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. 

The project gathered 240 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 racialisation. 

The project followed rigorous ethical standards across the four sites. Informed consent was obtained from all research participants, whose safety and well being were paramount in relation to all aspects of the project.  Its methodological approach protected the identities of participants as the project did not gather real or work names nor did it gather any data potentially conducive to identification. The research questions and methodological approach of the project draw on extensive feedback from, and collaboration with, migrant sex workers in the context of SEXHUM and previous participatory research projects.

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. 

80 key informant interviews with major stakeholders, NGO’s and government bodies were also undertaken across the four national settings of the project. 

In addition, SEXHUM undertook 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.

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

  • Sex work is an important livelihood for many migrants, particularly for those who are undocumented, marginalised and stigmatised away from mainstream labour.
  • Most of our research participants understood their experiences of exploitation in the sex industry in terms of labour exploitation (working conditions) rather than sexual exploitation.
  • For most research participants working in the sex industry was a way to avoid being exploited in mainstream forms of labour, when they could access them.
  • Across all the four national settings of the project, humanitarian concerns and interventions on sex work tend to legitimise increasingly repressive, racialised and extreme forms of migration control.
  • There is a proportional relationship between the degree of racialisation of migrant groups and their subjection to sexual humanitarian concerns, controls and bordering.
  • 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 an inversely proportional relationship between the degree of criminalization faced by migrant sex workers (including people in trafficking situations) and their ability to access justice and assert their rights and lives. 
  • Most of our research participants understood and experienced their agency and exploitation as embedded in the collective realities of the social groups they belong to, rather than only in individual terms.
  • In order to address the social and economic vulnerabilities associated with sex work it is necessary to for all policies to follow the guidance of sex worker rights organizations and support not only individuals, but also the communities and peer organizations representing and helping them.

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

SEXHUM comparative publications across the four national settings:

Nicola Mai, P.G. Macioti, Calum Bennachie, Anne E. Fehrenbacher, Calogero Giametta, Heidi Hoefinger & Jennifer Musto (2021) Migration, sex work and trafficking: the racialized bordering politics of sexual humanitarianism, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 44:9, 1607-1628, DOI: 10.1080/01419870.2021.1892790