Global Key Findings

SEXHUM: Sexual Humanitarianism, Migration, Sex Work and Trafficking is a European Research Council funded international research project led by Prof Nicola Mai and based at Kingston University, UK and at Aix-Marseille University, France. 

At its core is the concept of ‘sexual humanitarianism’ referring to the ways in which migrant groups become the object of concerns and intervention on the part of humanitarian institutions, representations and (neo-abolitionist) NGOs on the basis of their presumed social vulnerability in relation to their sexual orientation and behaviour (Mai 2018).

SEXHUM findings deepen and develop an understanding of agency, trafficking and exploitation starting from the lived experiences of migrant sex workers and people with trafficking experiences. To do so, SEXHUM compared and analysed migrants’ experiences of exploitation and trafficking in the global sex industry. 

So far, the project gathered 216 semi structured interviews across all of its four national settings, including the experiences of a variety of people working in the sex industry, in terms of their ethnicity, area of work, migration, sex-gender identity, class and race. 

The project purposely oversampled racialised participants across its settings reflecting the ways in which they are disproportionately targeted by anti-trafficking and migration and law enforcement authorities. A small sample of white, national sex workers were also interviewed for comparison purposes. 

Around 20 key informant interviews with major stakeholders, NGO’s and government bodies also took place in each setting. 

In addition, SEXHUM undertaking extra interviews documenting the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the lives of migrant sex workers in all of the four national settings of SEXHUM.

Migrant sex workers were asked about their own understanding and experiences of work, migration, trafficking and exploitation, while key informants were asked about their work experience in the field of sex work and anti-trafficking policy, legal assistance and service provision, and the major challenges they encountered. 

Having access to such variety is a great achievement of the project, which was able to analyse strategically different experiences of agency and exploitation in relation to sex work and to the impact of anti-trafficking and other humanitarian and social interventions on (migrant) sex workers’ lives and rights.

Having access to such variety is a great achievement of the project, which was able to analyse strategically different experiences of agency and exploitation in relation to sex work and to the impact of anti-trafficking and other humanitarian and social interventions on (migrant) sex workers’ lives and rights.

The overall research data and analyses of the project produced the following findings:

  • Sex work does not coincide with sexual exploitation and trafficking and is an important livelihood for migrants, particular when they are undocumented, marginalised and stigmatised away from mainstream labour.
  • Most of our research participants saw sex work as work. They understood and experienced exploitation in the sex industry in terms of labour (working conditions) rather than sexual exploitation. 
  • Humanitarian concerns and interventions on sex work tend to legitimise increasingly repressive, racialised and extreme forms of migration control. 
  • Racialised concerns tend to focus on target migrant populations such as Asian cis women while neglecting the vulnerabilities of other migrant groups, such as trans Latina women.
  • There is a proportional relationship between the degree of racialisation of migrant groups and their subjection to sexual humanitarian concerns, controls and bordering.
  • Migrant agency and exploitation are embedded in collective experiences. In order to understand and address them it is necessary to transcend the individual dimension and support both individuals and their communities.

More specific country-relevant findings are available in the relative SEXHUM countries pages.