Q&A from Freedom United’s online event ‘Taking the trafficking out of sex work’ - FreedomUnited.org

Q&A from Freedom United’s online event ‘Taking the trafficking out of sex work’

  • Published on
    February 12, 2021
  • Written by:
    Miriam Karmali
  • Category:
    Law & Policy, Prevention
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On February 3, Freedom United hosted an online event with an expert panel of speakers exploring how to build resilience to sex trafficking. We’re grateful to our panelists, Professor Nick Mai from the University of Newcastle, Esta Steyn from Be Slavery Free, Nadia Whittome MP, Charlotte from the English Collective of Prostitutes, Mariah Grant from Sex Workers Project and Megan Hector from DecrimNow, for taking part in this important discussion.

We were impressed by everyone who joined in the discussion and with over 200 people tuning in live, we received many questions! So, we’re answering them here in case we didn’t get to them during the live event.

Q: What are your thoughts on church/religious-based organisations who run anti-trafficking projects but also disagree with sex before marriage and generally very anti-sex work/anti-porn. How can they more effectively do their anti-slavery work?

A faith-based organization providing anti-trafficking support may not necessarily be precluded from effectively providing services as a result of stances they may have on sex work. In the U.K., Hannah Lewis, Gwyneth Lonergan, Rebecca Murray, Emma Tomalin and Louise Waite co-authored a report ‘Faith responses to modern slavery’ exploring the role of faith-based organizations in the U.K. anti-trafficking space. Read the report here.

Q: If liberalization and legalization of sex work risks the proliferation of sex work to the point where entrepreneurial types could exploit others as a part of their business model but remain undetected (assuming exploitation is not evident on the surface), and if criminalization can increase the risk of trafficking by making sex work unseen and impossible to monitor for exploitation, is any solution possible or do we have to accept risk in both scenarios?

One thing that was made clear through our panel discussion is that there is no silver bullet to ending trafficking for sexual exploitation. It’s an incredibly complex problem that is perpetuated by a variety of structural issues that need to be addressed in addition to implementing anti-trafficking measures. While the risk of trafficking may remain in the sex industry, like any other industry, we have to question which approach will be most effective in preventing sex trafficking.

Esta Steyn from Be Slavery Free said:

The ideas behind why you choose a policy will influence the execution of that policy. For instance, the Swedish model is based on the notion that gender equality is really important and millions are being spent on gender equality programs for schools, government officials and this had had a huge effect. Before the implementation of the Swedish model, laws providing sexual services was seen very differently than it is seen now. It has had a huge impact of the empowerment of women. Women are seen as more equal than before, in large part because of the gender equality programs. And specifically youths now disapprove paying for sexual services. Whichever policy the UK chooses, it should reflect a view on humans that is helpful to survivors and those providing sexual services voluntarily.

Charlotte from the English Collective of Prostitutes said:

For sex work to be recognised as legitimate would be for it to be decriminalised, like any other job as it is in New Zealand (although any law must not include the clause that discriminates against migrant sex workers). It is not some utopian or unachievable goal. It has worked and it has worked for over 15 years. It means that sex workers are more likely to report incidents of violence to the police and other agencies. This was particularly true for the street workers.

This would also mean a change in the stigma around sex work, and sex workers will be entitled to expect the same protection under the law as anyone else. Women will be more likely to come forward with information without fear of arrest, making all women safer, and find it easier to leave prostitution if and when they want to as convictions have been cleared from their records.

Q: If sex work is decriminalized, does it not then make it easier for traffickers to argue that their actions are “enabling” a trafficked woman to earn a legitimate trade and therefore make it even harder for a trafficked person to prove that they have been exploited?


Mariah Grant from Sex Workers Project shared during the event:

Having honest discussions about what is exploitation is important so that people can know what their rights are in any industry where exploitation occurs, and if their rights are being abused – whether that be in the sex trade or if they’re working in a restaurant. I think it also needs to be a conversation that is being had in different areas of work so whether that be with social workers , in the medical field…that there’s an understanding of what trafficking is and that it can happen in any industry. There’s a lot of sensationalism around training on human trafficking which leads to incorrect identification and profiling people. The training that happens around human trafficking has to be grounded in evidence and reality.

Esta Steyn from Be Slavery Free says:

Yes, it will make life easier for traffickers. As has become painfully clear in the Netherlands. It has made life so much easier for human traffickers. They simply have to choose people over 18 and the courts will have a hell of a time proving that this person was exploited. It is so extremely difficult to prove that a person was exploited. It’s usually not black and white at all. A victim will often feel that they are not a victim because they said yes to their trafficker and willingly worked for them. A good friend of mine who was exploited in the sex industry for 5 years, who never got a penny of the money she earned, still felt that she was not exploited. She loved her trafficker and willingly did this work for him. It took her 15 years, before she could admit to herself that she was exploited.

Q: Where is the evidence that the Nordic Model drives prostitution further underground? And if it’s driven further underground, surely it can easily overlap with and be conflated by trafficking?


Research into the effects of ‘prohibitionism’ models such as the sex purchase ban model, commonly referred to as the Swedish or Nordic model, has found that sex workers face increased precarity and risk of violence, particularly those facing intersectional discrimination.

Instead of protecting women engaging in sex work from violence, this model pushes sex workers underground where they are more likely to be vulnerable to violence, exploitation, abuse and trafficking and are less likely to report to the police and seek help if they fear that they will be criminalized.

Charlotte from the English Collective of Prostitutes said during the event:

Decriminalising sex work would make it easier for victims of trafficking to come forward without fear of arrest, and for the police to pursue rapists and traffickers rather than sex workers and clients.

Further reading on the impact of the Nordic Model on sex trafficking:

Human Rights Watch

International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe

Amnesty International


Q: Evidence suggests that criminalizing the buying of sex would put women in prostitution in the UPPER position, when threatened with violence by clients… how do you explain the explosion of not only prostitution but also trafficking and violence therewith in Germany since the legalization in 2002 (91 murders, 48 attempted murders)?


While our event didn’t cover the German context, Esta Steyn spoke on the impact of legalization in the Netherlands during the live event:

Before 2000 buying and selling of sexual services was already legal in the Netherlands, brothels and pimping were prohibited. The reason the exploitation of prostitution was legalised, is because it was clear that condoning prostitution had not worked. It created routes for investing dirty money, to let illegal immigrants work, and to block supervision of the tax department, police and frontline professionals. It was thought that legalising the exploitation of the sex industry would solve this. It has been a complete failure.

Further reading on the impact of the legalization model on sex trafficking:

Esta Steyn’s full presentation on the impact of legalization of sex work on trafficking

Global Network of Sex Work Projects’ factsheet on the German Prostitution Law

Equality Now’s factsheet on addressing sex trafficking


Update, February 15 2021: Nordic Model Now! sent Freedom United an open letter following our panel event. You can read our response to the open letter here.


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