Sex Work is to Trafficking as Sex is to Rape

If you’ve been paying attention to the evolution of the current debates around sex work, you’ve probably noticed that more and more people are conflating sex work and trafficking. Of course, there have always been plenty of people willing to slut shame, attack, and blame women who have sex for money in order to try to control them. For some reason, these folks almost never talk about men and transgender sex workers, though. And as this article points out, “Legislation and social discussion have often blurred or denied any difference [between sex work and trafficking], but that has always made things worse rather than better for those involved.”

Just to be clear, I would LOVE to live in a world in which nobody was forced, coerced, or tricked into sexual slavery. For that matter, I would LOVE to live in a world in which there were no sweatshops or agricultural and domestic trafficking, although to make that happen, we (as a society) would need to be willing to pay people a fair wage for their labor. Instead, we’d rather give huge amounts of money to the CEOs and stockholders and get cheap sneakers. Hmmm.

In any case, part of the problem is that most people who have not been sex workers don’t really understand how the industry works. And of course, the most visible sex workers are the people working the streets, so it’s easy to not realize or to forget that there are lots of folks doing sex work who don’t work the streets. That makes them pretty much invisible unless you know which websites to look on or they get outed.

I’ve been trying to figure out a good way to explain the difference between sex work and trafficking. Of course, what it comes down to is consent and choice. If you’re choosing to do it and if you have control over which clients you see, how much you charge, where you work, what services you provide, and such, then it’s obviously not trafficking. While the anti-sex work folks would like to convince you that these situations are rare, the report Beyond Gender An Examination Of Exploitation In Sex Work makes it clear that their version simply isn’t true. There’s a lot more diversity among their motivations and experiences than you might realize. (thanks to Belle de Jour for the tip)

It’s also worth noting that it’s entirely possible for someone to choose to travel in order to do sex work, just as one can choose to travel in order to do any job. Most anti-trafficking/anti-sex work folks and most legal responses lump them all together, regardless of how any individual describes as their motivation or experiences.

So I think it’s time to come up with a strategy for ending sexual trafficking without attacking or blaming sex workers and their clients. As part of that, I’d like to offer an analogy that I think makes clear what the differences are:

sex work is to trafficking as sex is to rape

Just as we can work to end sexual assault without trying to end all sex, we can work to end trafficking without trying to eradicate sex work. And just as we can support survivors of sexual assault without blaming them (although that certainly isn’t how lots of people approach the issue), we can support people who have been trafficked without criminalizing them. So I think this may become my new slogan. If you understand the difference between sex and rape, then you understand the difference between sex work and trafficking.

From there, we can start asking some useful questions, like whether a particular individual was able to make meaningful choices and what we can do to support them. (hint: ask them, listen to their answers, and then find a way to do what they say they need even if it isn’t what you think they need or what you think they should want) But until we can stop talking about sex work and trafficking as if they’re always the same thing, we’re not going to get anywhere and we certainly aren’t going to help the people who need and deserve it.

Say it with me: sex work is to trafficking as sex is to rape.

Post Tagged with ,

30 Responses so far.

  1. msjadis says:

    Once again you’ve hit the nail right on the head. Thank you!

      (Quote)  (Reply)

  2. Great post ~ thanks!

      (Quote)  (Reply)

  3. questioning says:

    so where does ‘survival sex’ or ‘subsistence sex’ fit in? … i have heard these terms used to differentiate between ‘sex work’ (of free choice) versus being ‘forced’ or ‘coerced’ to some degree (but not trafficked, perhaps it is because of lack of other options / need for money for food/shelter/drugs/whatever, but the key being it is not what the person wants to be doing, but they are ‘choosing’ it) … some people/advocacy groups seem to make the distinction, and will talk about sex work exclusive from that, while others (like your article seems to) just make a distinction between sex work and trafficking without acknowledging the nuanced factors of ‘choice’ that some people’s circumstances dictate (often affected by various marginalizations – racism, colonialism, classism, sexism)

      (Quote)  (Reply)

  4. I would be curious to hear your thoughts on people who “co-opt” the term sex work in order to talk about trafficking and child exploitation. For example, I was searching around this morning for conferences on sex work and it’s often difficult to isolate whether a conference is going to be a comprehensive look at sex work or whether it’s a condemnation of consensual sex work alongside discussions of trafficking and exploitation. It disturbs me when I see the word “sex work” used in that way.

    See: http://www.prostitutionconference.com/

      (Quote)  (Reply)

  5. Charlie says:

    @questioning

    It’s a good question and one that I think is implicit in my sentence: “From there, we can start asking some useful questions, like whether a particular individual was able to make meaningful choices and what we can do to support them.” I think it’s a piece of the puzzle that needs more space to unpack, especially since it’s related to issues of labor that aren’t sexual. After all, how many people who flip burgers for minimum wage are doing it because they actually want to versus needing the money?

    So I’ll bounce the question back to you- do you think someone working whatever job they have in order to get by is making a choice? When it’s done in the context of there being almost no support system for the unemployed? Some people have more choices open to them, depending on their social class, education, gender, age, race, etc. but almost everyone’s choices are still limited and plenty of people work at jobs that are not what they want to be doing but they are still choosing it (and I’m not putting that word in quotes).

    So at what point do you decide that it’s ok for one person and not another person to make those decisions? Does it matter if their labor is sexual?

      (Quote)  (Reply)

  6. Charlie says:

    @Astrid

    You probably won’t be surprised to hear that I have a lot of anger about that. The issues of trafficking, exploitation, and child abuse are important enough to deserve our attention without attacking people who make a deliberate (and often quite thoughtful) choice to engage in sexual labor.

    The fact that the people who use the terms interchangeably almost always ignore men and transgender people who are sex workers in order to focusing on women and children makes me think that they don’t trust adult women to make choices about how they live their lives. The fact that they make sweeping statements about how people experience sex work tells me that either they’ve never talked to a representative sample or they’re lying. And the fact that they use shame and bullying in order to harass sex workers and their clients tells me that, fundamentally, they don’t respect them.

    They do all of those things and then convince people that they care about women, know how the sex industry works, and want to help people. I feel a lot of anger about that and I want them to stop.

      (Quote)  (Reply)

  7. questioning says:

    yes, i did see the ‘meaningful choice’ term in your piece

    and i do see the link to labour issues, ‘wage slavery’, needing to make money, etc … but i do think it matters that it is sexual – when it comes to ‘consent’, it seems like, to riff off your title, perhaps when sex work isn’t ‘free choice’ it is kind of like ‘saying yes to sex’ under duress, ie someone keeps pressuring you, you don’t want to, but feel like the alternative to saying ‘yes’ might be worse than asserting your will to say ‘no’ … and it does seem many do make a distinction between (priority on) autonomy over one’s own physical/sexual body versus other aspects of our being, like how we spend our time etc

    it’s not about saying it’s ok for some people to make decisions and others not, it’s actually asking for some accountability for people who ‘support sex workers’ to actually “find a way to do what they say they need even if it isn’t what you think they need or what you think they should want” … from what i have seen and heard, there are advocacy groups that will support sex workers in doing sex work, but not in getting out of the work if that is what they express a desire for .. and also to recognize the systems of oppression that create different experiences of sex work for different people/groups

    and i put ‘choice’ in quotes because i was reading a research report done on sex work (by a sex work advocacy group) that quoted someone as saying she had ‘no choice but to work’ (referring to sex work) and then the authors summarized that by saying everyone is making choices but within different limitations (although elsewhere in the paper they stress the importance of the sex workers own perspectives and not to twist their words to say what you want to say)

      (Quote)  (Reply)

  8. Charlie says:

    Ah- now I see what you’re getting at.

    I’m not aware of any organization that supports sex workers that would try to keep anyone in the business, although there are some people who might get defensive if someone leaving sex work got self-righteous about it or started attacking the organization (both of which I have personally seen happen). Helping someone stop being a sex worker might be outside the scope of an organization’s practices, but I’d expect them to be able to help someone find whatever resources are available. All of the organizations that I know of (as well as most of the individuals in the industry whom I know) would be in support of that.

    So maybe it depends on what you mean by “support”. There’s a difference between emotional support (i.e. saying “I support you”) and actually having resources, suggestions, or contacts to assist someone. The groups I know would all do the first, but not all of them are able to do the second. But I’d like to know what your observations about that are in more detail, if you can share it without breaking confidentiality.

    And thanks for clarifying what your quotes meant. I thought you were using them as scare quotes, when you were distinguishing the word from the rest of the text. That makes more sense. Yeah- the issue of choice is deeply affected by privilege and oppression, as well as individual perceptions (it’s common for people to not see some of their options, for example).

    But I think you and I are on the same page- many of these tricky questions can also apply to sex v. rape. For example, I had a friend once who, for a variety of reasons, didn’t know how to say no to an offer of sex when she was younger. She told me that she’d often felt like she had no choice and that she felt raped by her partners, even when they asked her if she wanted to have sex and she said yes. They had done everything that they were supposed to- asked for and got an affirmative answer. And they’d had no idea that she didn’t feel like she had a choice. So where does that fall on the sex/rape line? I think it really highlights that it isn’t always a line. When I knew her, she was able to make the distinction that she had felt raped, and they her partners had not raped her, but it took her a long time to be able to do that.

    The parallel here is that someone might not feel like they have the option to say no because they need to pay the bills and sex work is the only option they can see. Even if they say yes to a particular partner, there’s still an underlying lack of agency, which is somewhat similar to my friend’s experiences.

    It’s easy to say (as I did) that it’s about choice and consent, and in reality, choice and consent are not always an absolute.

      (Quote)  (Reply)

  9. Kelly James says:

    “Sex work is to trafficking as sex is to rape”

    Fantastic analogy. Love it. Clear, concise, and impossible to misinterpret even for those unfortunate enough to suffer from cognitive impairment.

    However, I do think that choice is an absolute for the simple reason that something must be. We have the choice to get up in the morning and try to do something positive or to stay in bed and do nothing; if we have no choice, no control, if life is totally random – why does anyone even bother getting out of bed? Our natural rights work in a similar fashion – we each have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. One must make a choice to pursue happiness as happiness is not a guarantee of natural rights, only the opportunity for it’s pursuit. If an able minded consenting adult says yes to sex than it cannot under any circumstance be considered rape because if it is…where do we draw the line? In my opinion we as a society need to take back ownership of and responsibility for our individual choices….unless we want those choices to be made for us. I for one do not.

    Sorry for the rant LOL I’m known to do that on occasion. Anyways, back to the topic…truly great post :-)

      (Quote)  (Reply)

  10. I want to second what Charlie said. Just because somebody does sex work out of less than ideal circumstances does not automatically make them a victim of rape each and every time they are paid for sex. A ‘nuanced factor’ the “prostitution is paid rape” crowd seems to miss.

      (Quote)  (Reply)

  11. @Astrid

    The Toledo Conference has been going on for a few years, and is actually one of the few venues where those with very different perspectives on sex work meet in the same venue. (At least that’s the way it was a few years ago – not sure if the “abolitionist”/law enforcement perspective has become more dominant since then.) Though that conference also unfortunately tends to be an academic/NGO conference *about* sex workers *without* much in the way of sex worker participation, a big mark against it, in spite of its relative pluralism.

      (Quote)  (Reply)

  12. Charlie says:

    @Kelly

    Thanks for the kind words, although I don’t know that there’s anything that certain folks will find impossible to misinterpret. :-)

    I don’t agree that there needs to be an absolute simply because you say that there must be one. I understand that you want there to be one, and it would certainly make things easier in some ways, but that doesn’t mean it has to be true.

    I’ve certainly heard it said that we always have a choice. A political prisoner may have the choice between signing a “confession” or being shot and, yes, that is a choice. Similarly, countless people throughout history have had the choice between sex work and starvation. And a lot of people have said “yes” to sex at knifepoint or gunpoint, because their livelihoods or children were threatened, or because they were being extorted. From your perspective, they made a choice and in a way that’s true- there was another option that they decided against. But I don’t consider those to be meaningful choices at all because of the contexts in which they happened.

    Consent requires the ability to make a meaningful choice, so we agree that “if an able minded consenting adult says yes to sex”, then it isn’t rape. And I think we disagree about what it means to have that meaningful choice. I see a difference between consent and compliance.

      (Quote)  (Reply)

  13. Geoff Capp says:

    You wrote: “I had a friend once who, for a variety of reasons, didn’t know how to say no to an offer of sex when she was younger. She told me that she’d often felt like she had no choice and that she felt raped by her partners, even when they asked her if she wanted to have sex and she said yes. They had done everything that they were supposed to- asked for and got an affirmative answer. And they’d had no idea that she didn’t feel like she had a choice.”

    This highlights for me a thought I have hitherto been unable to articulate about the central problem of the consent model: no one is ever able to determine with a high degree of accuracy the degree of consent truly existing in another person. Sometimes, for good or ill, “no” is the coy “yes,” whereas here “yes” was the confused and unempowered “no.” Until the response becomes relatively extreme—mace, screaming, or “not if you were the last immigrant grocer on Earth, honey” for the former; jumping one’s bones for the latter—ambiguity remains.

    None of which should detract from efforts to seek consent, as it remains the most functional model we’ve yet found, but I think this does, or should, add some salt to the dish.

      (Quote)  (Reply)

  14. Charlie says:

    @Torn

    To be honest, I don’t know. All I know is that what we’re doing is more of what we’ve always done and that hasn’t worked.

    One of the challenges of decriminalization is that, unless it’s widespread (and perhaps, world-wide), some people will travel to locations where sex work is legal, both in order to work (which is often considered trafficking even when it’s voluntary) and to be clients (which is often called sex tourism). That creates its own difficulties.

    So I don’t know what the answer is. I believe that until and unless we actually listen to sex workers and clients across the spectrum of the industry, any solution is going to be ineffective because it won’t reflect the experiences of the people we’re talking about. Answers that are imposed from outside are rarely useful.

      (Quote)  (Reply)

  15. Charlie says:

    @Geoff

    Unfortunately, that’s true. Until we have telepathy, all we can go with is what someone says. And to make it more complex, our projections of what we want to hear can make it difficult to discern when a “yes” is (as you say, an unempowered “no”. That’s true in any arena and even more so when sexual arousal is involved.

    I think you overstate things when you say that “no one is ever able to determine with a high degree of accuracy the degree of consent truly existing in another person”. I think it’s possible to have a high degree of accuracy, but it takes practice to be able to so.

    How do we know that we can trust a potential partner to be to able to communicate honestly and authentically, in any circumstances, much less sexual negotiation? One good way is to have the conversation in a non-sexual setting. Talk about it after you have an interest (and after you think that the other person/people have an interest) and before you get so turned on that you’re strongly attached to the outcome of the conversation. Then, step back and sleep on it. Sure- you can make plans for a follow up date, but make it for a few days or further down the road. If anyone decides that they were being hasty, there’s room to talk about it, or cancel the date. It’s a great way to find a high degree of confidence that consent is genuine. Not 100%, but generally enough to bet on.

    Granted, if you have a partner already, you probably don’t need to go through all that, but hopefully by then, you have a sense of their level of consent anyway.

      (Quote)  (Reply)

  16. @Torn “Today, for an average customer, there is no good way to determine whether or not a sex worker was trafficked.”
    I disagree. It’s entirely possible to know a good bit about the sex worker whose services you engage. For example, I live in Seattle. There are dozens of independent sex workers here who have been highly and consistently visible for years. They have their own websites. They post in conversations on message boards. Some of them have blogs or twitters and post there a lot. Some of them attend client/provider meet-and-greet events.
    This is not the profile of a woman who is being forced to do sex work. If you meet a clearly-adult woman who’s been doing sex work for a long time, who has a good professional reputation based on feedback from many different sources, a woman who answers her own phone, makes her own appointments, and collects her own fee, she is not being forced to do this.
    There are women like this in every city in the US. And there are plenty of guys who do the fairly minimal amount of googling required to find them. So it is entirely possible to know that you’re dealing with someone who is NOT being forced to do sex work.

      (Quote)  (Reply)

  17. Seattle Lili says:

    Thank you. You’ve said that perfectly

      (Quote)  (Reply)

  18. I agree with your points about trafficking Charlie. But I do not accept your analogy of ‘sex is to rape as sex work is to trafficking’.

    It is neat and people will remember it but it doesn’t make sense.

    Sex work can include rape for a start. Sex workers can be agentic and making choices, and still get raped by clients or anyone else, especially street workers who are vulnerable in their environment.

    Also ‘consent’ is often a muddy area in sex. And sometimes in sex work too, so this nice delineation between consenting sex and rape, and consenting sex work and ‘trafficking’ doesn’t always work.

    One issue that is very specific to sex work is economics. And power involved in economic relationships is complex. And some ‘consenting sexual relationships’ have complex economic issues in them too.

    I think I might say instead, that sex is to power what sex work is to power…

    But that is not quite so neat.

      (Quote)  (Reply)

  19. Charlie says:

    @Quiet Riot Girl

    I’m not exactly sure what it is that you’re objecting to. Is it that the analogy I draw is limited? Of course it is. All analogies are. It’s not meant to be an isomorphic relationship. And I stand by my point, which is that the difference between sex work and trafficking is consent, just as it’s the difference between sex & rape.

    I think if you read both my comments on this post and some of my other posts on consent, I think you’ll find that I understand that there are more nuances than are usually talked about. So are you suggesting that I’m oversimplifying? Sure, I can accept that. And I disagree with you that there’s no value in making this comparison. If it gets people to realize that there’s a difference between sex work and trafficking, in language that cuts through their preconceived notions, then making it simple helps.

      (Quote)  (Reply)

  20. maybe but it reinforces the idea that the difference between ‘sex and rape’ is simple.

    I will read your stuff on consent! I might post some of my blogposts on your posts so you can read some of mine too.

    But simple statements about sex and power I find are more misleading than useful. Even Foucault thought reducing his writings to ‘Knowledge is Power’ (which he never said or wrote) was not helpful to understanding his ideas.

      (Quote)  (Reply)

  21. Charlie says:

    On one hand, I do think that the difference between sex & rape is simple- it’s one of consent. On the other hand, I certainly know that consent is a slippery thing. In some situations, people don’t feel empowered to say no. In some, the costs of saying no include injury to themselves or others, loss of jobs or economic support, or other severe consequences. Emotional coercion, physical violence, blackmail, and drugs/alcohol are also used to overcome or negate someone’s consent. But the fact that consent is not always easy to define or identify doesn’t change my opinion that it makes the difference between sex & rape or sex work & trafficking.

      (Quote)  (Reply)

  22. Lady Grinning Soul says:

    Yes yes yes! THANK YOU! You’ve put it so clearly and succinctly here. Also, to sort of further this discussion, I grow increasingly angry with governments who make certain strains of sex work illegal, as it inevitably leads to more trafficking! It is infuriating! I want to go and write “Sex work is to trafficking as sex is to rape” all over the houses of parliament.

      (Quote)  (Reply)

  23. Nicholas says:

    Does this “(hint: ask them, listen to their answers, and then find a way to do what they say they need even if it isn’t what you think they need or what you think they should want)” refer to the sex workers or the trafficking victims?

    Cause how can a client distinguish the one from the other if the client cares for that distinction? Just by asking them?

      (Quote)  (Reply)

  24. Charlie says:

    @Nicholas- mostly, that’s in reference to work on the political level, rather than on the client/provider level. And it applies in both cases, IMO.

    As far as how clients can distinguish between those providers who are working from choice v. otherwise (whether they were trafficked or not), some possibilities include: are they able and willing to set limits and boundaries with clients? Do they work independently or as part of a house? Do they make their own appointments and negotiate with clients directly, or does someone else decide when they work and what they do? Do they have their own websites and participate on the message boards? This comment describes some of the other useful signs.

      (Quote)  (Reply)

  25. Chris says:

    There is a lot of controversy over the topics of sex trafficking, sex slavery, human trafficking and forced prostitution. Regarding what the definition is, the research methods used to find statistics, what the definition of a victim is, the number of child and adult victims involved, forced vs. unforced sex, how the actual prostitutes themselves feel about it, and legal vs. illegal prostitution.

    There is a growing number of well respected researchers, journalists, scientists, professors, that have concluded in their research that the sex trafficking, sex slavery concept is based on emotion, morals, and monetary funding rather than facts, evidence and proof. They state that very few kidnapped, forced against their will, physically abused, raped sex slave prostitutes for profit have been found throughout the world. Their research concludes that women who enter into this type of work do so of their own free will.

    They also state that there are many anti-prostitution groups who simply do not like the idea of consensual adult prostitution and have distorted the facts in order to push their agenda and receive funding and money into their organizations in the form of donations, grants and to change the laws about prostitution. They state that these anti-prostitution groups use made up child sex trafficking statistics which they have no proof or evidence of in order to gain public acceptance for their cause. Which they then pass onto the mainstream media as press releases.

    Women who travel of their own free will to engage in sex work for money, normally do not tell their families, friends, relatives the real reason they are traveling. They usually tell the people in their lives back home that they are traveling to engage in legitimate work such as working in a restaurant, hotel, etc. They do this because they do not want to be thought of as a slut, whore etc. in their home town. These women would never think of working as a prostitute in their home town where they know a lot of people and would bring disgrace on their family.

    Many anti-prostitution groups distort the facts about this saying that these women were tricked into it against their will expecting to work in a legitimate business. This is not correct. The women knew about the sex work, but do not want the people in their lives back home to know about it, since it is considered very bad to be thought of as a whore, slut, etc. and would bring disgrace to their family.

    Here are links about some these reports:
    http://sextraffickingtruths.blogspot.com/

    http://bebopper76.wordpress.com/2010/11/09/sex-trafficking-lies-myths/

    http://the-myth-of-sex-trafficking.weebly.com/

      (Quote)  (Reply)

  26. Chris says:

    There is a lot of controversy over the numbers of adult woman who are forced sex slaves. The real factual answer is that no one knows. There is hard evidence that the sex slavery/sex trafficking issue continues to report false information and is greatly exaggerated by politicians, the media, and aid groups, feminist and religious organizations that receive funds from the government, The estimate of adult women who become new sex slaves ranges anywhere from 40 million a year to 5,000 per year all of which appear to be much too high. They have no evidence to back up these numbers, and no one questions them about it. Their sources have no sources, and are made up numbers. In fact if some of these numbers are to believed which have either not changed or have been increased each year for the past twenty years, all woman on earth would currently be sex slaves. Yet, very few real forced against their will sex slaves have been found.

    It is not easy for criminals to engage in this activity:

    Sex trafficking is illegal and the penalties are very severe. It is very difficult to force someone to be a sex slave, they would have to have 24 hour guards posted and be watched 365 days a year, 24 hours per day. Have the threat of violence if they refused, and have no one notice and complain to the authorities or police. They would need to hide from the general public yet still manage to see customers from the general public and not have the customers turn the traffickers in to the police. They would need to provide them with medical care, food, shelter, and have all their basic needs met. They would need to have the sex slaves put on a fake front that they enjoyed what they were doing, act flirtatious and do their job well. They would have to deal with the authorities looking for the missing women, and hide any money they may make, since it comes from illegal activity. They must do all of this while constantly trying to prevent the sex slaves from escaping and reporting them to the police. They would need to prevent the general public from reporting them into the police.

      (Quote)  (Reply)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>