EADI ISS Conference 2021 | Risk dumping in field research: some researchers are safer than others

EADI ISS Conference 2021 | Risk dumping in field research: some researchers are safer than others

Researchers who conduct their fieldwork in unfamiliar or hazardous settings are routinely exposed to risks that can bring them harm if these are not anticipated and circumvented. Often, junior PhDs ...

Human Trafficking | Overregulated, but unprotected? Human trafficking governance is not protecting sex workers in the Netherlands

Human Trafficking | Overregulated, but unprotected? Human trafficking governance is not protecting sex workers in the Netherlands

Furthering the discussion on the negative consequences for sex workers of the regulatory conflation of sex work and human trafficking, this post reflects on how regulation focused on identifying cases ...

Human Trafficking | The criminalisation of sex clients will not help combat human trafficking

Starting in 2014, World Day Against Trafficking in Persons has been held on 30 July each year. The events that correspond to these days are meant to raise awareness about the crime of human trafficking and the protection of the rights of trafficked persons. In the month of September, we are publishing a series on critical engagements with interventions to combat human trafficking. The series opens with Marie-Louise Janssen’s and Silke Heumann’s critical discussion of a new law that seeks to protect victims of human trafficking in the sex industry of the Netherlands, but is unlikely to do so.

The [Dutch] Senate recently passed the Criminalization of Abuse of Prostitutes Who Are Victims of Human Trafficking Act. The bill, submitted by the Christian Union, PvdA, SP and CDA – four prominent political parties in the Netherlands – creates the possibility to punish clients of sex workers when they are found to have known, or to have had “serious reason to suspect”, that someone has been forced into prostitution and is therefore a victim of human trafficking. Those clients can be fined or imprisoned for up to four years.

However, both experiences of sex workers and scientific research on human trafficking show that any form of criminalisation of clients does not prevent human trafficking, but actually increases the vulnerability of sex workers to coercion and violence. Therefore, this law raises many questions.

First, when is someone a victim? Often, ‘unlicensed’ sex workers are equated with victims of exploitation and trafficking. But the increase in the group of sex workers working outside the licensed circuit (popularly called ‘illegal’) is mainly caused by policy – a policy that leads to fewer and fewer licensed workplaces combined with a ban on self-employment.

Secondly, when does legal sex turn into ‘punishable’ sex? If we take the signals of human trafficking used by the police as a guideline, such as illegal residence in the Netherlands and having high debts, quite a few people fall under this category. Does this mean that having sex with a sex worker who has debts or not the right papers is already a crime? And should the sex worker also see herself as a victim? We know from research that only a small proportion of people who are considered victims of trafficking by the government see themselves as such.

Unclear definitions

So while the government comes up with unclear definitions of victimisation, customers are expected to recognise a victim and report it to the police. As a result, customers are now at risk of being criminalised because they “could have suspected” it. Not surprisingly, a recent study shows that customers are less willing to report exploitation or coercion for fear of criminal prosecution.

Third, why does criminalisation apply only to addressing abuse of trafficking victims in the sex industry, and not to victims in other economic sectors? This only contributes to the perception that sex work and human trafficking are the same thing, and thus to the stigma attached to sex work. It seems that this law has little to do with countering violence and abuse, but much more to do with the taboo on paid sex.

In the Netherlands, sex work has been a legal employment sector since 2000. Despite this, we have difficulty with the idea of sexual services. For example, clients are often portrayed as ‘certain kind of men’ who despise women and treat or exploit sex workers violently. Oversimplification is one of the main ways of creating and perpetuating the stereotypes that form the basis for stigmatising clients.

This act stems from the taboo of paid sex

However, in addition to the market for male clients, there is also a growing market in the Netherlands for services to female clients. Business manager Lex of De Stoute Vrouw had to temporarily close her business due to the lockdown, but she is still in daily contact with female homosexual and heterosexual clients who cannot wait to reopen. Eight out of ten of her clients have gone through an unpleasant experience regarding sexuality and find their sexual pleasure again through contact with a female sex worker.

Heteronormative picture

Sex work challenges our idea of how sex should be: based on love and a permanent relationship. But not everyone finds this romantic ideal attainable or desirable, and not everyone fits into this heteronormative picture of a heterosexual couple in a long-term, monogamous relationship. The sex industry meets a need by creating a place where men, women, transgender and non-binary people can meet to explore their bodies and sexuality.


This article was earlier published in the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad.

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the authors:

Marie-Louise Janssen is senior lecturer in gender and sexuality studies (UVA).

Silke Heumann is senior lecturer at ISS/EUR.

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EADI ISS Conference 2021 | Questioning development: What lies ahead?

EADI ISS Conference 2021 | Questioning development: What lies ahead?

Development Studies requires “an epistemological and ontological change”, write Elisabetta Basile and Isa Baud in the introduction to the recent EADI volume ‘Building Development Studies for a New Millennium’. The ...

EADI ISS Conference 2021 | For the redistribution of water, framing matters!

EADI ISS Conference 2021 | For the redistribution of water, framing matters!

In the face of increasing pressure on global water resources, a degree of inventiveness in finding just and sustainable ways to ensure access to water is required. The redistribution of ...

Can a global ‘vaccine citizenship’ help us move toward an inclusive pandemic-free space?

The dire shortage of COVID-19 vaccines across low- and middle-income countries is a strong indicator of global health injustice in recent times. Vaccine hoarding by affluent countries, for example the USA or Canada, is causing vaccine apartheid, and global policy responses thus far fall short in failing to save the world from this catastrophic moral failure. While the political and economic relationship of vaccine production and distribution is dominating the discussion, it’s the socio-cultural dynamics of the COVID-19 vaccine that put global governance in a fix.

Martin Sanchez (Unsplash)

The absence of a standardised treatment protocol and the current impossibility of eradicating the COVID-19 virus projects the COVID-19 vaccine as a new hope, not only for preventing infection, but also for restoring the sense of physical  and mental wellbeing that was eroded when lockdowns were imposed and then extended worldwide. For society at large, vaccines promise a return to a free social, economic, and political life – the ‘old normal’. Thus, the vaccine represents a new type of ‘cure’ – one that would ‘fix’ all the pandemic-induced abnormalities in our daily lives.

This new ‘culture of cure’ has a profound impact on policy making at the national level. Ever since the search for a possible vaccine started in earnest last year, several vaccines have been developed, of which some are showing potential. But the vaccines are now being viewed and used politically as social medicines to ‘cure’ ‘pandemic ills’ that are largely linked to a life under lockdown. The vaccine when viewed as a social medicine creates a sense of confidence of being able to both prevent infection and also ‘unlock’ society that has been ‘imprisoned’ by pandemic-imposed restrictions. Therefore, in the policy-making process, a vaccine moves from being a preventive medicine to being a social medicine.

Vaccine nationalism and a return to sovereignty?

National leaders have taken this transformation as an opportunity to re-establish the eroded social contract in their jurisdictions. For political leaders, the large-scale vaccination of citizens signals a pathway toward combating pandemic-induced discontent. Vaccine nationalism, in which countries compete in arranging vaccines for its citizens, has become a way, especially for affluent countries, to ensure that citizens regain trust in governments. However, this competitive nationalism over the vaccine has been creating an abysmal shortage of vaccines in many other low- and middle-income countries.

The resulting vaccine inequity scripts the failure of global health governance in two distinct ways. First, it prevents nations from establishing a global coordination framework for the equitable distribution of vaccines. This is evident in the case of COVAX. Second, it fails to govern the market at the time of emergency to safeguard the interests of the people. The reluctance of a few pharmaceutical companies to share knowledge on vaccines with manufacturers, also those in developing countries, is a case in point. This means that the majority of vaccines are being developed and used in the Global North.

While vaccine nationalism has indeed had many ramifications when it comes to global ‘vaccine equity’, most of them negative, these two failures have created a new form of global mobilisation. This may only overtly appear as an alliance of  less advanced countries pushing for a waiver of an agreement called TRIPS that currently upholds COVID-19 vaccine patents. The suspension of the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) signed by World Trade Organisation members would help make the products and technologies needed to fight COVID-19 more freely available during the course of pandemic.

More importantly, the collective demand for the TRIPS waiver is also a new treaty-in-making that questions the role of knowledge in vaccine production and capital formation. This is a culture of counterpolitics in international relations that opposes the primacy of knowledge protection as an intangible asset over human lives.

Opposing vaccine inequity

Interestingly, this politics is not driven by national leaders as in the case of vaccine nationalism, but by the people themselves. Beyond the politics of a TRIPS waiver, there is a politics of breaking a knowledge monopoly that is instrumental in ideating a socially shared space of a pandemic-free territory. This imagined territory is for vaccinated people only. So those deprived of vaccines across the world have reasonably claimed that patented knowledge is a barrier in the ‘access to vaccine’ and thus ‘access to a pandemic-free territory’. This irrefutably triggers the current global outcry against ‘Big Pharmas’ and has been followed by domestic public actions. The Indian government for example had to halt vaccine exports despite diplomatic commitments to assuage the anger of people in the aftermath of second wave of the virus and a nationwide vaccine shortage.

But governments are also rallying to redress global vaccine inequity. Members of a bloc of some 62 countries (with India and South Africa driving it) are pursuing the sharing of vaccine-related knowledge. They are very well aware of the exclusiveness of pandemic-free territories in the current global order and are thus in the process of negotiating with international organisations and actors, especially the WTO, to be considered   ‘entitled’ to the knowledge needed to manufacture vaccines.

Vaccine citizenship

This politics of vaccine entitlement is globally producing a new social category of vaccine citizens. Unlike vaccine nationalism, vaccine citizenship is a global citizenship not linked to nationality, with members from all over the world that collectively seek to quash the virus and its related social and economic effects by working together. Vaccine citizens are seen to struggle against the global knowledge-capital nexus.

Hence, vaccine nationalism driven by states is dividing the world, while vaccine citizenship driven by the general public who seem to be desiring a more equitable and accessible pandemic-free space that is not confined to state borders may help redress global inequities that have emerged alongside the COVID-19 pandemic. Only time will tell what the long-term effects of this people’s alliance will be in the global distribution of the vaccine. It might permanently change the global order. And rightly so!

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question

About the author:

Amitabha Sarkar holds a Ph.D. in Health from the Centre of Social Medicine and Community Health, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). He is a scholar of international development of health politics and is currently associated with the Transnational Institute (TNI).

Are you looking for more content about Global Development and Social Justice? Subscribe to Bliss, the official blog of the International Institute of Social Studies, and stay updated about interesting topics our researchers are working on.