International Relations/Political Science
07 April 2020

Enhancing the protection of sex workers

Which mechanisms are most effective to protect sex workers from violence and exploitation without increasing stigma? Dr Mira Fey investigated the question in her PhD thesis through different methodologies and theoretical perspectives. Decriminalising prostitution is an essential part of the answer, as she explains in this interview.

Why did you choose to study the protection of sex workers?

I have been interested in the relations between the state and marginal populations for years. Prostitution policy re-emerged politically as a particularly contentious topic at the end of the 1990s. A number of states have since then adopted a policy known as the Swedish/Nordic model or the end demand approach that criminalises clients, but, allegedly, not sex workers, with the proclaimed goal of “abolishing prostitution and ending the sexual exploitation of women”. Research findings, however, indicate that instead of protecting people involved in selling sexual services, the model further stigmatises and marginalises them. Related qualitative research on the negative effects of the Swedish and other related prostitution laws inspired me to investigate which policy might be better suited to provide protection from violence without increasing stigma. More precisely, the overall question guiding my dissertation was: Which mechanisms are most effective to protect marginal populations – here sex workers – from violence and exploitation?

How did you proceed, methodologically speaking?

Throughout my research, I applied constructivist grounded theory, which means going back and forth between the field, theory, and analysis in an iterative process. This combination of long-term qualitative fieldwork, theoretical analysis, and computational modelling allowed me to shift between the macrolevel (the global emergence of the antitrafficking norm), the mesolevel (domestic prostitution policymaking), and the microlevel (the effects norms and policy have on the daily interactions between sex workers and police officers). 

What are your major findings?

In order to best protect marginal populations from violence and exploitation, it is important to listen to and include these directly in the making of related policy. In countries where this was done (New Zealand), integrative sex work policy has led to a decrease of stigma, improved relations between sex workers and police, and increased safety. My fieldwork shows that in Geneva, trust between sex workers and police – necessary for sex workers to report violence – is largely created outside of its restrictive prostitution law that focuses largely on repressive policing strategies. 

Unfortunately, domestic regulations and international conventions aimed at consolidating norms against trafficking are more often than not focused on migration control and law enforcement strategies to arrest traffickers instead of spelling out practices to effectively protect those most vulnerable to labour exploitation. From the late 1800s until today, trafficking as defined by related conventions evolved from the movement of women and girls for immoral purposes across state borders (regardless of their consent) to the more universalist definition included in the 2000 antitrafficking convention. Here, trafficking is – largely – understood in gender-neutral terms with regard to victim and perpetrator; instead, the means and the purposes are the important aspects the legal text focuses on. However, this rephrasing was only partially translated into a change in states’ antitrafficking efforts – the majority is still targeted at identifying women and girls engaged in the sex industry, often regardless of their consent. While the UN antitrafficking protocol does not include any enforcement mechanism, the US unilaterally uses its yearly Trafficking in Persons report to force lower-ranked states to adopt antitrafficking measures in line with the US interpretation of the act or threatens to cut aid to those countries. As a result, (female) sex workers are targeted by antitrafficking raids while victims of trafficking for forced labour or organ harvesting often do not receive adequate protection – especially if they are male.

These findings also provide insights into the study of international norms between change and continuity over time – while the antitrafficking norm became broader from its first institutionalisation in 1904 until its most recent iteration in the ambiguously formulated 2000 convention, its application by law enforcement today is lagging behind and public attitudes toward trafficking are still focused on female victims of sexual exploitation. This highlights that ambiguity can be used strategically by states such as the US to push for a specific understanding of the norm without risking contestation from other powerful states as these can implement the parts of the norm that fit their own agendas. Nevertheless, the lack of clarity also leaves room for contestation from grassroots organisations against the limited interpretation of the antitrafficking norm as, largely, sex trafficking. Sex- and migrant-worker-rights activists alike today slowly shift the understanding of best practices with regard to protection in international bodies such as the WHO and the IOM. We can only hope that these insights will soon be applied domestically, too.

What could be the policy implications of your essays?

Sex work policy aimed at protecting those involved in selling sexual services – whether voluntarily or coerced – best achieves this goal by (a) decriminalising both sellers and buyers of sex, (b) implementing measures to actively decrease stigma, and (c) increasing trust in police by creating friendly relations. Moreover, immigration policies that include visas for (1) sex work as legitimate work and (2) the protection of trafficking victims are essential aspects that enable sex workers and trafficking victims alike to report violence or other crimes without fear of stigma or deportation. These are aspects essential for creating humane conditions for migrant workers in today’s interconnected global labour market. 

What are you doing now?

Currently, I work as an early postdoc at Haute école de travail social de Genève in an SNSF project on Swiss health care where I carry out a trilingual nation-wide survey on cantonal dementia policies. I also teach a seminar on gender and policy within the BA Social Work at the Cologne University of Applied Science. I am working on securing funding for a new research project partly linked to my dissertation research that will investigate activist strategies toward the decriminalisation of vice – activities traditionally considered deviant. While I want to focus predominantly on the decriminalisation of sex work, it would be interesting to compare this to earlier successful policy changes on LGBT issues, reproduction, and drug and alcohol.

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Listen also to a related podcast with Mira:

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Mira Fey defended her PhD thesis in International Relations/Political Science in November 2019. Professor Elisabeth Prügl presided the committee, which included Professor David Sylvan, thesis director, and Professor Beth Simmons from the Political Science Department of the University of Pennsylvania, USA.

Full citation of the PhD thesis:
Fey, Mira. “Serve and Protect: Also Those at the Margins? Three Essays on Police, Prostitution, and Policy.” PhD thesis, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, 2020.

Good to know: members of the Graduate Institute can download Dr Fey’s PhD thesis via this page of the Institute’s repository.

Interview by Nathalie Tanner, Research Office.
Banner picture: excerpt from an image by u3d/