Who will remember the sex trafficking victims?

Today (Friday 30 July 2021) is United Nations Day Against Trafficking in Persons. This year’s theme is listening to the victims and learning from them. But how can we do this if we don’t see them?

It has long been recognised that trafficking for the purpose of the exploitation of the victim’s prostitution (sex trafficking) is the most common form of human trafficking and that the vast majority of its victims are female. This is down to the vast profits that can be made selling women and girls in prostitution.

By way of example, a British man recently made £1.6 million in one year from the prostitution of women in his brothels. 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.”

Such profits are powerful incentives, especially when they come with few risks. Human trafficking for forced labour on a farm, for example, is seldom going to elicit such eye-watering profits. Both forms of trafficking are appalling but being used and abused sexually by multiple men a day is a different order of violation and causes a different order of harm.

This understanding underpins the international definition of trafficking set out in the UN treaty known as the Palermo Protocol. This was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2000 and was ratified six years later by the then Labour Government. On ratification it became legally binding to implement its terms. But shamefully, successive UK governments have taken little notice of such trivia as complying with international law, especially when it mainly affects women and girls and other vulnerable groups.

The definition, which grassroots feminist campaigners fought hard for, is beautifully crafted. It centres the ongoing exploitation of victims, not whether they’ve been transported from place to place, and clearly separates sex and labour trafficking. This enshrines in international law the understanding that prostitution is not normal work.

The definition also includes the notion of abuse of power or a position of vulnerability – which implicitly recognises trafficking as an issue of sex, race, caste, nationality and poverty, and covers situations where someone has no viable alternative but to submit to the abuse.

Catharine MacKinnon, the feminist legal scholar, boiled the essence of the definition of sex trafficking down to any third-party involvement in a person’s prostitution – or to cut to the chase, “straight-up pimping”.

She also said that although nobody defends human trafficking, many people try to redefine the term so it doesn’t cover anything they personally want maintained.

When you consider the monstrous profits that third parties can make from women’s prostitution and the role that prostitution plays in shoring up men’s egos and the patriarchal and capitalist systems, it’s not hard to figure out what some people might want to remove from the scope of the trafficking definition.

And indeed, such people were out in force lobbying the coalition government when it was drawing up the Modern Slavery Act 2015 (the Act), which now contains the trafficking legislation for England and Wales. Ultimately, they were successful because forced labour on a farm (for example) is defined as a crime and a form of ‘modern slavery’ but pimping women in prostitution is not. Even though, as we’ve seen, pimping nearly always meets the international definition of human trafficking, and prostitution is recognised to be incompatible with human rights – unlike farming.

The Act makes ‘travel’ the central feature of human trafficking. This not only frames human trafficking incorrectly as an immigration issue, but also reduces to a side issue the exploitation part of the international definition – which in the case of sex trafficking is typically the ongoing pimping of women and children.

It is possible to prosecute sex trafficking as ‘forced labour’ but only by positioning prostitution as labour, which was, no doubt, always the intention of that powerful lobby that seeks to open up the sex trade and unleash its dizzying profits.

This has profound implications for how society understands prostitution and how the criminal justice system deals with it. In practice it means that the police think of human traffickers mainly in terms of foreign gangs and this is who they focus their enforcement efforts on.

And so, the large numbers of British born men who pimp out their wives and girlfriends and other vulnerable girls and young women as a personal meal ticket are not recognized as human traffickers and have pretty much total impunity. And the women and girls they pimp are not recognized as victims and get little or no help – and worse, are typically blamed for their situation, which is (mis)understood as a ‘choice’.

It’s not surprising therefore that the latest figures show that since the implementation of the Act, there has been a sea change in who is recognised as a victim. Before the Act, significantly more female trafficking victims were identified through the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) than male victims. Now that’s reversed – as the following chart reveals. It shows the data for the 10 years to 2018 (the last year for which data is available).

In 2018, 4,257 men and boys were recognised, but only 2,724 women and girls. This is not because of changing criminal trends as some people claim, but because the vast majority victims of sex trafficking are simply not recognised as such and neither are their traffickers.

There has been policy capture of the Home Office and the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) by the ‘sex work is normal work’ brigade and both now refer to prostitution as “sex work” – even when referring to a child trafficking victim. This sanitises the reality and obscures the need for the robust preventative action required by Article 9 of the Palermo Protocol.

I will leave the last word to Megan, who is a member of Nordic Model Now! Under international law, she was sex trafficked but was never recognised as such and nor was her trafficker. He served a derisory jail sentence for “causing or inciting prostitution for gain”.

This is how she responded to the question: “Is sex work real work?”

“If ‘real work’ is having a 70-year-old drunk man bargaining with your ‘price’ because you won’t continue without a condom… that man getting aggressive and asking for his money back… if work is being forced to give up 50-100% of your income to a pimp… if work is being forced to have sex with men on the run from the police for domestic abuse… if work is being filmed without your consent… if work is being slapped/beaten/told you are a worthless whore… Then yes it’s work.”

This article was also published in the Morning Star.


Readers who are concerned about the normalisation of prostitution and where it leads, may like to sign our petition calling on the University of Leicester to scrap its student sex work toolkit, which is likely to result in many more vulnerable young women being drawn into the sex industry.

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