Sex workers: Not victims
| By Nadia van der Linde
I come from quite a conservative religious background. I remember, as a young girl, feeling upset and sad when walking through the Red Light District in Amsterdam, wishing someday all these women would be ‘free’. No, I could never see myself behind those windows.
Based on my personal ideas and feelings, I assumed that sex work was not a job that anyone would ever choose to do. I imagined that most people working in the sex industry must have been forced somehow. I have learned that my assumptions are not always right.
During my research of sex worker organisations and anti-trafficking measures, I also learned that assumptions can have harmful consequences. I interviewed sex worker activists from twelve organisations about their understanding of and response to trafficking. The stories I heard taught me that sex workers are often far from disempowered. And that all of them are in fact already taking action to influence the debate – as well as the practices – around preventing and addressing cases of trafficking into sex work.
In the public discourse, sex workers are often portrayed as women who are poor, powerless victims who have had no other choice but to ‘sell their bodies’. They may be a victim of unfortunate circumstances or they may have fallen prey to abusive boyfriends or criminals who forced them into the sex industry.
The latter category, often referred to as ‘human trafficking’ is a popular topic. Millions of dollars are invested into anti-trafficking campaigns and programs every year. However, the topic is widely debated with diverse stories, statistics and popular rhetoric, allowing for a distorted image of reality. Discourses around sex work and trafficking are often linked, based on prejudices, morals and somewhat dramatic rhetoric and images. But repeating this conflation time and time again has harmful consequences.
The European anti-trafficking network La Strada International states that:
“unbalanced media coverage on trafficking can … create false perceptions and damage the interests of trafficked persons rather than servicing them”.
They argue that media coverage on trafficking is problematic because of the ‘portrayal of the scope and nature of trafficking, in particular with regard to estimates of the number of trafficked persons and its occurrence in the sex industry or other economic sectors’.
 Weitzer, R. (2007). The social construction of sex trafficking: Ideology and institutionalization of a moral crusade. Politics & Society, 35(3), 447-475.