Lifestyle

Can making sex work legal really stop women from being trafficked?

When Nadia arrived in the UK three days after she’d left her home in Eastern Europe, she thought she was coming to work as a nanny.

It was a big move for the 18-year-old, who had made the traumatic decision to leave her baby behind. 

But for Nadia it was the only option. Having already managed to escape horrendous sexual abuse at the hands of her mother’s boyfriend, she’d ended up living in poverty. She truly believed that getting a job in the UK was the only way she could make a better life for her and her son. 

However, like countless victims of sex trafficking before her, as Nadia stepped out of the car and into the house that she would call her new home in England, she soon discovered there was no nannying job.  

Instead, she was forced to work in a massage parlour and fulfil the sexual desires of up to 12 men a day. Any cash she earned was handed over to the man who had ‘bought’ her.

‘He would bring me shopping and tell me to take whatever I wanted,’ Nadia recalls, as she describes her first few days with the man she thought was going to secure her nannying job. ‘Sexy underwear, clothing, perfume… I was so confused as I didn’t know what I would be doing with all of these things.’ 

There are differing estimations of the extent of sex trafficking in the UK as it is hidden behind closed doors and difficult to measure. 

Going by figures from the National Referral Mechanism, which refers potential victims of trafficking into support, from January 2020 to March 2020, there were 431 cases that included instances of sexual exploitation.

‘Trafficking happens because of poverty and lack of migration options,’ explains anti-trafficking expert, Emily Kenway. ‘To be a victim of it, you need to be in circumstances that make you vulnerable in some way – so, the need to move countries but no legal pathways to do so, or the wish for a better life in an unequal world. This leads women into exploitative conditions.’

Just a few weeks ago, Hull MP Dame Diana Johnson lodged a new proposal within parliament, called the Sexual Exploitation Bill. 

Its aim is to make paying for sex a crime in England and Wales in a bid to ‘bust the business of sex trafficking’ in the UK.

Dame Johnson warned that our shores are a ‘high-value, low-risk’ destination for sex traffickers and said that British law was failing to discourage the demand, which fuels trafficking and allows ‘ruthless’ individuals to profit from exploitation.

Nadia was brought into the country by the ‘friend’ who had promised her a nannying job, working for his sister who lived in a city in the heart of England.

The man assured Nadia she would have plenty of time off work and be paid enough to send back additional money for her son. Though hesitant about leaving her baby back home with family, she felt she had no other choice except to take the offer. 

As the friend dropped Nadia at her new home, they were greeted by another man. Nadia was told that he would sort out the work for her and then her friend took $3500 (£2,500) from the man.

Confused by the whole exchange, Nadia decided to keep her head low and not question what was happening. Trusting her friend, she still had hope it would all end in a good job that would pay her enough to send money back home.

Meanwhile, the man who ‘bought’ her started taking her to dinner and buying Nadia nice things. She also started sleeping with him as the man convinced her he was her boyfriend, rather than what he was: her pimp. 

Soon, he was dropping her at the massage parlour each day to ‘earn her keep’ and then collect her at midnight, forcing Nadia to hand over any money she had made that day. 

‘He told me it was to pay for the rent, food, petrol, and bills,’ she remembers. ‘When I made money, he was fine, but didn’t like it when I made less than normal. I was always scared if I didn’t give him the right amount of money he asked for, he would beat me up, or worse.’

It was a far cry from the life Nadia had envisaged for herself in the UK.

It was her massage parlour colleagues – who hadn’t been trafficked into the business – that helped Nadia realise that her boyfriend was a pimp, not a lover. The women encouraged her to start leaving small amounts of money in the parlour to save up so she could escape his clutches. 

Eventually, Nadia had enough money to flee his control. ‘I drank some vodka to get the courage to ring him and tell him, “f**k off. Leave me alone. I don’t owe you no more”,’ she remembers.

Even so, Nadia continued to work at the parlour. 

‘I needed money,’ she admits. ‘I didn’t have an identity to do anything else. I didn’t work for pleasure. If I had a choice, I would have worked a normal job.’

But Nadia didn’t have a choice. Although she had escaped her trafficker, she’d been brought to a country where she didn’t have a legal right to remain, and therefore couldn’t work in any profession that required a legal status. 

It’s a situation many migrant women working in the sex trade find themselves in. Without an asylum seeker status, sex work is the only job they can do in the UK to provide for themselves and their families.

It’s also fraught with complications. For example, how can trafficked women be found, rescued, and supported within the current legal status of sex work in the UK without hurting the women that are working voluntarily to earn a living?

Many police raids to rescue victims of sex trafficking often come with the risk of disbanding the only means of survival British and migrant women working depend upon.

However, according to Laura Watson, of the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP), there is an ‘obvious solution’.

‘Financial assistance,’ she explains. ‘These women might have been the ones to help themselves out of trafficking by saving small amounts of money for housing and food. If women feel confident enough to provide for themselves financially they may be more likely to look for a way out of the exploitative relationship.’

Laura adds that if women who have been trafficked feel they have a way out – such as alternative work, no fear of deportation or arrest, housing, food – they will be more likely to come forward because they know they will have provisions to sustain them without depending on their trafficker for survival.

Of course, there are groups that already exist to help victims of sex trafficking, such as Stop The Traffik, but encouraging vulnerable women to seek them out is another matter.

Phil Brewer is Director of Intelligence for the organisation and says that they are advocating for long-term partnership work to build trust with women in the sex trade so that they feel safe to disclose information. 

‘We are moving away from the “saviour” approach,’ he explains, referring to conducting raids on venues with suspected instances of trafficking. Instead, they want to build enough of a relationship so that women come to them for support if they want to escape. 

Currently there are two approaches that anti-trafficking advocates feel could help safeguard victims: prevention and rescue.

One comes under the banner of the ‘Nordic Model’ –  so-called because it was pioneered in Sweden –  and is being pushed by MP Dame Diana Johnson as it involves the decriminalisation of selling sex, while criminilising those who pay for it. 

Tsitsi Matekaire, of Equality Now, believes this is the way forward as it ‘addresses the demand’ for sex trafficking and prostitution.

‘It is unacceptable that women’s bodies can be accessed by a man for his sexual gratification because he has money and status,’ she says, adding that sex trafficking and prostitution are forms of gender-based violence. 

‘Equality Now don’t talk about prostitution as work, but as sexual exploitation, because it is rooted in gender inequality.’

The Nordic Model also suggests that those who sell sex are given access to services including support to exit the sex trade, while perpetrators – inlcuding traffickers, pimps and brothel keepers – are criminalised for their actions.

However, Tsitsi believes that these rules must be accompanied by other measures if we want to fully eradicate sex trafficking and prostitution in the long term. 

‘We are also calling on the Government to address the systemic and gender inequality issues that lead to vulnerability,’ she says, explaining that they want to see women and girls empowered to care for themselves and their families without having to think of selling their bodies as a means to make a living. 

As far as Tsitsi and others who back the Nordic Model are concerned, by supporting police officers to work with sensitivity and empathy and building long term relationships of trust for women to feel open to disclose instances of trafficking, while creating alternative options for work, there will be less instances of sex work and trafficking within the UK.

However, not everyone agrees that this is the best path to take. After Dame Johnson launched her proposal in parliament, several sex workers, trade unionists and women’s organisations spoke out, warning that if we criminalise clients it could undermines sex workers’ safety. 

‘If women MPs want to help women exit prostitution they should be supporting this lifesaving work, targeting benefit sanctions and demanding money for mothers, not proposing legislation that further criminalises sex work, which will inevitably drive it further underground, making it harder and more dangerous for women,’ said Laura Watson from the ECP. 

Along with other anti-trafficking advocates, Laura believes that women forced to sell their bodies would be better protected if we totally decrimilise all aspects of sex work. 

One argument is that if women are legally allowed to work in groups – which they aren’t in the current system and in the Nordic Model, due to the fact that sex workers could be criminalised for pimping when operating in numbers – they will be able to keep each other safe and notice when women are displaying signs of trafficking. 

Additionally, it may lead to women being more likely to approach the police without fear that they are involved in something illegal. ‘It would mean victims wouldn’t get arrested and deported. They would then be more likely to report violence,’ says Laura.

‘We are losing crucial opportunities to tackle trafficking by failing to decriminalise the sex industry,’ adds Emily Kenway. ‘Sex workers should be part of tackling exploitation in their industry, instead of being stigmatised and criminalised.’

Despite the differing approaches in finding a safe way to prevent sex trafficking, one thing is agreed – poverty amongst women must continue to be addressed in order to protect them, whether they have been trafficked or sell sex voluntarily, says Laura. 

‘Evidence and first-hand testimony is resoundingly clear; women do sex work as a livelihood strategy,’ she explains. ‘This can be because of Universal Credit not coming through, because they can’t get flexible work around caring responsibilities, because they can’t earn enough on precarious contracts, because the hostile environment criminalises them out of legal sectors – all these sorts of reasons. At its root, the sex industry is driven by policies that perpetuate poverty, inequality and a lack of migrants’ rights.’

Emily Kenway says it’s ‘absolutely vital the Government looks at the root causes of vulnerability by tackling poverty and repealing the hostile environment that makes migrant women unable to work legally or seek help if they’re abused. It’s down to policymakers to solve these root causes.’

Meanwhile, despite all she’s been through Nadia considers herself one of the lucky ones. She’s now completely independent, living in her own flat and working as a caretaker for the elderly.

She explains that she finally managed to leave the sex work industry after spotting her pimp in a local shop. Determined not to live in fear of him any longer, Nadia went to the police who immediately got her into a local safehouse, and soon after, drove her to a completely different area of the UK for continued support.

‘I cried the entire car journey because I didn’t have to be scared anymore,’ says Nadia, now 35. ‘It was a long and hard journey, but worth it. I went through so much, but I never gave up.’

Emily Kenway suspects that if we do manage to decriminilise sex work, more trafficked women can be helped.

‘Keeping sex workers criminalised will stop victims of trafficking from coming forward as they fear being criminalised themselves,’ she says. ‘By failing to decriminalise sex work we are cutting off potential victims from crucial sex-worker led services and support.’

 

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