The SEXHUM project (ERC Consolidator Grant 2015 – 682451) studied the relation between migration, sex work and trafficking in the global sex industry by analysing migrant’s own understandings and experiences of agency and exploitation.

Its main aim was to produce new concepts and data needed to develop innovative theorisations of migrant agency and more efficient and ethical policies concerning migrants working in the sex industry and migration governance more generally.

The project addressed critically the ways in which the humanitarian fight against trafficking in the sex industry often becomes involved in the enforcement of increasingly restrictive migration laws and controls, which often exacerbate sex workers’ vulnerability to being exploited and trafficked.

SEXHUM met its main aims through the following objectives:

  • gather consistent qualitative data on a stigmatized and under-researched group, migrants working in the sex industry, including sexual minority migrants;
  • develop an innovative conceptual and social intervention framework to address the interplay between migration, sex work, exploitation and trafficking;
  • impact on existing social interventions addressing sex work, trafficking and asylum by mapping relevant policy regimes in each setting and by producing and disseminating policy recommendations;
  • produce a definition and indicators of what constitutes exploitation in the global sex industry that is informed by the experiences and understandings of migrant sex workers;
  • propose an innovative ethical framework to study vulnerable populations and disseminate findings including film-making as a form of participative methodology and expression.

SEXHUM adopted a Participatory Action Research approach by actively collaborating with sex workers grass roots organisations and activists in the identification of research priorities, questions and solutions to the specific issues faced by the sex work community in each country and globally.

The project studied the impact of sexual humanitarianism across eight strategic urban settings in France (Marseille and Paris), the US (New York and Los Angeles), Australia (Melbourne and Sydney) and New Zealand (Auckland and Wellington) that are characterized by different policies on migration, sex work (criminalisation, regulation, de-criminalisation) and trafficking.

In order to meet its aims and objectives the project hired 6 postdoctoral researchers for 36 months to undertake fieldwork in each of the 4 national settings of the project. Each of the postdoctoral researchers undertook a period of intensive (at least 18 months) immersion and social interaction with the research participants in their environment.

Migrant sex worker peer researchers and activists joined the SEXHUM research team in the gathering and analysis of interviews and in the co-authoring of articles elaborating on their findings.

SEXHUM adopted an interdisciplinary approach bringing together anthropology, sociology, gender studies, human geography and visual anthropology. Its innovative methodology combines ethnographic observations, semi-structured interviewing and participative filmmaking (ethnofiction) to analyse the individual, social and intersubjective dimensions through which sex workers’ understandings of agency and exploitation evolve along the migration experience.

The research also produced needed user-based data on the efficiency of current anti-trafficking initiatives, which will impact on policymaking through a targeted dissemination plan including the organisation of targeted workshops, film screenings and conferences.

SEXHUM had a duration of 4 years (2016-2020). It started on 1 October 2016 and was based at Kingston University London and Aix-Marseille University, which was co-beneficiary of the project in relation to the French research setting.

The project’s PI is Prof Nicola Mai (