Indiana University SPEA Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy University of Pennsylvania AIR American University

Poster Paper: From the Outskirts to the Mainstream: How Grassroots Activist Organizations Utilize the Field of Social Service Provision to Address Sex Work and Trafficking

Thursday, November 12, 2015
Riverfront South/Central (Hyatt Regency Miami)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Theresa Anasti, University of Chicago
The trafficking of women and children into the sex trade constitutes a massive violation of human rights.  To counteract this violation, over the past several decades there has been increased awareness and attention paid to the gross abuses that survivors have suffered at the hands of their attackers.  As public policy professionals, we applaud this increased awareness and services dedicated to this vulnerable population of victims.  However, it is also the case that with increased attention paid to sex trafficking victims, there is a dangerous conflation that occurs between these individuals and sex workers, those that work in the sex trade due to choice or economic circumstances.  Treating sex trafficking and sex work as the same phenomenon has led to the creation of problematic legislation and policies that neither benefit those trafficked victims, nor sex workers.

First, conflating sex work with sex trafficking trivializes human rights abuses endemic to trafficking victims.  Second, this eliminates the agency inherent to individuals whom, for varying reasons, have chosen to work in the sex trade.  Those that have chosen to work in the sex trade often find their experiences discounted in favor of the ability to tell a salacious trafficking story to the media.  Third, this conflation ignores the reality that is involved with trafficking into other forms of labor, such as migrant work.  Due to sensationalistic media stories surrounding sex trafficking, individuals that are trafficked into other labor forms are often denied similar supports offered to sex trafficked victims.

Through this presentation, I present qualitative research I have done with organizations in the city of Chicago that advocate on behalf of sex workers, and their efforts to collaborate with social service organizations in order to present their concerns to politicians and the general public.  One major concern woven throughout the research is that those who are involved in the sex industry consensually are often afraid of accessing necessary social and health services due to the assumption that they are trafficked: these individuals do not necessarily want to leave the sex industry, nor do they seek to be rehabilitated through the criminal justice system. These individuals have indicated that when they bring their concerns to the policy table, their views are denied in favor of carceral policies that seek to embed sex trade workers in the criminal justice system, preferring solutions proposed by law enforcement.  This brings up a dangerous precedent for women of color, trans women, and undocumented women, all of whom have tenuous relationships with the criminal justice system.  They hope that through relationships with social service organizations, they can work with legislators to provide productive solutions for non-judgmental service provision for sex workers. 

My ultimate goal is to foster a productive and challenging conversation that will lead to an increased understanding of the needs of this population, of the challenges of researching sex work and sex trafficking within a public policy context and how to produce appropriate policies that delineate between the services needed by varying individuals in the sex trade.