Summary Statement: Special Forum on Sex Work, Trafficking and Human Rights

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Summary Statement: Special Forum on Sex Work, Trafficking and Human Rights


With the participation of over a dozen prominent sex worker advocates, researchers and writers, we've had a very productive week! If you're into numbers, during the forum we had about 4,000 visits from nearly 3,500 unique visitors for a total of nearly 10,500 page views. While the forum officially ends today, the forum topics will remain on the site and active so we can continue the conversations as we like.

The forum addressed a range of topics from labor rights to immigration, and from variations in individual experiences in sex work to the way that consumers in the sex industry are understood. We think that the following are some of the most important points to emerge from the discussions:

  • Sex work must be destigmatized and ultimately decriminalized in order to protect sex workers, their clients, and their communities.
  • Negative attitudes toward sexual freedom itself are part of the problem and need to be addressed at the individual and cultural levels.
  • Sex work meets the economic needs of the people who perform it and meets social, sexual, educational, and emotional needs of those who consume it. The problems with sex work lie not in the work itself but in the cultural stigma surrounding it, and in the exploitive economic systems that sex work, along with most work, is performed.
  • There is a huge divergence between the reality of "human trafficking" and the portrayal of it by media and political figures. This divergence includes hugely inflated numbers based on studies with flawed methodology; an over-emphasis on "sex slavery" at the expense of more common labor exploitation, like manufacturing of consumer goods and domestic help; and a paternalistic view of sex workers and migrant workers in general as the "other."
  • U.S. anti-trafficking policies actually make it harder to find and help real victims because resources are diverted to antiprostitution efforts, which do not help the majority of real trafficking victims. Those efforts also interfere with public health projects in other countries by refusing USAID money to any group that does not actively work against prostitution.
  • Human trafficking needs to be understood in the context of international (and intra-national) labor migration patterns and in the context of global inequality. Much of what we call trafficking begins as voluntary migration from one economically depressed area to a less depressed area. Barriers to legal migration make those workers vulnerable to other human rights abuses.
  • Politicians and media personalities scapegoat sex workers and their clients in such a way as to direct attention away from larger social and economic problems like poverty, consumer culture, racism, sexism, and the growing gap between the wealthy and everybody else.
  • Sex workers are not a homogeneous group and they should not be treated as one.
  • Research that relies on poor methodology needs to be publicly criticized. Policy should be directed by reliable, valid research.
  • Academic researchers, activists, sex workers, and consumers need to talk to each other and listen to each other. And policy makers need to listen to all of them!

Moving forward:

This is an ongoing conversation and the participants in this forum will continue it in many other places with other groups of thinkers, writers and advocates. Such venues include:

  • Sex 2.0 a conference on feminism, sexuality and social media, April 12, 2008, Atlanta, GA

Sex in the Public Square will collect and organize resources including research on sex work and trafficking, lists of journalists who write responsibly on sex work and trafficking, and links to organizations advocating for sex worker rights and immigrant rights.


We are especially grateful to the participants:

  • Michael Goodyear is Assistant Professor of Medicine at Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia. A longtime advocate of sex worker rights he develops collaborative networks of practice and knowledge uniting researchers, sex workers and program providers.
  • Kerwin Kay has written about the history and present of male street prostitution, and about the politics of sex trafficking. He has been active in the sex workers rights movement for some 10 years. He also edited the anthology Male Lust: Pleasure, Power and Transformation (Haworth Press, 2000) and is finishing a Ph.D. in American Studies at NYU.
  • Anthony Kennerson blogs on race, class, gender, politics and culture at SmackDog Chronicles, and is a regular contributor to the Blog for Pro-Porn Activism.
  • Carol Leigh has been working as a prostitute, activist and an artist in the Bay Area for more than twenty years. She founded Bay Area Sex Workers Advocacy Network. Her writing and activist credits are too many to name here, but, in 2006 she received a prestigious grant from the Creative Work Fund for a media library project in collaboration with the Center for Sex and Culture, "Art, Advocacy and Identity,' utilizing a Pathfinder-based delivery system to compile 20 years of international sex worker history in various digital formats.
  • Antonia Levy co-chaired the international "Sex Work Matters: Beyond Divides" conference in 2006 and the 2nd Annual Feminist Pedagogy Conference in 2007. She teaches at Brooklyn College, Queens College, and is finishing her Ph.D. at the Graduate Center at CUNY.
  • Debbie Nathan is a New York based journalist and the author of Satan's Silence: Ritual Abuse and the Making of a Modern American Witch Hunt (Basic Books, 1996), and Pornography, a Groundwork Guide for high school and college students (Groundwood Books, 2007). Her blog is at
  • Audacia Ray is the author of Naked on the Internet: Hookups, Downloads and Cashing In On Internet Sexploration (Seal Press, 2007), and the writer/producer/director of The Bi Apple. She blogs at hosts and edits Live Girl Review and was longtime executive editor of$pread Magazine.
  • Ron Weitzer is Professor of Sociology at George Washington University. His research on the sex industry emphasizes American policies and law enforcement related to prostitution and sex trafficking.
  • Elizabeth Wood is co-founder of Sex In The Public Square, and Assistant Professor of Sociology at Nassau Community College. She has written about gender, power and interaction in strip clubs, about labor organization at the Lusty Lady Theater, and she blogs regularly about sex and society.


Special thanks go to the following for their very important behind-the-scenes contributions:

And of course we thank our readers. Whether you comment or not we are grateful for your presence in this community.