Bringing Light to the Darkness of Human Trafficking (Trafficking in Persons)

'Sex work is consensual. Human trafficking is not,' one advocate says

sex trafficking
Conflating sex work and sex trafficking puts sex workers at risk, some advocates say. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Some London advocates for sex workers say it's dangerous to put sex work in the same category as human trafficking.

But that's what they say is often happening, especially with a recent focus on human sex trafficking in the London region.

"Sex work is consensual. Human trafficking is not. When you conflate the two, and you label all sex workers as victims of human trafficking, it totally takes away from the folks who are being trafficked," said Julia Baumann, the founder and co-ordinator of Safe Space, a drop-in centre for London's sex workers.

"Sex workers are women, men, and non-binary folks who are engaging in consensual acts, whether it's porn or cam work, dancing or massage or escorting. Human trafficking is people being forced into doing things non-consensually."

Police investigations that focus on sex workers as a way to find victims of human trafficking force the two issues to mix in people's minds, and lead to the sex industry going further underground, Baumann said.

So do presentations where no distinction is made between the two, she said.

Baumann said that happened at a symposium this past week. The public event was organized to inform people, particularly parents, about how to spot human trafficking.

Two of the most common tools used by human trafficking officers are John stings and vice probes.

When doing a John sting, officers pose as a sex worker and charge those who attempt to buy sexual services. When conducting vice probes, officers answer sex workers' ads and ask if the worker needs help or is being trafficked.

Both put sex workers in jeopardy, Baumann said.

"If you're trying to find someone who is being trafficked, posing as a sex worker is only criminalizing the people who are trying to find sexual services for sale," she said. "And when you're talking to a sex worker, that's time that they could be working and making money."

Both issues are something officers are aware of, said Det. David Ellyatt, head of the London police human trafficking unit.

"We have to understand there are women who want to do this and they have the right to do so. And that's not what we are investigating," he said.

Officers who encounter sex workers try to be quick, offering safety tips and other resources, Ellyatt said.

"There is a lot of attention to human trafficking right now, and we do have to differentiate between people who choose to do this work and someone who is being trafficked."

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