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The Problems Clarifying Prostitution v. Sex Trafficking
September 2, 2020

As understanding about sex trafficking has evolved over time, practitioners have had to grapple with the problems that come from lack of clarity between prostitution and sex trafficking. On the face of it, it seems like the distinction should be clear: prostitution is voluntary sex work; sex trafficking is involuntary or forced.

But in practice, the field has been rife with examples of people leading with their assumptions. When the political agenda is to crackdown on prostitution, raids can sweep up sex trafficking victims and lead to them being criminalized and prosecuted for things done against their will. When the political agenda is to crackdown on sex trafficking, raids can also sweep up voluntary sex workers who don’t want to be rescued, or who in accordance with past laws might have been subject to deportation. Some have even argued that raids lead to an increase in trafficking when the traffickers then force families to pay “debts owed.” The counter-argument is that it is wrong-headed to blame law enforcement when traffickers engage in further extortion and exploitation.

And how do we categorize people who are engaging in sex work, don’t want to be there, wish they could leave…but view it as the only way they can make enough money to survive? Or the girl refugees fleeing countries where they are repeatedly raped for free, and have no legal protections affording them a chance at legal work? Would incarceration address the root cause?

Understanding Problems Evolves With Time

We’re shedding light on these problems not to criticize law enforcement, rescue, or prosecution efforts–obviously they are essential to combating trafficking. This is only to illustrate how complex the situation can be, and how there can be ripple effects we should all pay attention to as we advance our understanding of what justice for survivors looks like. As law enforcement agencies and NGOs have gained in experience and awareness, there have been sizable efforts to be more strategic about setting targets and goals appropriately, and many organizations have shown themselves willing to evolve with growth in understanding. Best practices are expanding to include legal and social protections, like special visas and access to aftercare services, for people who are understood to be trafficking victims. This process takes time, but it is happening. 

Anti-trafficking work is fraught with complications. Addressing it responsibly means eschewing the simple narratives and being forthright about dealing with all the complexities. Everyone who has been in this long enough has had their fair share of lessons to learn. Collaborating with each other across sectors and sharing knowledge about best practices has been critical to advancing more sophisticated, nuanced, and strategic solutions. Thankfully, many of those committed to anti-trafficking have also shown themselves to be committed to sharing knowledge in frequent local, national, and regional conferences, working groups, task force collaborations, and more.


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