution.

Like any decent person, Sly is opposed to the exploitation or trafficking of people and sex slavery. But what she’s also opposed to are those in the anti-trafficking movement who contend that all sex work is exploitation and who support even more aggressive law enforcement of the sex industry.

“There’s a tidal wave of moral panic gaining ground under the anti-trafficking banner,” Sly said. “People are conflating the legitimate problem of sexual exploitation with those in the consensual adult sex industry.”

And this is causing a lot of harm, she and her sex worker colleagues say, including an increased risk of deadly violence.

EndViolenceAgainstSexWorkersDayToday is International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, a perhaps little-known but widely observed event that began in Seattle more than a decade ago to raise awareness of the deadly risks faced by those in the sex industry.

The event is also intended to make the case that de-criminalizing or legalizing (there is a difference) sex work is more effective at reducing the risk of violence, abuse and even the spread of deadly disease than is aggressive law enforcement. Prostitution is legal in many countries and throughout most of Europe with widely varying regulations, she noted, largely because most recognize the war on sex work has been about as effective as the war on drugs or Prohibition.

And criminalizing it just drives people underground, she added, into the hands of criminals.

“This event was started by sex workers in Seattle because of Gary Ridgway, the Green River Killer,” Sly explained. Ridgway was able to get away with killing many dozens (perhaps nearly 100, though the actual number is still unknown) of prostitutes, she said, because the police took little interest.

A map of events worldwide to mark International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers

A map of events worldwide to mark International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers

“Sex workers told the police early on that it was Ridgway doing this, but nothing happened,” Sly said. “If his victims had not been part of this marginalized, criminalized population he wouldn’t have been able to get away with it for so long … Ridgway said he targeted sex workers because he knew nobody would care.”

Robert Beiser

Robert Beiser

Robert Beiser and his colleagues at Seattle Against Slavery care. The organization works in collaboration with other organizations to raise awareness about trafficking and human slavery (in all industries, not just sex work). Beiser disagrees with Sly that de-criminalization or legalization would reduce the risks of prostitution.

“The attempt to create a distinction between prostitution and trafficking is a false one,” he said. Studies have shown that most women would not become prostitutes if they had a choice, he said, and that lack of economic freedom or some kind of compulsion (through violence or threat of violence) is what drove them into sex work. And, as this recent Der Spiegel report contends, legalization in Germany did not reduce exploitative sex trafficking.

“Violence, exploitation and abuse is inherent to prostitution,” Beiser said. His organization favors making services and police protection available to sex workers, but also supports the so-called ‘Nordic model’ of law enforcement now being used more in Seattle that emphasizes prosecuting clients, or Johns, rather than the sex workers.

Sly said she respects Beiser and his group’s work, but they’re wrong: “The effect is the same and just as harmful; it just drives people underground.”

She also rejects many of the reports and studies cited by Beiser and others in the anti-trafficking movement as selective. Most studies, she said, support the so-called harm reduction strategy – a scheme widely used in public health to move away from a punishment or law-enforcement approach to a more regulatory approach. She cited New Zealand as a counterpoint to the argument Beiser and others make that legalization or decriminalization will only make things worse.

“They de-criminalized sex work more than a decade ago,” Sly said. “There’s no blood on the streets; no women or children being auctioned off as slaves … If someone in the sex trade is abused or victimized, they can report it to the police because it’s no longer a crime. The results there have been very good.”

Sly emphasized that sex workers would like to be seen as valuable partners in the fight against trafficking, against exploitation of children and for the empowerment of women. But she fears that the current trend, and narrative, of the anti-trafficking movement is becoming increasing hostile, and hysterical, to them – and that this will only drive them and their clientele further underground.

“You would think we would have learned our lesson by now, based on how well things have gone with the war against drugs or even the war on terror,” Sly said. Further criminalizing and stigmatizing sex workers, she said, won’t end the world’s oldest profession. It will only serve the interests of predators like Ridgway, she said.

Go here for  more information about the Seattle observance of this international event. Below is an educational poster from The Lancet sex worker series earlier this year, which argued the public health case for de-criminalization.



About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.