As I arrived in Buenos Aires this week, the Argentine Congress started discussing two bills purporting to deal with human trafficking. According to reports, one bill seeks to establish prison sentences for individuals who buy sex from victims of trafficking, while the other seeks to penalize anyone who buys sex at all, regardless of whether the person providing the sex is a consenting adult. (The government is not suggesting legislation to criminalize sex workers themselves.) No one would contest that actual sex trafficking is a problem in Argentina and that something should be done about it. The question is if it is ever helpful, in policy terms, to lump together trafficking and sexual exploitation with the buying and selling of sexual services between consenting adults.
The push to eradicate trafficking for purposes of sexual exploitation is a legitimate goal for any government—in fact, it is an obligation. In Argentina, this objective has gained particular urgency in the wake of a decade-long, largely unsuccessful legal investigation into the abduction and forced prostitution of a young woman. In relation to that case, Amnesty International and other groups have criticized the lack of effective protection in Argentina against gender-based violence in general and trafficking for purposes of sexual exploitation in particular.
But the evidence suggests that Argentina’s latest approach to address the problem may not be the best one. The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) has carried out studies and generated guidance on anti-trafficking initiatives. The organization has come to the conclusion that brothel raids and “rescues” that treat all sex workers as victims of violence contribute to decreased safety for sex workers by forcing many of them to move constantly from one place to another, undermining the social networks that can help to keep sex workers safe.
UNAIDS suggests that governments should instead take a nuanced approach that on the one hand recognizes the autonomy of individual adult sex workers and clients who act on their own volition, while on the other clamps down hard on sexual exploitation. In this context, sexual exploitation should include not only trafficking into forced prostitution, but also violent acts against voluntary sex workers (such as rape) and the use, offer, or procurement of a child for commercial sex acts.
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The question is, of course, if there is such a thing as voluntary sex work.
In general, people who believe governments should treat trafficking and sex work as one and the same would answer “no” to that question. To this group of advocates, sex work is inherently violent; they believe that the people who say they engage in sex work voluntarily are in reality forced to do so by circumstances or structural disadvantages they may or may not see. The goal for such advocates is to eradicate sex work, rather than trafficking, and the assumption is that the criminal law is an effective tool in advancing this goal.
It is undeniable that sex workers, like everyone else, make decisions about their lives and livelihoods that are at least in part informed by the opportunities available to them. For some sex workers, opportunities are severely limited because they belong to a disadvantaged group in terms of gender, income level, ethnicity, or sexual orientation, and many may have chosen a different path given a different context.
It is also undeniable that the notion of exchanging sexual services for money makes many people very uncomfortable. I would venture that most parents would rather not see their children having sex for a living. And it is certainly true that many people would prefer not to see sex workers at all, leading to initiatives to curb street solicitation that often do little to promote sex worker safety.
However, it is not clear why our discomfort with sex for money should lead us to disregard, wholesale, the decisions made by sex workers themselves. When I did research on access to reproductive health services in Argentina, I spoke to women who felt empowered by their sex work, because it was the only relationship in which they felt they had some measure of control. And when I did research on discrimination based on HIV-status in the Dominican Republic, I spoke to women who were mortified that sex work was the only avenue open to them after they were fired from hotel and factory jobs. Both groups of women had made decisions in an imperfect context, but neither group would benefit from brothel raids and the blanket criminalization of their clients. In fact, treating these women as if their choices do not matter is unlikely to empower them to overcome structural abuse.
In Argentina, trafficking into forced prostitution remains a problem. However, not all sex workers are trafficked or remain in commercial sex work against their will. As Argentina’s congress—and many other countries—debate how to deal with both of these issues, they would do well to remember that to be effective a policy approach must be grounded in evidence and supported by those who are meant to benefit from it.