Even those who mean well sometimes confuse the human rights abuse of trafficking in persons with the human occupation of prostitution, or sex work. It’s understandable because of the history of the two fields, but it creates rather than solves problems. Let me try to sort it out here.
The tendency to treat trafficking and prostitution as if they were the same thing has a long and problematic history. Legislation and social discussion have often blurred or denied any difference, but that has always made things worse rather than better for those involved.
The trafficking of women and children into sexual slavery is undeniably a gross abuse of human rights. Like all trafficking, it involves coercion or trickery or both. Sex trafficking is an odious forms of trafficking, but it is far from the only one. Men, women and children are also — and more commonly — trafficked routinely for purposes of household and farm labor as well as sweatshop manufacturing. Their lives may be less media-genic than those of sex trafficking victims, but they are no less brutal, dangerous and degraded.
A narrow focus on the single aspect of sex trafficking is often fueled by sensationalistic and sometimes salacious accounts of sexual abuse. It leads us to ignore these other forms of trafficking, and so denies help and protection to all the men, women and children forced into and trapped in abusive working situations in other industries.
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By the same token, treating sex work as if it is the same as sex trafficking both ignores the realities of sex work and endangers those engaged in it. Sex workers include men and women and transgendered persons who offer sexual services in exchange for money. The services may include prostitution (sexual intercourse) and other services such as phone sex. Sex workers engage in this for many reasons, but the key distinction here is that they do it voluntarily. They are not coerced or tricked into staying in the business but have chosen this from among the options available to them.
A key goal of sex worker activists is to improve sex-working conditions, but self-organization is impossible when sex work is regarded as merely another form of slavery. Then authorities and laws trying to stop true slavery — trafficking — get misapplied to sex workers, clients and others involved in the sex industry. Law enforcement raids in the U.S. and abroad, for example, have led to little success identifying trafficked persons but instead have driven sex work underground. This exposes sex workers to an increased risk of violence and denies them any protection of laws against assault or access to medical, legal and educational services. It denies them their human rights.
A national anti-trafficking law enacted in 2000 recognizes "severe forms of trafficking" as a modern form of slavery that involves a broad spectrum of workers and industries. In this interpretation, trafficking is clearly distinguished from voluntary sex work and thus avoids the absurdity of equating the fear and suffering of a trafficked person with the typical working conditions of voluntary sex workers. These conditions are often far from ideal, but nevertheless they are far removed from debt bondage or enslavement.
It is regrettable that despite the obvious reality of this perspective, the popular imagination of sex work tends to return to images of young girls forced into sexual slavery. Perhaps people would rather read such stories than hear about more prosaic struggles for workers’ rights — to organize, to be free from harassment, to get decent health care. But their preferences should not be allowed to dictate policy about either human trafficking or sex work.
Traditional standards of morality have been a major influence on legislation aimed at trafficking, and on the ways that trafficking legislation changes the legal treatment of prostitution. But the ‘moral’ position opposing sex work is actually a specific political and ideological position, and its net effect is typically to limit women’s autonomy.
Sex law is often a front for ideology that constrains rather than liberates women. What most appalls me about the recent conflation of trafficking and sex work in law and policy is that some feminists support the confusion. These women would normally never dream of telling other women how to behave, because they have fought against imposed constraints in their own lives. Yet they seem to think it is acceptable to tell sex workers what is best for them, and they are prepared to use dubious political alliances to advance their moral agenda.
Women’s studies professor Donna Hughes even told the National Review that George W. Bush is the president who has done the most for women on the strength of his policies aimed against sex work. The fact that these policies do nothing to halt human trafficking and in fact may be counter-productive seems to be irrelevant. So does the worse fact that President Bush has presided over a deliberate reduction in access to reproductive health care for women in the United States and around the world.
Women are not the only victims when trafficking is conflated with sex work. The confusion squanders opportunities to address real victimization and to assist people in real situations of abuse. Resources, time and energy that might actually help trafficking victims are wasted in sensational "rescues" that are also ineffective and often counterproductive.
There is a clear need to formulate public policy that is less emotionally driven and better able to recognize the real causes, nature and effects of trafficking in persons. People concerned about the health and rights of migrants should choose to talk in terms of migration and mobility and workers’ rights – including sex workers’ rights – rather than confusing matters by using the term "trafficking" with all its attendant baggage. That should help clear the debating field for useful and separate discussions of both.