Sex Work and Sex Trafficking are Inseparable

By Anna Conkey  Oct. 19, 2016

Sexual exploitation is not something many people look into, or openly discuss, but it should be. Especially, since there has been increasing debate regarding the decriminalization of sex work.

Women’s Studies Professor Susan Cayleff, from San Diego State University, describes sex work in an email as “the labor people, usually women, perform in the sex industries. This can include dancing, massage parlors, prostitution, high-end escort services, phone sex and the like.

“While some argue that it is done willingly, others say when so few other opportunities are available to women to earn a livable wage, it is not really a matter of ‘choice,’ but one of necessity for survival.”

In the U.S. all forms of prostitution are criminalized, however, many feminist groups and similar human rights activists argue that the U.S. legal system should follow the New Zealand model—which decriminalizes sex work—because it gives sex workers access to healthcare, the justice system, labor rights, and helps decrease stigma, violence and abuse of the workers.

In a 2013 article from the Georgetown Journal of International Law titled, “The Case for the Decriminalizing of Sex Work in South Africa,” the authors argue that “decriminalization improves sex worker-police relations and empowers sex workers to protect themselves from violence by refusing dangerous clients, negotiating safer sex practices, and seeking police assistance if they are the victims of crime.”

What this model fails to address, however, is the issue of sex trafficking.

Sex trafficking is when individuals are manipulated either physically or mentally into sex work, their profits often confiscated by a “manager,” and where attempts to leave usually result in violent resistance, according to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center.

Advocates for the decriminalization see sex trafficking and sex work as two issues to be tackled separately. However, sex trafficking survivors argue that this approach is impossible because the two are intrinsically linked.

A 2014 article from the Harvard Law and International Development Society titled, “Does Legalized Prostitution Increase Human Trafficking,” shows that “on average, countries with legalized prostitution report a greater incidence of human trafficking inflows,” since the supply of willing sex workers does not meet the demand for sex.

In the 2015 winter issue of Cancer inCytes Magazine, which supports cancer research and social justice for victims of sexual exploitation, Jeri Moomaw—a sex trafficking survivor—writes an open letter warning against the efforts to decriminalize sex work.

“Prostitution is a system of sexual exploitation that requires abolition, not social sanction,” Moomaw said. “It is a system whereby individuals are supplied as public, sexual commodities, which preys upon vulnerable members of society and is rife with violence against those sold for sex. Decriminalization of prostitution in no way rectifies the conditions of inequality, abuse, violence, and dehumanization which animate all forms of prostitution; it tragically assents to them.”

Sex trafficking survivors accuse those who support decriminalizing sex work of marginalizing sex trafficking victims and ignoring their pleas to follow the Swedish—or Nordic model—which criminalizes sex work for the “managers” and buyers, but not the prostitutes.

While the Nordic model has succeeded in lessening sex work on the streets and allowed for the mobilization of those who are sexually exploited, opponents claim that the apparent decrease in prostitution is only because sex workers must go underground for fear of losing clients. This leaves them at risk for greater violence and abuse, according to “The Case for the Decriminalizing of Sex Work in South Africa.”

The issue really boils down to freedom of will. Do we support the choice of sex workers to do the job they choose, or do we support the sex trafficking victims who do not even have a choice?

There is no consensus on how many sex workers are even there by choice, and not actually sex trafficking victims, because of the stigmatization and illicit nature of sex work.

What we do know is that sex workers will usually suffer some form of abuse during their time in the industry—if they ever get out.

Research in nine countries found that 60 to 75 percent of women in prostitution were raped, 70 to 95 percent were physically assaulted, and 68 percent met the criteria for post traumatic stress disorder, according to the article, “The Link Between Prostitution and Sex Trafficking,” provided by the U.S. Department of State.

Activists argue that decriminalized sex workers will aide against sex trafficking by being able to identify sexual exploitation when it occurs. This in turn is countered by trafficking survivors who say their victimizers are the very people who support decriminalization.

In another open letter from the 2015 winter issue of Cancer inCytes Magazine, sex trafficking survivor Alisa Bernard wrote about her experience while voting against the decriminalization policy at a human rights event in L.A. earlier in 2015.

“In no other issue would you see the victimized voting on their rights in the same room as their victimizers: the pimps, the brothel owners, and the buyers,” Bernard said. “You would not ask batterers to vote on the rights of those who have been domestically abused. Why would you allow buyers and pimps to vote on the rights of the prostituted women they abuse, rape, violate, and murder?”

It is time people realize the truth about legalizing sex work: it is a selfish effort to ensure pimps and johns have the right to buy and sell human bodies. The rich traffickers and buyers are funding this effort, recruiting big-name human rights activists and feminists to back them, and bullying the victimized into silence. The trafficked do not have the money to fight back. Their voices are not being heard. So, anyone who supports the legalization of sex work cannot say they care about human rights, as they are actively working to oppress them.