Why do we treat sex work and sex trafficking like they’re the same thing?

Putting a stop to sex trafficking is a big deal. It’s appalling that in 2015, in the United States, people can be taken against their will and forced or coerced to perform sex acts for money—money they often don’t see a dime of, as it’s taken by pimps.

That’s just wrong.

However. It’s also just wrong that in an effort to stop sex trafficking, law enforcement sometimes busts escort services run by women (or men) who are of age, fully consenting, and have chosen sex work as their career path.

These people are sex workers, not trafficking victims. There’s a big difference.

When law enforcement arrests sex workers (or busts an escort service full of freely-choosing adults), and then tells the media they’ve rescued sex trafficking victims, that’s a slap in the face to actual sex trafficking victims, who have suffered a great deal of trauma. It doesn’t do much to help those actual victims.

Sex work and sex trafficking are not the same thing. Just like sex is not the same thing as rape.

So why do we conflate the two, treating them like the same thing? Why do sex workers and trafficking victims all fall under the label of “prostitutes” or “victims,” depending on your point of view? Is it just because our society condemns sex work as being immoral? Are we equally disgusted by people who choose to work in sex of their own free will, and by pimps who abduct children (the average age a child is trafficked is 12 to 14) and force them to have sex with multiple strangers a day?

Isn’t the issue here, at its root, sexual freedom (or just freedom, plain and simple)? Because if that’s the issue, then we’re confused about what it means.


I’ve been wondering about why we combine the two issues lately. When did this start?

One theory is proposed in the report The Road North, released by Sex Workers Project in New York. Sex Workers Project works to make the world safer for sex workers AND trafficking victims, recognizing that each group needs different services.

In The Road North: The Role of Gender, Poverty and Violence in Trafficking from Mexico to the US, a good theory is explored.

To understand it, you have to look at the US’s history with slavery, and the population demographics during that time. During the trans-Atlantic slave trade and indentured servitude, race was the main dividing line between who was a slave and who wasn’t. But there was also economic status. Poor people would often become indentured servants to others in order to pay a debt (paying a debt is a common way people become slaves).

In school, I was taught that indentured servants in Colonial America served their masters for four years to pay their passage to America, and then they were free. However, USHistory.org states:

“Only about 40 percent of indentured servants lived to complete the terms of their contracts . . . . It’s hard to believe, but the practice of indentured servitude in America did not end until the early 1900s.”

Anyway, back in the late 1800s, privileged women—who were not slaves, were economically well off, did not work, were Christian, were white, and had a lot of time on their hands—saw that, despite the official end of slavery, many people were still enslaved, especially poor women. So the ladies got to work.

Here’s The Road North, which cites one of their sources for this information:

“In the latter half of the 19th century, efforts to curb the sale and movement of women for forms of forced labor arose alongside the development of social service as profession (Augustín 2007; Ditmore 2009). At this time well-to-do white Christian women, took a particular interest in the crusade to save women of lesser economic stature, who may or may not have been working in prostitution under force.”

They were the first feminists and the first social workers. And they were very, piously, uncompromisingly Christian.

They looked at their low-income sisters in prostitution, and they saw victims. They saw women who couldn’t get out of poverty, or couldn’t escape cruel, abusive men. They saw women who were, essentially, slaves. And if they did encounter a woman who made her own choice to be a sex worker, our first ladylike Christian crusaders likely saw her as a victim of the economy.

A lot of things have changed in the United States since the 1800s (and even the 1900s). However, we have always been big on Judeo-Christian values. What’s “right and wrong” from a Judeo-Christian perspective are inescapable elements of our cultural framework, and our institutions.

In this morality-based framework, prostitution always creates victims. In this framework, there is no such thing as a respectable sex worker who has made her own choices and actually provides a service to society. She’s just a whore.

“The belief that women are either forced into prostitution, or are promiscuous and deviant, continues to be reflected in current US policy and law enforcement efforts to address human trafficking and prostitution. For example, under the Trafficking Victims Protect Act (TVPA), service providers can only receive federal funding to serve victims of human trafficking if they pledge to ‘oppose the legalization or practice of prostitution.’”

The fight against trafficking in the US is still largely fought by anti-prostitution feminist or religious organizations

And it’s a damn shame, because while the fight against sex trafficking is important, “evidence suggests that most trafficking victims are not forced to work in the sex industry.” They’re involved in forced labor. So in our preoccupation with sex, we’re overlooking the majority of trafficking victims and slaves in our country.

And that’s the theory about why we conflate sex work with trafficking.

What do you think? Sound plausible? Or do you think that we just equate sex work with sex trafficking because money is involved in both? Or because both are morally repugnant to people?

To learn more, I suggest reading The Road North. It’s a long report, so you can skip ahead to page 14 to read more about what I’ve written here.


L. Marrick is an author, ghostwriter, and suitcase entrepreneur—which is a hipster way of saying she travels and works from her laptop. Her memoir, “Working Girl: 132 Somewhat Moral Values I Learned from a Sex Worker,” tells about when she answered a shady classified ad and wound up working as a sex worker’s personal assistant. Her professional website, Copy&Sundry, is where she connects with ghostwriting and blogging clients.

© L. Marrick 2014. The content of this article, except for quoted or linked source materials, is protected by copyright. Please contact the author at the above links to request usage.

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