We Need to Stop Confusing Sex Work with Human Trafficking

An interview with Elene Lam, Executive Director of Butterfly explores why support for sex workers is necessary

Nuance Media


by Mari “Dev” Ramsawakh

Content Note: Discrimination and violence, including sexual violence, against sex workers and women, anti-trafficking policy.

In April, the US passed a set of bills called FOSTA (Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act) and SESTA (Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act) intended to stop sex trafficking but instead has led to a crackdown on sex workers across the country and even in Canada. The SESTA and FOSTA bills would hold website publishers accountable for any publication of advertisements meant for sex workers.These bills have led to shutdowns of websites like Backpage.com, a popular page where sex workers could advertise their services, forcing these sex workers onto the streets to find new clients.

Backpage.com, and similar sites, allow sex workers to vet and screen potential clients before meeting them through correspondence with the potential clients, asking for references from other sex workers in the community, or verifying their identity digitally. Street level sex work doesn’t leave the space or time to go through these processes, and for many sex workers, this is their only means of survival.

With the passing of these bills, there is an anxiety that sits among sex workers even in Canada. These bills represent some of the major issues that are at the root of many anti-sex work and anti-trafficking legislation. Nuance spoke with Elene Lam from Butterfly in order to dive deeper into these issues.

Elene Lam is the founder and Executive Director of an organization called Butterfly, a support network for Asian and migrant sex workers that is based out of Toronto. When Butterfly was founded in 2014, Lam found that while there were other sex worker groups that were already active in Canada (Maggie’s, one of Toronto’s most widely known groups), the voices of Asian and migrant sex workers were erased from the conversation.

“[T]he migrant sex worker may not be able to participate, because of lots of issues like language barriers, also the racism, and also different circumstances for them to not participate…that’s why we need to create different platforms.”

Butterfly aims to bridge this gap by providing public outreach, reaching out to sex workers to share information on policy and worker rights, as well as legal resources, advocating for sex worker and migrant rights, and offering counselling and support to workers. On top of that, they also provide public education to allies about sex work, migrant sex workers, and anti-discrimination practices. Butterfly also organizes art series that are created by the Asian and migrant sex workers they work with.

Sex Work Isn’t Human Trafficking

As the conversation with Elene Lam progressed, it became clear that some of the biggest issues that Asian and migrant sex workers faced when it came to policy and legislation was the conflation of massage parlours with sex work, and the conflation of sex work with sex trafficking.

Lam explained that the term trafficking was often used problematically, specifically in that it is almost only associated with sex work.

“So the trafficking issue is not unique in the labour market,” Lam told Nuance, “it can happen in any industry, no matter farm worker, grocery worker, or restaurant. But no one is really responding. But when it comes to sex, people think they need to do something.”

This is something that has been brought up about anti-trafficking policy before. A 2006 article from the Journal of Global Ethics also argues that anti-trafficking strategies focus primarily on the sex industry and how these strategies leave women in other industries vulnerable to trafficking.

Elene Lam gave an example of how within some new migrant families or couples, when the man in the relationship is experiencing difficulty finding work, it can leave their partner in a vulnerable position. If a woman in the relationship begins to work to support the family, the husband or boyfriend may still take that money and use violence to control the woman. Once the woman is involved in sex work, this kind of financial abuse and domestic violence that happens under other contexts, is then exclusively viewed through the lens of the woman being a sex-trafficking victim and their partner, a pimp or trafficker. This can put the victim in a tricky place; even if they are participating in consensual sex work, seeking help could put their income at risk and undercut their financial independence, rather than keeping them safe from further harm.

This example is hardly hypothetical; an account very similar to this, called Journey of Cookie, is included in the 2016 full report Journey of Butterflies. The focus on stopping sex trafficking as opposed to other forms of trafficking ignores other very real victims who are forced into labour. It also ignores how migrant women can face discrimination and language barriers when attempting to find work even with a valid work permit, and often rely on sex work to survive (although Lam shares that even with open work visas anything sex-related can have them taken away).

This anti-trafficking logic then creates other issues. First, identifying any (im)migrant sex workers as trafficking victims places them at a greater vulnerability. Because of anti-trafficking laws similar to SESTA/FOSTA, migrant sex workers who participate in consensual sex work can’t seek support without risking the arrests of the third parties. Elene recounts an instance where a woman helped create advertisements for a sex worker performing consensual sex work and how it landed that woman in jail for trafficking.

These laws, passed in 2014, were intended to stop human trafficking, however like SESTA/FOSTA, they only end up criminalizing the supports that sex workers rely on. This can include providing a space for them to perform their services, advertise their services, vet clients, or anyone who provides any kind of service (including accounting and security) to the sex worker. With SESTA/FOSTA shutting down pages like Backpage.com, this also affects sex workers on top of these laws by taking away the online advertising space. And according to Lam, this also decreases their bargaining power, and their ability to screen new clients.

The Attack on Massage Parlours

The second issue is that it ignores the racist and anti-immigration ideology behind the anti-trafficking policy in the first place. For example, Lam tells Nuance how massage parlours and holistic services have become a target for law enforcement, with a rapid increase of inspections by bylaw officers between 2013 and 2016 of holistic centres (by 212%) and holistic practitioners (by 323%). According to a survey of workers at these centres, many of them experienced abuse and humiliation at the hands of law enforcement. Women have been forced to strip down to their underwear in the case of their investigation, and have been the subject of illegal searches, among other abuses of power.

Not all of these centres provide sexual services, according to Elene Lam, but that’s not what matters to Butterfly. These centres are often conflated with sex work, which in turn gets conflated with sex trafficking especially due to the mostly migrant staff who usually work there. It shouldn’t matter if they are sex workers or not, they are still experiencing abuse.

“We always skip the question . . . if they do sex work or not. They [people in society] have very strong impressions that if they don’t offer sex service, then the investigation is not justified,” she explained. “But it’s very disappointing when they suspect that there is the sex worker working, then the people think that what law enforcement is doing is okay.”

Lam also explained how regardless of whether they are found to provide sexual services or not, these bylaw officers also often ask for immigration status. Despite that it is against Toronto policy, not all the workers know this, which is why public outreach is such a crucial part of Butterfly’s mandate.

What You Can Do

If you’re not a legal or medical professional, you may not know how to show your support. But there are many ways that you can help destigmatize and help sex workers, and thus help the victims of human trafficking.

Butterfly has started a petition that you can sign urging the mayor and Toronto city councillors to take action against the mistreatment of holistic practitioners. You can also call or contact your city councillor and urge them personally.

To go further, it’s important to dispel misinformation about trafficking and sex work, because without the support of the general public, there is nothing to motivate policymakers. Talk about the racism and anti-immigration ideology that is at the heart of current anti-trafficking laws. Call your local representative to voice your concerns over the federal laws that criminalize those who support sex workers or the anti-trafficking laws that target them. Express your concern for trafficking victims across all industries.

If we want to say we care about trafficking victims, we have to care about all of them. We can’t protect victims by harassing them, stigmatizing them, and pushing them into the shadows. We can only help by supporting and listening to collectives like Butterfly; we need to listen to the victims if we want to say we care about them.

Sex work is used here to describe any kind of work involving sexual services, including but not limited to street level sex work, escort agencies, pornography, etc.

Behind the Rescue: How Anti-Trafficking Investigations and Policies Harm Migrant Sex Workers



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