Anti-slavery laws don't help many sex workers, and may end up harming them


Some people blame sex slavery, or trafficking, driven by pimps for keeping young girls in prostitution. Young girls are drawn in and brutalised by pimps, the conventional wisdom goes, and tackling this is the best way to reduce the number of girls trapped in prostitution. The Modern Slavery Bill in the UK is motivated by this kind of assumption. A new study of underaged sex workers in New York City and Atlantic City seems to suggest that this is actually very rare. Using the largest data set ever gathered in this kind of work in the US, researchers surveyed pimps and sex workers to find out how common pimping was. Figures 1 and 2 below show how few underaged girls are introduced to sex work by pimps and how few actually have pimps on an ongoing basis:

In fact, poverty and lack of access to work, housing or education seem to be what keep girls in prostitution:

None of this tells us that anti-slavery legislation is bad, but it does seem to miss the point somewhat. However, one fact cited by the authors does mean we should think twice about anti-slavery laws: only 2 percent of underaged sex workers said that they would go to a 'service organisation' if they were in trouble, because 'the anti-trafficking discourses and practices they would encounter in these organizations threaten to criminalize their adult support networks, imprison friends and loved ones, prevent them from earning a living, and return them to the dependencies of childhood.'

If only a small number of sex workers count as being trafficked, and anti-trafficking laws alienate others from the services set up to protect them, then anti-slavery legislation may end up having very perverse consequences indeed.