Tag Archives heteronormativity

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.

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.

Urban heteronormativity and the queer city in Brasília, Brazil by Juliana Grangeiro

Brazil leads the numbers when it comes to LGBTQ+ death rates. Stories of prejudice against LGBTQ+ persons dominate newspapers and social media daily. But what about Brazilians building local social spaces of resistance and joy? Looking at the urban context of Brasília for my MA research, I talked to its residents to discover how spaces for inclusivity and innovation enriching queer lives are created and experienced.

In a country where hate speech and homophobic/transphobic crimes are on the rise, queer lives are constantly threatened. Often, LGBTQ+ youth in cities find public space to be the liberating environment they are denied in their family’s house. But in 2017, every 19 hours one LGBTQ+ person died in Brazil, 56% of them in public spaces and 6% in privately owned establishments.

The right to walk about freely in the city, to gather, and to perform multiple genders and sexualities (according to Judith Butler’s concept of gender performativity) are often denied. But in the urban context of a highly planned city, Brasília, a segment of inhabitants are challenging the heterosexist tools of urban planning and the homophobic society.

Brasília: the reach for development

Designed and built during the 1950s, Brasília represents the country’s shift from agriculture to an industrial economy. Its modern architecture and planning were made to represent (economic) progress. Under this premise, an egalitarian city was built for an unequal society, producing dichotomies that are still deeply rooted. Poverty was made invisible through structured geography and anyone beyond the white middle-upper class spectrum was further marginalised.


Figure 1 – Brasília Esplanade with its National Museum, National Congress and Ministries

Why Brasília?

In a highly-planned context such as Brasília, state regulation is extensive; the city has a strong law enforcement unit focusing on noise made at night. Since 2008, with the popularly known “Silent Law”, dozens of restaurants, bars and clubs have been fined or closed due to “noise pollution”. The right to party and to gather as one form of our civic freedom is often denied and culture is easily framed as the enemy to life quality. In this highly regulated context, I investigated how non-normative lives and transgressive bodies were occupying places they were usually denied while also changing the social cityscape.

Having lived in Brasília for seven years, I witnessed initiatives led by its inhabitants to reclaim the city. Counterbalancing its large avenues, monumental scale and cars, people are following global city trends and re-signifying the city’s spaces. I went back to the concept of the right to the city by David Harvey to see how people “are changing their lives by changing the city”. I also saw the nuances within the different identities within the movement, focusing especially on class and gender within the queer community.

The homonormative, classicist, and misogynist city X the queer city

Among most of the research participants there is a consensus: producers and organisers are building diverse spaces. They want to move post-identity politics beyond and within the movement. According to interviewed producers, they have never claimed to be LGBTQ+ exclusive. They attracted diverse sexualities and genders by making sure to use an inclusive neutral language and equal prices.

Most of them are escaping what they called the “GGG movement” (the gay upper-class white man). Nonetheless, social segregation is also reflected within the LGBTQ+ community. For those coming from the outskirts and having a lower social economic background, challenges are still multiple. First, they have further infrastructural challenges to reach the central Queer spaces and have fewer options in their neighbourhoods. While some might find it safer to go out in the city centre in order to avoid meeting family members, they must save money to afford such a luxury. Meanwhile, they also face further social stigma coming from those of the upper social class.

Challenges are also constant for women. In the gendered urban experience, they are systematically targeted.  One of the research participants evidenced how, after two years of constant persecution, she closed her venue facing multiple charges on noise pollution and fees of thousands of euros in a process filled with misogyny and lesbophobia. Another (cis female lesbian) participant faces the backlash of trying to change a historically heteronormative venue into a more diverse one – having a place that isn’t queer enough for the LGBTQ+ community and not heterosexual enough for normative sexualities, leading to the loss of customers. Finally, a third participant shows how, being a trans artist woman, she needs to “put herself out there three times more” to have her work recognised when compared to male cisgender colleagues.

Nonetheless, the stories of those people and their initiatives aim to change their lives by changing the city. Relationships between people in marginalised social groups are reflected in the physical realm – in the landscape, on walls, in party settings. As you walk, pass by or occupy spaces, you change the space; you create shared feelings of belonging and/or community.

Most of them are doing this actively, either by assigning new meanings to abandoned underground tunnels or forgotten buildings and neighbourhoods, or by actively showing their affections in public. Others promote queer identities within the academic environment by promoting and building voguing communities and bringing back the ball culture, such as House of Caliandra.


Figure 2 – Group of friends walking towards one of the Carnival’s LGBTQI+ parties

Through the research we could see that spaces previously neglected or overlooked are now transformed and queered by those non-normative bodies, sexualities, and genders. Planning and space heteronormativity are contested daily, either by their lonely bodies navigating through the city or their power when walking in groups (especially during Carnival).

Meanwhile, Brasiília’s queer scene seems to be evolving slowly from the gay white patriarchy. Beyond the urban heteronormativity, those that do not qualify under homonormativity might still face segregation in those spaces. The strong incipient movement led by women, trans, and non-binary genders still has room to grow and truly queer the city and its bodies.

Juliana picAbout the author:

Juliana Grangeiro is a graduate student of ISS and a Brazilian activist towards LGBTQ+ rights. At ISS, she co-founded the Sexual Diversity Committee and volunteered at COC Haaglanden. In Brazil, Juliana has worked in international cooperation towards climate change mitigation and educational projects at USAID, UNDP and Nuffic.