Debates over the legitimacy and legality of prostitution have characterized human trafficking discourse for the last two decades. This article identifies the extent to which competing perspectives concerning the legitimacy of prostitution have influenced anti-trafficking policy in Australia and the United States and argues that each nation-state’s approach to domestic sex work has influenced trafficking legislation. The legal status of prostitution in each country and feminist influences on prostitution law reform have had a significant impact on the nature of the legislation adopted.
This article examines the development, framing, and implementation of Proposition 35, the ‘Californians Against Sexual Exploitation Act.’ The 2012 ballot initiative, described variously as a measure against human slavery, human trafficking, and sex trafficking secured more votes than any other initiative or candidate in a single statewide election in California history. We argue that the measure exemplifies a disjuncture in the articulation of feminist politics against sexual violence, labor exploitation, and criticisms of the carceral state. The rise of the sex trafficker as a ‘spectral’ subject of contemporary political discourse shapes a broader ideological framework that permits a distinct set of political actors and interests to widen their institutional and political authority and to marginalize competing claims about the roots of sexual violence and labor exploitation. Proposition 35, which targets a ‘spectral’ figure abstracted from institutional context and relations of power, expands the carceral state in the name of protecting vulnerable women while also excluding long-standing feminist solutions to sex and gender-based violence.
As a sex worker support organisation, SWAN (Supporting Women’s Alternatives Network) Vancouver’s relationship to anti-trafficking funding remains ambivalent, particularly given the history of anti-trafficking measures that have jeopardised the rights of sex workers. In this article, we share how we, as a small grassroots group, attempt to work through these ambivalences in dialogue with donors. Although SWAN Vancouver works with women who are often perceived to be trafficked (i.e. Asian women in sex work), it is rare for members of SWAN Vancouver to come across any case in the sex-work sector that has the hallmarks of trafficking, such as coerced work. Instead, our anti-trafficking work has mainly involved identifying the harms and human rights violations caused by repressive or misguided anti-trafficking measures. We reflect on our dialogue with two Canadian funders (a federal government agency and a national public foundation) that have considerable resources and immense power to influence what anti-trafficking practices are implemented in Canada. We analyse how these two funders and their adoption of an anti-prostitution analysis of trafficking will likely result in punitive consequences for immigrant sex workers, and therefore increase the need to assist women who have been anti-trafficked rather than trafficked.