The Thin Line Between Sex Trafficking and Prostitution

Whereas we all recognise that sex trafficking is bad, we’re more ambiguous about prostitution. Legal scholar Catharine McKinnon describes how many people draw up clear lines of separation between the two: “Forced prostitution is bad; voluntary prostitution can be not-so-bad. Trafficking is really, really bad. Prostitution – if, say, voluntary, indoor, legal, adult – can be a tolerable life for some people.”1C. McKinnon (2017) Trafficking, Prostitution, and Inequality, Harvard University Press

However, a more nuanced understanding of what prostitution and what sex trafficking involve reveals that the distinctions between the two are difficult to maintain.

The same violence, coercion and exploitation 

In the sex trade, it’s impossible to cleanly distinguish trafficking victims from ‘sex workers’, since many women in prostitution have at least experienced periods of trafficking, coercion and exploitation. Perhaps they enter prostitution voluntarily and end up subsequently being held in service through a pimp’s psychological manipulation or physical force. Or maybe they start off being pimped out and eventually gain a level of autonomy. 

The reality is that many – perhaps even most – of those in the sex trade are under some kind of third-party control, be it from a pimp, trafficker or abusive partner. And violence committed by these exploiters, and sex buyers, is rampant:

“Pimps and customers use methods of coercion and control like those of other batterers: minimization and denial of physical violence, economic exploitation, social isolation, verbal abuse, threats and intimidation, physical violence, sexual assault, and captivity.”2E. Giobbe (1993), An analysis of individual, institutional and cultural pimping. Mich J Gender Law 1:33-57

In prostitution, 95% of women experience sexual harassment that would be legally actionable in another job setting; 70-95% are physically assaulted; 60-75% are raped; 85-95% of those in prostitution want to escape it, but have no other options for financial survival outside prostitution.3M. Farley 2004, Prostitution is sexual violence. Psychiatric Times. Volume 21 Issue 12

The same vulnerabilities

The vast majority of non-trafficked women in the sex industry have high levels of vulnerability. “Prolonged and repeated trauma precedes entry into prostitution, with most women beginning prostitution as sexually abused adolescents.”4M. Farley 2004, Prostitution is sexual violence. Psychiatric Times. Volume 21 Issue 12 

“It may be true that some women in commercial sex exercised some level of informed choice, had other options to entering and have no histories of familial trauma, neglect or sexual abuse. But, these women are the minority and don’t represent the overwhelming majority of women, girls, boys and transgender youth, for whom the sex industry isn’t about choice but lack of choice.”

Rachel Lloyd, New York Times5The New York Times, R. Lloyd (updated 24.9.15) Legalizing Prostitution Leads to More Trafficking

The same harms

It’s important to understand that the harmful physical and psychological effects of prostitution are the same, irrespective of how women came to be, or are kept in, the sex trade.

We tend to reserve our compassion for those who have been forced into prostitution – but the fact is that both trafficked women and women working in the sex trade suffer psychological disassociative disorders  (where the mind disconnects from the immediate physical circumstance), the loss of identity and high levels of substance abuse and addiction as a result of selling sex: “The emotional consequences of prostitution and trafficking are the same in widely varying cultures, whether it’s pornography or trafficking, high class or low class, legal or illegal, in a brothel, strip club, massage parlour, or the street. Symptoms of emotional distress among those in sex businesses are off the charts: depression, suicidal tendencies, post-traumatic stress disorder, dissociation, substance abuse.”6M.Farley (2019) Risks of Prostitution: When the Person Is the Product, JACR, volume 3, number 1.

What’s more, both groups of women find it hard to seek help to escape their situations due to a tendency to be suspicious of authority, a feeling of complicity in their situation, shame at the social stigma, and a lack of alternative means of survival.

Understanding Trafficking

In reality, the division between sex trafficking and the sex trade often rests on an improper understanding of what trafficking involves. Due in part to stereotypes peddled by the media, many of us imagine that sex trafficking involves kidnapping women and girls, moving them across international borders and keeping them enslaved, mostly through the use of physical force.

However, trafficking does need to involve movement across countries; neither does it assume that the individuals involved are entirely without agency. The Trafficking in Persons Protocol a United Nations-endorsed treated which is accepted by most countries in the world (including Britain) defines sex trafficking as involving sexual exploitation “through force, fraud, or coercion for commercial sex,” or through the “abuse of power or a condition of vulnerability.”7Palermo Protocol to Prevent Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children 

Force, fraud and coercion are commonplace in the sex trade, even in places where it’s legal / decriminalised. As researcher and clinical psychologist Melissa Farley observes, “‘The same oppressive experiences channel women into pornography, prostitution, and trafficking. Childhood abuse and neglect, a lack of quality education and job training opportunities, culturally mainstreamed misogyny, racism and poverty – all coerce women into the sex trade.’8M. Farley (2015) Pornography, Prostitution, & Trafficking: Making the Connections Prostitution Research & Education, San Francisco 

The definition of trafficking as involving individuals being “transported, transferred, harboured and received for the purposes of sexual exploitation” applies as much to pimping as it does to trafficking. As Catharine McKinnon points out: “In the real world, from the perspective of the person in the sex trade – pornography, prostitution, and sex trafficking are the same. More than 80% of the time, women in the sex industry are under pimp control – that is what trafficking is.”9M. Farley (2015) Pornography, Prostitution, & Trafficking: Making the Connections Prostitution Research & Education, San Francisco

As researcher at Coventry University Maureen O’Hara points out: “Researchers have noted that the outward forms of contract can be used by traffickers and other pimps to normalise abuse, in the perceptions both of the women they are exploiting and of criminal justice agencies. Policy that attempts to divide the sex trade into ‘coerced’ and ‘consensual’ segments, which can be separately regulated by the law, does not reflect the reality of the trade.”10M. O’Hara (2019): Making pimps and sex buyers visible: Recognising the commercial nexus in ‘child sexual exploitation’ Critical Social Policy 2019, Vol. 39(1): 108–126 

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights Aspects of the Victims of Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children made the observation that prostitution as it is practiced “usually satisfies the legal elements for the definition of trafficking.”11United Nations, Committee on Human Rights. (2006). Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights Aspects of the Victims of Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children. 9 U.N. Doc. E/CN.4/2006/62.

“In thousands of interviews, we have heard prostituted women, men, and transwomen describe prostitution as paid rape, voluntary slavery, signing a contract to be raped (in legal prostitution), the choice that is not a choice, and as domestic violence taken to the extreme. These are more accurate descriptions of prostitution than consenting sex or unpleasant work.”

Rachel Moran, Sex Trade Survivor12R. Moran (2019) Consent, Coercion, and Culpability: Is Prostitution Stigmatized Work or an Exploitive and Violent Practice Rooted in Sex, Race, and Class Inequality? Archives of Sexual Behavior 48(9) DOI:10.1007/s10508-018-1371-8

Whilst there is a technical difference between why and how women end up in the sex trade, the fact remains that the two are mutually dependent and inextricably related. We cannot reasonably shower compassion and understanding on one one group and leave the other group alone to face the harms involved in their ‘choices’ alone.