What’s Sex Trafficking Got To Do With The Sex Trade?

“Prostitution and the commercial sex industry are intrinsically linked with modern slavery. …the market for commercial sex operates as a pull for traffickers and organised crime groups.”

Fiona Bruce, MP

Everyone agrees that sex trafficking is abhorrent. “There is no pro-sex-trafficking position any more than there is a public pro-slavery position for labour these days,” as activist and legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon observes.1C. McKinnon (2017) Trafficking, Prostitution, and Inequality, Harvard University Press But the same cannot be said of prostitution.

Many assert that sex trafficking and prostitution are (and should be treated as) entirely separate issues. In one, women are old enough to consent and freely choose to ‘work’ in the sex trade. In the other, vulnerable and sometimes underaged women are coerced, forced and trafficked into selling sex.

That’s the theory. However, the known facts of the sex trade show these apparent distinctions to be largely illusory and that the dividing lines between prostitution and sex trafficking are either blurry or even non-existent.

Sex trafficking is all about the money

We recognise that human trafficking is a “monopolistically competitive industry” which employs the same economic models as globalised markets. In other words, traffickers are driven by profit maximisation –- and trading in human beings is extremely profitable, as one trafficker explains: “[human trafficking] victims are equal to a kilo of cocaine but they’re even better… because you can use them time and time again. So, they don’t lose their value.”2Anti Trafficking Monitoring Group (6.2013) In the Dock: Examining the UK’s Criminal Justice Response to Trafficking

Eighty percent of the profits from human trafficking are made from selling (mostly) women and girls for the purposes of sexual exploitation. This is a trade worth an estimated $99 billion per year according to the International Labour Office (ILO) –- and one that has grown rapidly in the past few decades.3Profits and poverty: the economics of forced labour / International Labour Office. – Geneva: ILO, 2014 executive summary test 2.indd; Social Europe: H. Bondi (20.9.2018) Europe Must Target Demand To Fight Sex Trafficking The profitability of sex trafficking is largely due to the fact that the commercial sex trade provides an easy, ready-made market for criminals to exploit. 

“The average annual profit generated by each woman in forced sexual servitude ($100,000) is estimated to be six times more than the average profits generated by each trafficking victim worldwide ($21,800) …studies show that sexual exploitation can yield a return on investment ranging from 100% to 1,000%.”

Human Rights First4Human Rights First (7.1. 2017) Human Trafficking by the Numbers

Sex trafficking is driven by demand

“[A]n increasing amount of research links rising demand for commercial sex in more economically prosperous countries with growing demand for trafficked women and girls.”

Vanessa Von Streunsee, Human Rights Lawyer5V. Von Struensee (2000) Wired, Sex Trafficking in Women and Children Murdoch University Electronic Journal of Law 7

Much like any other market, the commercial sex industry is driven by demand. And the demand for transactional sex is highest where the sex trade is legalised / decriminalised. For example, the liberalisation of Germany’s laws on prostitution over the past 20 years has led to a doubling of women in the sex trade: “The market is now dominated by “mega-brothels”, which offer sex on an almost industrial scale, often to tourists, many of them bussed in from abroad.”6J.Reed, BBC (21.02.2014) Mega-brothels: Has Germany become ‘bordello of Europe’?

This increase in the scale and demand of prostitution results from a shortfall of supply. In short, there aren’t enough women and girls volunteering to enter the legalised / decriminalised sex trade. This inevitable shortfall in supply from legal establishments is then readily met by traffickers, for whom it represents the perfect commercial opportunity. From a trafficker’s perspective, it makes sense to trade women and children where selling sex is legal or decriminalised, since the risks are low and the potential profits are vast.

“Trafficking for sexual exploitation obeys the principles of supply and demand. Sexual exploitation does not exist just because its victims are vulnerable but because there is a demand for sexual services from which traffickers can profit.”

European Parliament7European Parliament Briefing (2016) Human trafficking and its gender dimension

It should come as no surprise that sex trafficking “inflows” are highest in wealthy countries with a thriving commercial sex market.8S.Young Cho, A.Dreher & E.Neumayer, Does Legalized Prostitution Increase Human Trafficking? World Development 41, no. 1 (January 16, 2012): 67-82, http://ssrn.com/abstract=1986065. Extensive research conducted in 150 countries across the globe confirms there’s a firm correlation between the legalisation / decriminalisation of the sex trade (and thus its subsequent expansion) and an increase in sex trafficking.9H. Bondi, Social Europe (20.9.2018) Europe Must Target Demand To Fight Sex Trafficking

“Legalization of prostitution expands the market for commercial sex, opening markets for criminal enterprises and creating a safe haven for criminals who traffic people into prostitution. …Legalization simply makes it easier for them to blend in with a purportedly regulated sex sector and makes it more difficult for prosecutors to identify and punish those who are trafficking people.’

US Bureau of Public Affairs10U.S. Department of State Archive (24.11. 2004)  The Link Between Prostitution and Sex TraffickingRetrieved 22.3.2019

The sex trade can’t be ‘cleaned up’

Those who defend the sex trade recognise the importance of legal regulation to minimise such trafficking; but without being willing to address the underlying issues of supply and distribution, policies are inevitably limited in their effectiveness:

“Given that people are the commodity exploited, supply is difficult to contain. Distribution is also difficult to contain: since the markets are highly profitable, arrested traffickers and pimps are soon replaced. Distribution requires relatively little skill, and supply is plentiful and easily acquired, presenting few barriers to entry or startup costs for pimps and traffickers.” 

Out of Life11Change.com Petition · Law Enforcement: Arrest the Buyers (Johns) of Sex Services

In spite of their best efforts and intentions, it is extremely difficult for countries that endorse prostitution to ‘regulate’ it effectively, and to root out sex trafficking, since victims are hidden in plain sight, indistinguishable from those who have not been trafficked. This problem is made more difficult by the fact that in legalised regimes, many of those working in the sex trade refuse to register with the state and thus drive the expansion of clandestine prostitution.12D.W., R.Connor (30.01.2008) Hamburg’s prostitutes steer clear of official city register

“As the illegal market explodes, the governmental apparatus to address it erodes because the industry is decriminalized, no one sees any harm in it, and the illegal market intersects and overlaps the legal market. Only the stigma stays the same.”

Melissa Farley, Researcher and Clinical Psychologist


“Capitalist globalization today involves an unprecedented “commodification” of human beings. In the last 30 years, the rapidly growing sex trade has been massively “industrialized” worldwide. This process of industrialization, in both its legal and its illegal forms, generates profits amounting to billions of dollars. It has created a market of sexual exchanges in which millions of women and children have been converted into sexual commodities.”

Richard Poulin, Professor of Sociology13R. Poulin (2004) Globalization and the Sex Trade: Traffickng and the Commodification of Women and Children Canadian Women’s Studies Vol.22, No.3-4 (2003)

Research indicates that men who buy sex don’t care much whether the woman is acting of her own volition. In prostitution, women are traded as sexual commodities and the nature of this exchange means entitlement trumps empathy: “The buyer in this marketplace views the victim as a dehumanized product for immediate consumption and disposal.”14L. Smith, S.Healy Vardaman, The Problem of Demand in Combating Sex Trafficking, Revue internationale de droit pénal, 2010/3 (Vol. 81), p. 607-624. DOI : 10.3917/ridp.813.0607.

Detective Constable Julie Currie observes: “In the vast majority of cases, males paying for sex will give no thought to where the woman has come from or what circumstances have led her into prostitution.”15The All Party Parliamentary Group on the Sex Trade (2008) Behind Closed Doors Organised: Sexual Exploitation in England and Wales Research suggests that most sex buyers “are aware of and have witnessed exploitation, coercion, and trafficking, but this does not affect their decision to buy women for sexual use.”16B.Anderson & J. O’Connell Davidson (2003). Is trafficking in human beings demand driven? A multi-country pilot study. Geneva: International Organization for Migration.

Human trafficking is the fastest growing criminal enterprise in the world. No one can hope to defeat it without understanding its interconnection with wider cultural, social and economic forces. No doubt eparating the issues of sex trafficking from the highly profitable global sex trade would be extremely convenient to many –- but when faced with the facts, we have to conclude that no such separation can be maintained. The key to defeating sex trafficking lies in eliminating demand.