Why impact matters: a commentary on the DemandAT policy brief on the prevention of exploitation and trafficking in the sex work sector

Why impact matters: a commentary on the DemandAT policy brief on the prevention of exploitation and trafficking in the sex work sector

Marjan Wijers

July 2017


Noting that the debates on demand-side measures did not lead to any political consensus, the research does not advocate any specific measures, but instead aims to offer policy makers analytical tools and data that can help in clarifying these debates. One way it does so, is by offering a new way to classify prostitution policy regimes.

The interesting thing of the proposed typology is that it looks at a combination of features, rather than reducing prostitution policies to criminal law, as in essence the old typology does. Moreover, it requires us to not only look at the underlying ideology and intention of policies, but also at the actual impact on the sector and the legal situation of sex workers. There are many reasons why it is important to do so, but the main one is that in the end we are talking about real people and lives. While the method of classification can (and should) be neutral, impacts of policy regimes are not. A crucial touchstone, as far as I’m concerned, is human rights. States not only have a duty to combat trafficking, they also have a duty to protect the human rights of persons, no matter whether they like those individuals or approve of them. Precisely that is the meaning of ‘human rights are universal’: they apply to everybody, including sex workers.

When prostitution policies negatively impact fundamental human rights of an already marginalised and vulnerable group, such as the right to health and safety and to organise, and when States persist in such policies despite knowing and acknowledging its harmful effects, there is a serious human rights problem. A problem which cannot be remedied by justifying it as collateral damage. If there is anything fundamentally against the very principle of human rights, it is the idea that it is all right to sacrifice some for the sake of all. It is also a profound reversal of values: human rights are there to protect the individual against the State, not the State against the individual. Besides, it sends the message that the human rights of sex workers are less worthy to protect. Ironically, it is precisely the idea that sex workers do not have the same value as other human beings that fosters trafficking and other abusive and exploitative practices.

From a human rights perspective, therefore, the recommendations make perfect sense. I do, however, foresee a serious problem. No matter how logical or evidence-based recommendations seem; such as ensuring a process of community empowerment, reducing stigma and including sex workers in the decision-making process; they run directly against a repressive policy which is rather focused on the eradication of prostitution than of exploitation, if only because the two are considered to be the same. From such perspective, the aggravation of violence and exploitation could even be viewed as a positive impact, at least if you are a supporter of Verelendung-theories.

Still I think it is useful to focus on which measures are possible within the different regimes instead of getting stuck in ideological debates. If repressive regimes would ensure that sex workers have access to non-conditional and non-discriminatory health and safety services, that clients can report abuses without fear for prosecution, and that migrant and domestic sex workers can turn to the police without being subjected to police surveillance, prosecution or deportation, then from a human rights point of view that would be a big step forwards.


For a more detailed version of this commentary, please click here.


The views expressed in the blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of the DemandAT Consortium as a whole