Sex Work Is Not Sex Trafficking

Around the world, selling sex is as inflammatory an issue as abortion. It’s just as divisive, too—particularly among feminists and in the global human rights community.

At the 2012 AWID Forum—the largest women’s rights gathering in the world—sex workers’ rights took center stage. Panel discussions and plenary sessions featured sex workers from Burma, Thailand and Cambodia, along with myriad organizations—including several AJWS grantees—that protect sex workers from human rights violations. One grantee offered a clever metaphor to capture how sex work is relatively alien to women’s rights conversations. “Imagine you go to a restaurant with a friend,” she said. “You order beef. But your friend explains she is vegetarian, so she orders a plate of rice and vegetables. You look at her plate and think to yourself, ‘This is a bit strange; a little different.’ But it’s a choice on the menu. And it’s a choice she made herself, just like any other choice. That’s sex work—a choice.”

People who are engaged in the sex work debate generally fall into two camps: 1) Those who understand sex work as a labor rights issue and want to decriminalize prostitution; 2) Those who view selling sex as an exploitative trap and, therefore, call for intensified criminalization and government sanctions. Ultimately, the debate is animated by two core questions: How much choice, agency and consent do sex workers have in their lives and in their work? How do policymakers and activists respond to actual or perceived violence?

Questions aside, I’m struck by how loaded the language is in this debate. Sex slavery, sex trafficking, sex trade, sex work, sexual commerce—there’s a lot to unpack. It’s similar to the feminist debate about pornography in which “abolitionist feminists” often describe pornography as “rape on paper”—a sensationalized charge that sometimes reflects reality and sometimes doesn’t.

I’m also struck by how sex trafficking is increasingly conflated with sex work. Clearly, the issues are different: Sex trafficking refers to forced migration of human beings—often minors—for sexual exploitation and coercive labor. Sex work refers to people—women, men and transgender individuals—who sell sex to earn a living. Sex work is work and, more often than not, it’s a job that one chooses in order to support his or her family.

But policy makers continue to overlook this distinction and, in doing so, infringe upon sex workers’ rights and fundamental human rights. For example, in Cambodia, the 2008 Law on Suppression of Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation and the severe stigma attached to doing adult sex work, have made it almost impossible for sex workers to access justice, healthcare and social security systems. The law has given rise to police raids on brothels where sex workers are “rescued” against their will. They are often retrained for jobs in low-wage garment factories and/or repatriated into their villages without access to the income they need to survive. “Rescue” by the police frequently exposes sex workers to more dangerous conditions in so-called rehabilitation centers. As one of our grantees put it, “What do you expect when a sex worker is ‘rescued’ by the most oppressive arm of the state?”

In a sex workers’ union office in Phnom Penh, a banner pinned to the wall reads, “Don’t talk to me about sewing machines. Talk to me about workers’ rights”—a clear message that interventionists need to rethink their approach.

A silent film, created by AJWS grantee EMPOWER, about sex worker "Rescue Operations" in Thailand

A similar situation exists in Thailand where raids and “rescue operations” happen regularly. AJWS grantee EMPOWER created a Charlie Chaplin-style silent film that quite brilliantly depicts these “rescue operations.”

At the end of the day, the distinction between sex trafficking and sex work is clear. But the question remains: which policies will most effectively safeguard trafficking victims without exposing sex workers to harm? It’s simple, really. An AJWS grantee put it quite succinctly: “Nothing about us, without us.” If we intend to develop policies that are fair and just, we must solicit input from sex workers themselves.

Jordan Namerow is the senior communications associate of American Jewish World Service.

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8 Responses to Sex Work Is Not Sex Trafficking

  1. Incomplete or wrong understanding of terms is detrimental to abolishing the horrors of modern day slavery and rescuing the millions of victims. Nor does it add to your cause.

    Human trafficking can include but does not require movement. “Trafficking in persons” and “human trafficking” have been used as umbrella terms for the act of recruiting, harboring, transporting, providing, or obtaining a person for compelled labor or commercial sex acts through the use of force, fraud, or coercion. The Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) of 2000 (Pub. L. 106-386), as amended, and the Palermo Protocol describe this compelled service using a number of different terms, including involuntary servitude, slavery or practices similar to slavery, debt bondage, and forced labor.
    When an adult is coerced, forced, or deceived into prostitution – or maintained in prostitution through one of these means after initially consenting – that person is a victim of sex trafficking. A person’s initial consent to participate in prostitution is not legally determinative: if one is thereafter held in service through psychological manipulation or physical force, he or she is a trafficking victim.
    When a child (under 18 years of age) is induced to perform a commercial sex act, proving force, fraud, or coercion against their pimp is not necessary for the offense to be characterized as human trafficking.

    • Carol says:

      The horrors of trafficking are not being “abolished” by clarification of issues and terminology. In fact, it is anti-prostitution and “end the demand” legislation and campaigns are what place trafficked and non-trafficked women and girls in prison – in the US and abroad.

  2. Sex workers of Empower in Thailand also produced a report “Hit & Run” on the human rights abuses incurred in the name of anti trafficking law and policy in Thailand. Its can be downloaded on our website.
    Patricia sex workers here are willing and ready to help you in “rescuing the millions of victims” its just that they don”t seem to exist. Even if we met them the curent option of ‘rescue, rehaibiltate and deport’ is not the solution. Traffikcing is a rights issue…Right to migrate, Right to work, Right to be recognized as a person before the law…..
    The Emperor is naked!

  3. Carol Leigh says:

    Thanks for this essay, supporting the voices of sex workers in this discourse. Another great movie on this issue is “Bad Rehab” from APNSW.ORG

    I do think it’s crucial to acknowledge that ‘sex work,’ commercial sex IS within the rubric of ‘sex trafficking’ in US law and may also be in the UN Protocol. (I see you point this out in the Cambodian law…I would guess that the majority of states reflect similar equations) I understand that this complicates the discourse, but it basically points to the flaws with anti-trafficking frameworks in general, which I think is crucial to this discussion. In short, commercial sex and trafficking are historically (and inextricably?) linked. Contemporary definitions (UN Protocol) pry them apart slightly and weakly…supporting states which choose to conflate commercial sex and trafficking, as well as states which don’t.

    Again, as you explain, sex workers should be empowered to take a lead in addressing abuses, violence, force, within their own industries. This is now done in at least one context (DMSC) under the rubric of anti-trafficking…looking for other examples of this work done under that rubric…there is work around combating abuse by sex worker groups, of course.

    Here are the quotes from the documents:


    US- Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000
    SEX TRAFFICKING- The term `sex trafficking’ means the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for the purpose of a commercial sex act.

    The issue in the UN Protocol is a bit murkier ( )

    Acknowledging this also will help us unpack as you explain above, and ultimately, change laws…in the case of the UN, exploitation should be defined as force, abuse, etc.

  4. Carol says:

    It is critical to clarify the definition of trafficking (all aspects) and stop the anti-porn/prostitution war which empowers traffickers, the mafia and all criminals – just as it did in the prohibition era.

  5. Pingback: Why I Traveled to the Sex Workers’ Freedom Festival | Global Voices

  6. Jody says:

    I posted something about this page on my Facebook at Traffickingandprostitutionservicesonline. I’d like you to come there, like me and post your comments please.

  7. Pingback: The Girls on the Go: You Don’t Have to Get a Gimmick (And Other Thoughts on Sex-Worker Roles)

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