By Anastacia Ryan / Open Democracy

Global outrage regarding human trafficking and sexual slavery has had a major effect upon how women engaged in sex work are represented. No longer publicly imagined as morally corrupt or bad women per se, they are now more likely assumed to be victims of sexual slavery and trafficking. As a result, punishment and discipline have given way to more neoliberal mechanisms of control under the guise of ‘rescue’. Prostitution has been increasingly re-classified as a crime that uniquely victimises women and children, and as this US-led conflation of prostitution with trafficking has spread ‘raid, rescue and rehabilitation’ operations have increased throughout southeast Asia and other Global South contexts. These morality-based agendas make help and support conditional on exiting sex work and/or abstinence rather than prioritising rights, recognition and respect.

This politics of ‘rescue’ has resulted in multiple forms of abuse, and opposition to the approach has galvanised sex workers across the globe. This activism and advocacy, however, has been undercut and ignored. Friends have also been difficult to find. There has been a distinct lack of support from other communities and organisations negatively impacted by discrimination and criminalisation. Instead of taking up calls for decriminalisation and labour rights, potential allies have remained on the side-lines rather than standing in solidarity.

This is true of most anti-trafficking organisations. The image of the feminised sex slave has become so enmeshed in the public imagination that NGOs are afraid to embrace sex workers’ rights amid concerns that backing decriminalisation will potentially erode public and state support for trafficking victims. They are also worried that taking a stand in support of decriminalisation would open up their organisations to attack and put their funding and donations at risk.

Perhaps more perplexing has been the lack of engagement with sex workers’ rights by those spearheading campaigns for the decriminalisation of illicit drugs, including in the UK. Some drug policy reform organisations do see the parallels and are vocal in their support. Yet for others, there is a clear sense of ‘fence-sitting’ when it comes to supporting the full decriminalisation of prostitution. This is hard to understand. Both sex workers’ rights groups and drug reform groups understand the harms created by criminalisation and stigma, and spend their days fighting to reduce them. They also have overlapping constituencies. Yet despite this common ground many refuse to offer their support. Perhaps most concerning are the politicians who champion the right of people to use drugs, yet somehow find it in themselves to also embrace the ‘rescue’ of sex workers.