What Is Sex Trafficking?

How Sex Trafficking and Sex Work Are Different

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The U.S. media tend to use the terms sex work and sex trafficking interchangeably. But are they the same thing? The defining factor of commercial sex work, often shortened to just sex work, is exactly what it sounds like—the exchange of sexual interactions for money. There are many forms of activity that can be considered sex work. These include everything from adult film acting to stripping to professional domination to prostitution. These activities have different legal status in different areas of the country and the world. 

In contrast, the defining factor of sex trafficking is the use of "coercion, force, or fraud" (Homeland Security). Sex trafficking is a subset of human trafficking, and in 2000, the United Nations General Assembly defined human trafficking as 

"[The] recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation..." 

Are Sex Work and Sex Trafficking The Same?

Many people argue that sex work and sex trafficking are the same thing. This argument is based on the assumption that all sex work involves exploitation. Is that assumption correct? There are a lot of sex workers who would say no. 

Much sex work is unquestionably exploitative. Any sex work involving children is clearly problematic. So is any sex work that involves trickery or coercion. The question is whether it is possible for adults to make an informed decision to pursue sex work, without coercion or any threats thereof. If the answer is yes, then not all sex work is exploitative, and not all sex work is trafficking. 

This debate is ongoing, in the United States and around the world. This is not an issue of semantics. The way in which sex work is conceptualized affects the ability of governments and health personnel to take care of individuals engaging in sex work. Acknowledging that sex work can be consensual may make it more difficult to prosecute those who exploit sex workers.

On the other hand, it allows for regulation and safety measures such as health care to be provided to sex workers. In addition, declaring that all sex work is exploitative denies the agency of sex workers who have chosen that profession. It implies that well-meaning outsiders are more of an expert in the lives of sex workers than those workers are themselves. 

Sex Work, Autonomy, and Understanding Consent

What would it mean for society to acknowledge that not all sex work is the same as sex trafficking? It would mean, first and foremost, acknowledging that some sex workers are adults who have chosen to engage in their professions. It would force there to be more conversations about the abuses that occur when sex work is driven underground.

Ironically, attempts to save women from sex trafficking have often led to trampling on sex worker rights.  There are currently a number of states in which it is legal for police to have sex with sex workers before arresting them. This type of exploitation by authorities defies the narrative of all sex workers as victims who need to be protected. Instead, it suggests that the definition of sex work as trafficking is a way to make a moral judgment about sex workers and keep them from sight. It also renders sex workers more vulnerable to assault from law enforcement officials who can threaten arrest as punishment for lack of compliance. 

Sex Work and Public Health

Criminalization of sex work can also cause problems for public health. Some countries have had success in lowering HIV transmission through decriminalization and regulation of sex work and implementation of condom use policies. However, in the United States, there are jurisdictions in which simply carrying a large number of condoms is seen as evidence of engaging in prostitution. This type of legislation makes it more difficult for sex workers to protect both themselves and their partners. While public health departments make condoms freely accessible, some of the highest-risk and most vulnerable people are afraid to carry condoms lest they be charged with intending to engage in sex work. This increases the risk of STD infection among sex workers, their clients, and their partners. 

Those who believe that all sex work involves trafficking may still want to question the ways in which sex work is criminalized. In the United States, it is often the sex workers who receive the brunt of the punishment rather than those who would exploit them—whether that is their clients or their handlers. 

Rethinking Sex Work, Sex Trafficking, and Sexual Exploitation

Acknowledging that there could be a difference between sex work and sex trafficking would require us to change the ways in which we talk about sex. If individuals can choose sex work, it forces the rest of us to acknowledge that sex is also a choice. It requires us to think about whether sex is something we want to do. It reminds us to acknowledge what we get from sex—whether that be connection, security, or a roof over our heads. It forces us to acknowledge that people have sex for different reasons and that some of those reasons we may not like or approve of.

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