Sexual Health

What’s Sex Trafficking?

May 29, 2018

The U.S. media tend to use the conditions sex work and sex trafficking interchangeably. However, are they the same thing? The differentiating factor of commercial sex work, frequently shortened to sex function, is exactly what it sounds like–the exchange of sexual dependence for cash. There are many forms of action which could be considered sex work. These include everything from mature film acting to stripping to specialist domination to prostitution.

These activities have different legal status in different areas of the nation and the world. 

By comparison, the defining factor of sexual trafficking is that 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, transport, 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 someone else, 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 Gender Work and Sex Trafficking The Same?

A lot of people assert that sex work and sex trafficking are the exact same thing.

This argument relies on the assumption that all gender work entails exploitation. Is that assumption correct? There are a lot of sex workers who’d say no. 

Much sex function is unquestionably exploitative. Any sex work involving children is obviously problematic. So is any sex work that involves trickery or coercion.

The question is if it is possible for adults to make an informed decision to pursue sexual work, without coercion or any threats thereof. If the solution is yes, not all of sex work is exploitative, rather than all sex work is trafficking. 

This debate is continuing, in the United States and around the world. This isn’t a matter of semantics. The way in which gender work is conceptualized affects the capacity of authorities and health employees to take care of individuals engaging in sex work. Acknowledging that gender work can be consensual may make it more challenging to prosecute those who use sex workers.

On the flip side, it allows for regulation and security measures like health care to be provided to sex workers. Additionally, declaring that all sex work is exploitative denies the agency of sex workers who have chosen that profession. It suggests that well-meaning outsiders are far more of an expert in the lives of sex workers than those employees are themselves. 

Sex Function, Autonomy, and Recognizing Consent

What could it mean for society to acknowledge that not all sex work is just like sex trafficking? It might mean, first and foremost, acknowledging that some sex workers are adults who have chosen to participate in their professions.

It might force there to become conversations about the abuses that happen when sex work is driven underground.

Ironically, efforts to save girls from sexual trafficking have often contributed to trampling on gender worker rights.  There are presently a variety of nations in which it is legal for police to have sex with sex workers before arresting them. This type of manipulation by authorities defies the story of sex workers as victims that have to be shielded. Instead, it implies that the definition of sexual work as trafficking is a way to make a moral decision about sex workers and stop them from sight.

It also leaves sex workers more vulnerable to assault from law enforcement officials who will undermine arrest as punishment for lack of compliance. 

Sex Work and Public Health

Criminalization of sex work can also result in issues for general health. Some states have had success in lowering HIV transmission via decriminalization and regulation of sex work and execution of condom use coverages. 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 law makes it harder for sex workers to protect both themselves and their partners. While public health departments make condoms freely accessible, some of those highest-risk and many vulnerable men and women are afraid to carry condoms lest they be charged with planning to participate in sex work. This raises the risk of STD infection among sex workers, their clients, and their spouses. 

People who believe that sex work entails trafficking may still want to question the ways in which sex work is criminalized. In the United States, it is frequently the sex workers who receive the brunt of the punishment as opposed to those who would exploit themwhether that’s their clients or their handlers. 

Rethinking Gender Work, Sex Trafficking, and Sexual Exploitation

Acknowledging that there could be a difference between sex work and sex trafficking would need us to alter the ways we discuss sex. If individuals can choose sex work, it forces the rest of us to acknowledge that sex can be a selection. It takes us to consider whether sex is something we wish to do. It reminds us to acknowledge that which we get from sex–whether that’s connection, safety, or a roof over our heads. It compels us to acknowledge that people have sex for different reasons and that some of those reasons we might not like or accept.