It’s a tale as old as time: an economic downturn leads to poverty and then right-wing populism seeks to exploit the moment, placing the rights of the marginalised immediately under pressure.

We see it every day, from a spreading indifference towards the persecution of minority groups, to attacks on the already vulnerable: people of colour, the poor, the LGBT+ community, Muslims, the disabled. And crucially, within that list of historically targeted groups, sex workers.

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The Netherlands has increasingly embraced the far-right in recent years thanks to the lasting influence of Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party and the rising popularity of Thierry Baudet’s Forum for Democracy Party (FVD). Alongside that has come a sustained tightening in the regulation of the sex work industry. You can perhaps see the effect in a 46 per cent drop in the number legal brothels since the industry was legalised.

Last month, within days of the FVD winning the most votes in the Dutch provincial elections, beating prime minister Mark Rutte’s People's Party for Freedom and Democracy for the most seats in the upper house of parliament, it was confirmed that red light district tours in Amsterdam would come to an end in 2020.

Dutch sex workers’ union Proud was worried the move would lead to people who don’t “know how to behave or what the rules of the game are” in the district, wandering in to “gawk at the women behind the window and take photos”, while limiting business for workers.

Now, a month later, another attack on the industry is on the way, this time at the hands of the “feminist” Christian youth movement Exxpose.

Spurred on by anxieties about human trafficking and demand for prostitution, the “I Am Priceless” petition (which has received around 42,000 signatures) seeks to criminalise the buying of sex and will be debated in parliament this week.

The collective argues that despite the widely recognised positive implications of decriminalisation (especially when it comes to sex workers’ safety), pushing for harsher laws is the best means of approaching the situation.

The group wants to target the clients with the new rules, but this is just another “attack sex workers first, ask questions later” approach, common among those who posture about women’s rights while refusing to listen to the groups of women they’re professing to protect.

Even if, as numerous studies have shown, rates of “sexual abuse and rape” have fallen by up to 40 per cent in Dutch tippelzones, the legally designated areas for sex workers.

These oversimplified and prudish approaches to an issue as complex as the centuries-long demand for sex work are about a desire for people to position themselves as the morally upstanding opposites of a problem that they believe needs to be solved. "Problems” that they believe make the oppression they face harder

You can see a similar situation in transphobic feminism, or when white working class people identify more readily with wealthy, racist celebrity politicians than with working-class people of colour. On some level, we may recognise that our fights against oppression bear numerous similarities, but we choose to side with the establishment anyway for fear of being attacked next, or harder.

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It’s a matter of virtue disguised as concern. And it is driven by people who champion causes they don’t understand, driving efforts that end up making things worse for the abstract figures of vulnerability that drew them in in the first place.

But this issue isn’t, and never has been, as simple as “trafficked sex worker good”, “voluntary sex worker bad”. Nor is it about actually wanting to help victims of human trafficking; if it was, fearmongering and pushing sex work further underground would be the last thing they tried.

This is about actual people, even if their lives lead down paths so few can imagine venturing down. As easy as that is for so many of us to ignore, following the example of movements like these ignore how complicated this issue is.

Hopefully, Exxpose’s petition won’t lead anywhere. Although, looking at our increasingly aggressive approaches to sex work around the world, I fear it may have legs.

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