For many years, there has been a widely held but erroneous assumption that there are no important distinctions between trafficking and sex work. Many people routinely assume that sex workers must be trafficked, or at least coerced in some way. In the same way, their awareness of human trafficking begins and ends with sexual slavery. If the two phenomena are not strictly identical, the common wisdom is that they overlap to such a degree that they can essentially be considered as “the same thing.”
This belief is not merely incorrect; it is deeply harmful. Though treating the two distinct phenomena the same way may have a long history, it is a history of worsening situations rather than ameliorating problems. In order to effectively address the different needs of sex workers and trafficking victims, it is essential to recognize not only the similarities but also how the needs differ.
All human trafficking, for labor, or sex, or anything else, involves coercion, or deception, or both. Sex trafficking is a terrible form of trafficking, but it is not the only one. There are, in fact, many forms of trafficking. Men, women, and children are also — and more frequently — trafficked into a variety of other industries, including domestic service, agriculture, and sweatshop manufacturing. The lives of these victims may be less media-genic than those of victims of sex trafficking, but their situations are often no less brutal, dangerous, and degrading. The use of coercion and deception to force people to work and to deprive them of the rewards for their labors is by no means limited to the sex industry.
Despite the breadth and variety of trafficking cases, the popular imagination continues to conflate trafficking with sexual slavery. Images of women forced into prostitution encourage genuine and appropriate emotional responses to trafficking, but fixating on this one aspect leads us to ignore the plight of people in other, equally terrible, trafficking situations.
A focus on sex trafficking is unhelpful to sex workers who have not been trafficked. Many sex workers are not coerced or tricked into entering and remaining in the industry. Subject to the same economic pressures as the rest of us, they have made a conscious decision to engage in a particular line of work. Though their situations within the industry may be less than ideal, treating them as victims of trafficking and applying trafficking law to them weakens their legal protections against abuse and may even make them victims of punitive anti-trafficking laws.
It is also unhelpful to focus only on women and children in the sex trade because all such workers fear violence and abuse. Men and transgender sex workers are often excluded either deliberately — because programs are designed to assist only women and children — or due to a lack of awareness. Cultural prejudices mean that male and transgender sex workers are even less likely to turn to the authorities for help when they are abused.
Conflating trafficking and sex work squanders opportunities to address real victimization and to assist people in real situations of abuse. It also denies the agency of sex workers. By focusing on commercial sex rather than coercion and deception as the defining characteristics of trafficking, such conflation trivializes and ignores the experiences of people in genuinely abusive situations outside the sex industry. Unfortunately, Congress is considering enshrining this misguided equation as law, with a bill passed by the House (HR 3887) that would redefine all prostitution as trafficking. Such a law would divert Department of Justice resources to enforcing vice laws rather than addressing situations of abuse. It would both undercut the ability of government agencies to provide services to those who desperately need them, and it would create “victims” where none exist — bringing the full force of anti-trafficking law to bear on a group that is already stigmatized and marginalized by society. By any standards, this would be a miscarriage of justice.