On 3 February 2021, Freedom United, a big anti-trafficking organisation that works globally, held a webinar entitled ‘Taking the trafficking out of sex work’ that promoted the full decriminalisation of the sex trade, including pimps and brothel keepers. You can watch a recording of the webinar on the Freedom United Facebook page. We have also prepared a rough transcript.
After the webinar was announced, we received a number of very distressed messages from survivors of human trafficking for sexual exploitation, who clearly felt betrayed. In response to this outpouring of distress, we decided to organise an open letter. Within a week, 87 organisations (big and small) and 525 individuals signed the letter. We sent it off on Monday morning (15 February) and within seven hours we received a very disappointing reply, which you can read below.
15 February 2021
To: Joanna Ewart-James, Executive Director, Freedom United
Miriam Karmali, Senior Advocacy Officer, Freedom United
cc: Nadia Whittome, MP
Dear Ms Ewart-James and Ms Karmali
We are writing to express our very serious concerns about the webinar entitled ‘Taking the trafficking out of sex work’ that Freedom United hosted on 3 February. We fear it reveals a lack of understanding of the realities of the sex industry and of the relevant international human rights instruments.
When introducing the webinar, Ms Ewart-James said, “we are concerned with the degree of exploitation in this industry and that is why we firmly believe that the industry should have protections in place to prevent trafficking and exploitation and there are different ways of doing this and we aim to explore some of those today.”
But in fact, the webinar did not explore how to prevent trafficking and exploitation in the sex industry. With the exception of Esta Steyn, the speakers almost appeared to be in denial about the very existence of human trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation and the vast amounts of money that can be made from it.
By way of example, a British man recently made £1.6 million in one year from the exploitation of the prostitution of women in his brothels, and as Tony Talbott put it, “You can sell a kilo of heroin once; you can sell a 13-year-old girl 20 times a night, 365 days a year.” Of course, this applies to vulnerable adult women as well as girls. Such huge profits are powerful incentives, especially when they come with few, if any, risks.
As an organization that claims to be dedicated to the eradication of human trafficking and ‘modern slavery,’ Freedom United should know that almost all pimping meets the internationally agreed definition of human trafficking, because pimping is, by definition, the exploitation of the prostitution of others and it invariably involves some form of coercion or abuse of the person’s vulnerability, if not more overt forms of force and deception.
And yet five of the speakers, with the explicit support of Ms Karmali, advocated for the full decriminalization of the sex trade, including of pimps and brothel keepers, and argued that prostitution should be considered a normal job and be brought under regular labour laws. This, they claimed, would make ‘sex workers’ safer and protect their human rights.
There was even a suggestion that human trafficking for sexual exploitation should not be separated from human trafficking for forced labour. But the Palermo Trafficking Protocol separates them precisely because sexual exploitation is not a form of regular labour and the harms are of a different nature.
SDG Goal 8 includes the aim of “decent work” for all. The ILO defines decent work as:
“Productive work for women and men in conditions of freedom, equity, security and human dignity. Decent work involves opportunities for productive work, delivers a fair income, guarantees equal opportunities and equal treatment for all, provides security in the workplace and protection for workers and their families, offers better prospects for personal development and social inclusion, and gives people the freedom to express their concerns, to organize and to participate in decisions that affect their lives.”
How can prostitution and other forms of sexual exploitation ever be compatible with this? Let’s cut through the euphemism and remind ourselves what prostitution really is. Harriet, one of the members of Nordic Model Now! explains it like this:
“People think prostitution is about having consensual sex for money. It’s not. Those men don’t want to pay for that. They paid me and then used me however they wanted. I was beaten with objects until I bled; spat at; anally raped; gang raped; passed around at sex parties like a toy, men slipping off their condoms; I was shouted at, threatened, choked, told to look like I enjoyed it or he’d take the money back. I was scared every single second.”
How is this productive work? Where is the human dignity? Where is the personal development? Where are the equal opportunities and equal treatment – when it is overwhelmingly men who are the buyers and women and children who are the bought?
Would you be able to tolerate this as your everyday working life? If not, why would you advocate this for anyone else?
Have you considered what happens to a society when it gives free rein to men to pay to bypass women’s consent? Because isn’t that what prostitution is about – men having unlimited sexual access to women who otherwise wouldn’t give them the time of day? Does that not brutalise everyone and implicitly define women as second class?
We do agree with the speakers on a number of points. For example: people involved in prostitution should be decriminalised and have their criminal records purged of offences related to their own prostitution; governments should invest in alleviating poverty and inequality; trafficking legislation should be clearly separated from immigration enforcement; far too many people are incarcerated in the prison system for non-violent crimes, particularly in the US but also here in the UK; and the police often target the most vulnerable, particularly people of colour and women and trans people involved in prostitution.
However, as Esta Steyn so eloquently explained, once pimping and brothel keeping are given free rein, the sex industry becomes a vast money laundering machine and the criminals who feed off the vulnerability of the women and children who have been sucked into the prostitution system become respectable business men. Women and children are bought and sold as commodities. All of this means that the human rights abuses become invisible to the general population and the scale is such that it is impossible for the police and other authorities to make a significant impact.
Evidence * from New Zealand suggests that it makes little difference whether the free rein is given through legalisation or decriminalisation as the broad impacts are much the same. You wouldn’t know that from listening to the webinar because the speakers rely on lobby groups who misrepresent the impact of the law in New Zealand and what it has achieved. The fact that New Zealand is a small and isolated island nation means that the results are less obvious than in Germany and the Netherlands.
While the Nordic Model may not be perfectly implemented in most of the countries in which it has been legislated, it does offer the best hope for bringing about change and working towards an end to the heinous and misogynistic system of prostitution, while honouring the human rights of those who are caught up in it and providing routes out and genuine alternatives to those who want them.
It was perplexing to hear the Nordic Model and Dame Diana Johnson’s Sexual Exploitation Bill so severely misrepresented by your speakers. It was particularly troubling to hear Nadia Whittome, Labour MP for Nottingham East, suggest that the Bill would criminalise National Ugly Mugs. This is scaremongering because the Bill seeks only to criminalise those who enable and profit from another person’s prostitution, and not those, like National Ugly Mugs, who provide genuine support services to those in prostitution.
Nordic Model Now! has worked to provide a detailed critique of many of the things that Nadia Whittome and others claimed in your webinar and we urge you to take the time to study it. In particular we recommend the article, Dame Diana Johnson’s Sexual Exploitation Bill: The Debate (a copy of which is enclosed) and the recording of our webinar, ‘Prostitution policy: The Nordic Model or full decriminalization? What do sex trade survivors say?’
It is clear to us that Freedom United has taken a wrong turn on its position on the sex industry. As such a large and powerful institution, this is of very serious concern. However, there is no shame in admitting that we have made a mistake and seeking to rectify it. We urge Freedom United to have the courage and integrity to do so.
* Johnson, H; Pitt, T. (2020). Review of the Decriminalisation Model in New Zealand. SASE. Available at http://www.sase.org.uk/resources (Accessed: 5 Jan 2021).
- Nordic Model Now!
- ACTS Action of Churches Together in Scotland
- Alberta Radical Feminists
- Alberta Women’s Advocacy Association
- Anti Pornography and Prostitution Research Group
- Apne Aap
- Campaign Against Sex Robots
- CEASE UK (Centre to End All Sexual Exploitation)
- Coalition Against Trafficking in Women
- Coalition Against Trafficking in Women Australia
- Collective Shout
- Congregation of Our Lady of Charity of the Good Shepherd, Latin America and the Caribbean. It is important to bear in mind that prostitution is the last option for poor women without development opportunities, as well as to listen to the voices of survivors. Prostitution is a structural problem that pimps use to enrich themselves through the suffering of women and the attack on their freedom and dignity.
- Corner Space
- Cornerstone Dignity
- Counselling Services Manchester
- Culture Reframed
- Democracy Development Center
- Canadian Women’s Declaration
- Edmonton Small Press Association
- Edmonton Women & Allies Against the Sex Industry (EWAASI)
- Embrace Dignity
- End Demand Switzerland
- End the War on Women Collective. Prostituted women need positive options to escape this form of violence that ranges from sexual exploitation to torture.
- Episcopal Diocese of New York Task Force Against Human Trafficking
- European Network of Migrant Women
- Exodus Cry. We must reject the term “sex work” and the false and misleading premise it presupposes. All prostitution sex operates on the basis of a lack of desire. Therefore, payment takes place. Sex and desire are inextricably linked, and sex without desire is violation, regardless if someone is getting paid. Stop supporting paid sexual abuse!
- Feminist Observatory of Violence against Women (Belgium)
- Feministische Partei DIE FRAUEN KMV Frankfurt
- For Women Scotland
- Greater Manchester Doulas CIC
- Guided Purposes
- Insights for Action
- INSPIRE VAWDASV Training & Consultancy
- Lesbian Strength
- LIb Dem Grassroots challenge
- Libres Mariannes
- Louisiana for the Equality Model
- LYNN’S WARRIORS
- Malta Women’s Lobby (MWL)
- Manchester Feminist Network
- MCAP – the Maryland Coalition Against Pornography
- Netzwerk Ella
- Nordic Model Information Network
- Northern RadFem Network
- Not Buying It
- Not for Sale in Scotland
- Older Feminist Network
- People Serving Girls At Risk (Malawi)
- Prostitution Research & Education
- Purple Hearts Missions Possible & Healthy Horizons
- RadFem Collective
- Radical Feminist Alliance. Prostitution is not a job. The inside of a woman’s body is not a workplace.
- Resist Porn Culture
- Ride For Murdered Women
- Rooms of our Own
- SAFE Network
- Scary Little Girls CIC
- Sex Trafficking Think Tank. Remove the phrase, “sex work” out of the sex industry. Prostitution is all intrinsically trafficking and rape-for-pay. You can’t take the rape-for-pay and trafficking out of prostitution whether it is legal or not, whether or not one removes the word “trafficking” or adds the false phrase, “sex work”, or ignore the huge amount of racism / classism, intrinsic in it. It is all bigotry on steroids.
- Shine A Light Network
- Sierra Cares Foundation
- SISTERS – für den Ausstieg aus der Prostitution! e.V.
- Survivors for Solutions
- Swansea Feminist Network
- The Avery Center for Research and Services
- The Judith Trust
- The Organization for Prostitution Survivors
- TRAC (Trafficking, Raising Awareness and Campaigning)
- Traffick Refuge
- Vera Media
- Wahine Toa Rising
- Wise Women
- Woman 2 Woman Counselling and Consultancy
- Womanchester (Manchester, UK). Feminists are often asked whether pornography causes rape. The fact is that rape and prostitution caused and continue to cause pornography. Politically, culturally, socially, sexually, and economically, rape and prostitution generate pornography; and pornography depends for its continued existence on the rape and prostitution of women.
- Women’s Equality Party Sex-Based Rights Caucus. Women and girls deserve meaningful help and support to exit prostitution safely. We believe decriminalisation for buyers can only serve to legitimise violence against women and the perception of a right to women’s bodies. This is why we (and the Women’s Equality Party as a whole) support the Nordic Model. We are appalled that Freedom United presented such a one-sided view of this crucial issue. We hope that this will be rectified urgently.
- World Without Exploitation
- You My Sister. We support survivors of the porn / sex industries – most of whom were trafficked and none of whom would, in their worst nightmares, want to see the sex trade opened up and pimps legitimised. At the very least, there needs to be balanced, fair discussion and only stringently factual information given over this. Furthermore, surely survivors should be the key demographic you engage with/represent?
And 525 individuals. Download a PDF copy of the letter to see the full list of names and their comments.
About seven hours after we sent the open letter to Freedom United, we received a reply from Joanna Ewart-James, the executive director, attaching Freedom United’s response.
Unsurprisingly given the speed of the response, it appears that they didn’t take time to seriously reflect on the letter and the many moving comments that signatories left – or on the accompanying article that we sent.
In fact, we suspect they never even read the article, because in their response they quoted UNAIDS, Amnesty International and the Queens University Belfast study into the results of the Nordic Model legislation in Northern Ireland, all of which we mentioned in the article.
UNAIDS and Amnesty International were advised by pimps, and the Nordic Model approach has not been properly enforced or implemented in Northern Ireland and the research used questionable and unreliable methodology. But all of this evidence of malpractice and human rights scandal appears to be of no consequence to Freedom United. As does the distress of the survivors.