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Why Sex Work and Sex Trafficking Aren’t the Same
August 28, 2019

Too often, people talk about sex work and trafficking as if they are the same thing. They are very different things – and here’s why it’s important not to conflate the two.


What Sex Work Is

Sex work is­–and should refer to–services adults provide in a mutually consensual transaction. Whether or not it is illegal, it is distinct from sex trafficking.


Why It’s Different From Trafficking

Sex trafficking is–and should refer to–commercial sex in which the transaction is not consensual. It is a horrific crime that involves force, fraud, or coercion in servitude, debt bondage, or slavery. It also refers to any kind of commercial sex involving minors. In either of these conditions, people do not engage according to their free will.


Why We Need To Keep Them Straight

Unfortunately, far too often “in American legal discourses, ‘sex trafficking’ refers not to human trafficking for sexual exploitation but rather to the traffic in sex—a definition which includes all forms of sex work.” In this mode of thinking, everyone in the sex industry is either victim or perpetrator, therefore law enforcement must act. But it ends up causing violence against and the repression of sex workers. (Ben Chapman-Schmidt)

“A bill was written and passed nearly unanimously. The bill’s called The Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, FOSTA-SESTA for short. The bill was supposed to keep sex traffickers from posting ads on sites like Backpage and Craigslist. Politicians from both parties voted for this bill because I mean, how could you not want to help sex trafficking victims, right? It sounds like a worthy goal. Some of the exploitation and trafficking I’ve seen in my travels has been facilitated online. But the more I look into the bill and the more I talk to people who are actually affected by it. The more I realized something — this bill is having unintended consequences. And it just might be hurting the very people it’s intended to help.” – Noor, Sold in America

As seen in the example of FOSTA/SESTA, legislators present the goal of policy as ending sex trafficking, but write the law in a way that targets the sex industry as a whole. Not only did FOSTA/SESTA shut down online forums, it had a ripple effect throughout the industry. “FOSTA has also led to the cancellation of the largest sex worker conference in the US (out of concern that some of the workshops would now be illegal), and the shutting down of sex worker outreach services. That these are not unexpected consequences—the House and Senate heard multiple testimonies about the likely outcomes of these measures—suggests that they were also not unintended, and that the shuttering of expressive and communicative spaces for sex workers was a feature of the bill, not a bug.” (Ben Chapman-Schmidt)

In doing so, it marginalizes and stigmatizes sex workers. Shutting down online forums not only shuts down traffickers, it shuts down discussion forums where sex workers can share their experiences with each other–for example, information about which clients were respectful and which clients were violent towards them.

Sex workers who don’t have a safe place to vet clients or to offer services suffer from loss of income. This pushes many further into poverty, exacerbating their need to continue selling sex, especially in the case of survival when they’re facing homelessness or have a family they desperately need to support. And they become more vulnerable to violent clients or they have to engage in more unsavory acts. In a survey of sex workers, “60 per cent reported that they had to take on potentially violent clients to make ends meet following the enactment of FOSTA.” Others report having to participate in activities outside their comfort zone in order to recoup income. (Peterson, Robinson & Shih) Then, if they get violently abused while on the job, they cannot report attempted rape or murder because they fear police will charge them with their own illegal activity.


What if you believe prostitution should be strictly illegal anyway? Does this distinction between sex work and sex trafficking still matter?  

Yes. There is a very important difference between the violence of a trafficker forcing or coercing a child into selling themselves for sex and an adult who carefully is engaging in the sex trade to make ends meet. The motivations, the moral implications, the impact on society, the repercussions are all very different, and thus require different attitudes and approaches for justice and rehabilitation.

That said, there is an important discussion about whether sex work, even between consenting adults, could ever be truly consensual given the constraints of the system that might push people to engage in the sex trade (poverty and survival sex, or gender violence when the path that lead them there includes a history of sexual abuse, etc.). 

Noor: Is there any ethical way possible for sex work to be carried out?

Peter (co-founder of a non-profit to end commercial sexual exploitation): So I think that we could have that conversation when we get rid of income inequality, when we get rid of sexism, when we get rid of homophobia and transphobia, when we get rid of sexual objectification, when we get rid of toxic masculinity, when we get rid of these things, that yeah, there’s — there may be space for that. I bet there would not be a lot of people buying at that point. And I bet there would be a lot of people who had a great, healthy relationships and there will be a lot of great sex happening in the world. It’s called a trick for a reason. It’s called a trick because you’re paying for the illusion of consent. – from Sold in America, episode 3

And if that’s the case, then the question becomes: do we fix the system by punishing those who are already struggling to survive within it?

It’s important to have that discussion openly and honestly, or people will not take the call to end sex trafficking seriously because they think it’s just about ending prostitution, which, for a variety of reasons, they may or may not agree with. To sell policy that’s really about the prohibition of prostitution on the back of a campaign to “end sex trafficking as slavery” is disingenious and false, and can lead to greater harm than good.

Extra resources for those interested:

Noor’s Sold in America

Freedom Collaborative Webinar

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