Sex Work, Trafficking: Understanding the Difference

Even those who mean well sometimes confuse the human rights abuse of trafficking in persons with the human occupation of prostitution, or sex work. It’s understandable because of the history of the two fields, but it creates rather than solves problems. Let me try to sort it out here.

The tendency to treat trafficking and prostitution as if they were the same thing has a long and problematic history. Legislation and social discussion have often blurred or denied any difference, but that has always made things worse rather than better for those involved.

The trafficking of women and children into sexual slavery is undeniably a gross abuse of human rights. Like all trafficking, it involves coercion or trickery or both. Sex trafficking is an odious forms of trafficking, but it is far from the only one. Men, women and children are also — and more commonly — trafficked routinely for purposes of household and farm labor as well as sweatshop manufacturing. Their lives may be less media-genic than those of sex trafficking victims, but they are no less brutal, dangerous and degraded.

A narrow focus on the single aspect of sex trafficking is often fueled by sensationalistic and sometimes salacious accounts of sexual abuse. It leads us to ignore these other forms of trafficking, and so denies help and protection to all the men, women and children forced into and trapped in abusive working situations in other industries.

By the same token, treating sex work as if it is the same as sex trafficking both ignores the realities of sex work and endangers those engaged in it. Sex workers include men and women and transgendered persons who offer sexual services in exchange for money. The services may include prostitution (sexual intercourse) and other services such as phone sex. Sex workers engage in this for many reasons, but the key distinction here is that they do it voluntarily. They are not coerced or tricked into staying in the business but have chosen this from among the options available to them.

A key goal of sex worker activists is to improve sex-working conditions, but self-organization is impossible when sex work is regarded as merely another form of slavery. Then authorities and laws trying to stop true slavery — trafficking — get misapplied to sex workers, clients and others involved in the sex industry. Law enforcement raids in the U.S. and abroad, for example, have led to little success identifying trafficked persons but instead have driven sex work underground. This exposes sex workers to an increased risk of violence and denies them any protection of laws against assault or access to medical, legal and educational services. It denies them their human rights.

A national anti-trafficking law enacted in 2000 recognizes "severe forms of trafficking" as a modern form of slavery that involves a broad spectrum of workers and industries. In this interpretation, trafficking is clearly distinguished from voluntary sex work and thus avoids the absurdity of equating the fear and suffering of a trafficked person with the typical working conditions of voluntary sex workers. These conditions are often far from ideal, but nevertheless they are far removed from debt bondage or enslavement.

It is regrettable that despite the obvious reality of this perspective, the popular imagination of sex work tends to return to images of young girls forced into sexual slavery. Perhaps people would rather read such stories than hear about more prosaic struggles for workers’ rights — to organize, to be free from harassment, to get decent health care. But their preferences should not be allowed to dictate policy about either human trafficking or sex work.

Traditional standards of morality have been a major influence on legislation aimed at trafficking, and on the ways that trafficking legislation changes the legal treatment of prostitution. But the ‘moral’ position opposing sex work is actually a specific political and ideological position, and its net effect is typically to limit women’s autonomy.

Sex law is often a front for ideology that constrains rather than liberates women. What most appalls me about the recent conflation of trafficking and sex work in law and policy is that some feminists support the confusion. These women would normally never dream of telling other women how to behave, because they have fought against imposed constraints in their own lives. Yet they seem to think it is acceptable to tell sex workers what is best for them, and they are prepared to use dubious political alliances to advance their moral agenda.

Women’s studies professor Donna Hughes even told the National Review that George W. Bush is the president who has done the most for women on the strength of his policies aimed against sex work. The fact that these policies do nothing to halt human trafficking and in fact may be counter-productive seems to be irrelevant. So does the worse fact that President Bush has presided over a deliberate reduction in access to reproductive health care for women in the United States and around the world.

Women are not the only victims when trafficking is conflated with sex work. The confusion squanders opportunities to address real victimization and to assist people in real situations of abuse. Resources, time and energy that might actually help trafficking victims are wasted in sensational "rescues" that are also ineffective and often counterproductive.

There is a clear need to formulate public policy that is less emotionally driven and better able to recognize the real causes, nature and effects of trafficking in persons. People concerned about the health and rights of migrants should choose to talk in terms of migration and mobility and workers’ rights – including sex workers’ rights – rather than confusing matters by using the term "trafficking" with all its attendant baggage. That should help clear the debating field for useful and separate discussions of both.

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  • invalid-0

    Great analysis, thank you for posting this here.

    the popular imagination of sex work tends to return to images of young girls forced into sexual slavery.

    I work with teens involved in the sex trade and “rescuing” is the wrong way to work with youth involved too. I know people like to emphasize youth experiences, except it’s just using them as the so-called “voiceless” when actually teens are speaking out and making it very clear they want real options, not to be locked up in detention centers, psych hospitals and mandated exit programs, which is the current reality for many youth impacted by the sex trade in the U.S.

  • invalid-0

    Thank you so much for outlining this distinction in such a clear, concise manner. It’s shocking how truly conservative our media and cultural imaginary still remain–it’s considered practically impossible for a woman to CHOOSE to become a sex worker. The assumption is always that she must have been forced into her situation, and that assumption has caused as much violence and tragedy in real human lives as the crime of human trafficking.

  • invalid-0

    Thank you, Melissa. We really need to hear this said loudly and more obvious. It’s one of the tragedies of modern feminism that it does need to be said, that so many of the major players of feminism have taken it as an article of faith that sex work equals trafficking, and wind up blithely steamrolling over the lives of other women without a moment’s hesitation. An excellent example is NOW-NY’s campaign against sex ads in the local alternative papers. The pretext, of course, is that by accepting ads for escorts and massage services, the papers are supporting trafficking. But in fact, the campaign to eliminate advertising makes sex work more dangerous for both trafficked and non-trafficked women by driving them deeper underground, and farther away from the resources and connections that might allow them to get help. It also makes it more likely that these women (or men or transpersons) will have to resort to working on the street, rather than in the relative safety of an apartment or hotel room. For anyone who is genuinely interested in the safety and health of women, this is a distinction that must be hammered home again and again until we no longer have to say it.

  • invalid-0

    I echo the sentiments expressed above and thank Melissa for writing this important blog. I had the pleasure of meeting Melissa last July at the sex workers’ advocacy convergence in San Francisco and I think she does such excellent human rights advocacy and a great job of addressing the harms of conflating all prostitution with human trafficking. This conflation does nothing to stop human trafficking, but has resulted in very repressive policies in which sex workers are subject to persecution. Some so-called anti-trafficking policies seem more focused on persecuting sex workers than on stopping human trafficking, and this is a major human rights violation. Anti-trafficking policies need to focus on stopping forced labor rather than persecuting sex workers.

  • invalid-0

    Great article, Melissa.

    I would like share this info from the article, “Bottom of the Barrel”, from Newsweek, March 24, 2008:
    The United Nations International Labor Organization puts the total number of forced laborers worldwide as high as 27 million and the number of trafficked persons in the sex trades at 2 million…and they attribute the causes of trafficking to globalization….Here’s a quote from the article:

    “We talk a lot about trafficking for sexual exploitation [because] sex and violence sells newspapers,” says Richard Danziger, of the Geneva-based International Organization for Migration (IOM).

    Here is the link for that article:

    I would also like to point out that in San Francisco, there is a nonprofit called SAGE that supports itself with grants from the criminalization of sex workers. They direct the individuals who are arrested from sex work into the various programs and services that these individuals usually need. There is no other way to access many of these services, that is, first one must be arrested then they have access to the services, such as rehab, counseling and housing.

    I believe that this would account in large part, for the heavily sexist attitude throughout the city and especially within the services for the poor.

    Thanks for writing and keep up the excellent work,

  • invalid-0

    I see the difference in the definitions of sex workers and trafficking. I will now know how to discern between the two when discussing this topic. I know I am not alone when I say I’m naive to sex work being a woman’s choice. Most of the prostitution I’m aware of is because women don’t have any other choice. It’s not like Pretty Woman (I’m sure you know that too). Many women become prostitutes to pay for drugs or alcohol.

    I know there are establishments like the Bunny Ranch where the women aren’t living on the streets, but I can’t shake the feeling that those women may have other problems that make them resort to sex work. No, I’m not saying “Her daddy didn’t love her” or some BS like that. I just worry that many women try to hide previous abuse with sex. I still have yet to meet someone that is emotionally well and is also an Exotic dancer, for example. Do I think they should be told they can’t dance? No. But I worry that when it comes to sex work, it’s very rare that the woman is in control of herself. Am I making any sense?

    I see the distinction between sex work and trafficking, I’m just unsure that sex work is really a woman’s choice.

    Do you have suggestions for other reading that would help me better understand? Thanks.

  • melissa-ditmore

    Dear Amanda,

    Thank you for your well-stated and clear question. All the comments please me, but your comment that you can talk about these issues separately is really gratifying.


    Now to your question about things to read. Have a look at Carol Leigh’s list of readings for students, which will interest people out of school, too. My favorites today are Laura Agustin’s Sex at the Margins and the anthology Global Sex Workers (edited by Kempadoo and Doezema.) Kate Frank’s G-Strings and Sympathy is about strip club patrons in a big city in the American south. If you would enjoy reading a novel, Tracy Quan’s Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl is a novel whose heroine has worked in a variety of venues and has opinions about the pros and cons of all of them.


    You wrote that you haven’t met a stripper who struck you as ‘emotionally well.’ Sex workers quickly tire of justifying their work, so most don’t usually tell people who might judge or pathologize them. I mentioned your comment to someone who has left sex work for a well-respected position, who said, “I’ve worked so hard to be qualified for this job, to work three times the hours for ten times the stress and one-sixteenth the pay [of sex work].” She described feeling exploited and treated disrespectfully in this more socially accepted position alongside all the reasons that she went into sex work. Her point was that both jobs have advantages and difficulties.




  • invalid-0

    Amanda, in terms of the issues you brought up about choice, people sometimes choose to do things under undesireable circumstances, even outside of the sex industry. To draw an anology, some people consent to get abortions because of unwanted pregnancies. Having an unwanted pregnancy is an undesirable circumstance to be in, but nonetheless, the pro-choice movement still advocates for a woman’s right to choose, even though she is in an undesireable circumstance. The same can be said about prostitution in some cases. I think it’s also important to point out that regardless of whether people choose to work in prostitution under ideal circumstances or not, they don’t choose to be persecuted for working in prostitution. They don’t choose to have police trick them into thinking they’re clients and then arrest them, and they don’t choose to be assaulted and then scared to go to the police out of fear of incriminating themselves.
    I’d also like to comment about your claim that many women work in the sex industry to support drug and alcohol habits. Many women also work in the sex industry to pay their bills and living expenses, tuition, because they find the work they do to be important, or because they can work less hours and earn a higher income than they can in other jobs, thus allowing them more time to engage in activities outside of work. In sum, there are various reasons why people work in the sex industry. I’m not against drug users, but I am against rash overgeneralizations. However, regardless of the reasons why we work in the sex industry, we don’t choose to be persecuted or stigmatized because of it.
    Also, there are various people experiencing emotional difficulties, both inside and outside of the sex industry, so I don’t agree with “otherizing” sex workers because of emotional difficulties some sex workers experience. I wonder what role being persecuted and stigmatized play in the emotional difficulties some sex workers experience.

  • invalid-0

    Hear, HEAR! Punishing kids who ran away from abusive environments and turned to prostitution to support themselves is just WRONG!

  • invalid-0

    Thanks for your reply and your suggestions. I’m reading Listen Up!, the 2001 edition right now. I took a Women’s Studies course in college and decided to re-read some of the literature. I read an essay/article about a woman who chose to have sex and often. She wasn’t a sex worker, but she discussed that she enjoyed having as much sex as she wanted and did. She mentioned that she’d always had a healthy outlook and healthy sexual experiences. That’s when the lightbulb turned on in my brain.

    I’m a survivor so there’s a lot surrounding my thoughts of sex work. I watch Law & Order: SVU and other programs that generalize the work. So, I’m very excited to read the books you suggested. I love to read and I am especially excited about the novel.

    Thank you for taking the time to explain. I can’t wait to learn more.

    Amanda Leigh

  • invalid-0

    “…regardless of the reasons why we work in the sex industry, we don’t choose to be persecuted or stigmatized because of it.”

    Exactly. If I’m reading Melissa’s article correctly, that is part of the change that needs to happen for sex workers. They need to be protected whether they choose sex work or working in a Doctor’s office.

    “Many women also work in the sex industry to pay their bills and living expenses, tuition…”

    I was thinking about this too, but it’s not as publicized. Not that if it’s not publicized, it doesn’t happen, I just have never seen or heard of it. It makes sense that if a woman is going to school full time or has a family that she could be a sex worker part time and make the same amount of money as working a different job full time. Again, if that’s the scenario then the woman is choosing sex work. That makes me much happier than, say what is popular prime time TV, where a woman is a prostitute to get her next score. I need to stop watching TV…

    Thank you for being patient and adding your thoughts. I’m learning and plan to read the books Melissa suggested above. Thanks for your time.
    Amanda Leigh

  • invalid-0

    it is important to distinguish between the crime of human trafficing with sexual work but it is also important to recognize how our system has failed women. In every other civillized country women have support to be a mother(Sweden, Norway etc) In ours we have “welfare reform” which does not allow a woman to even go to school to learn a trade–she is just supposed to get a minimum wage job and somehow survive. My oldest daughter has worked as an “exotic” dancer for a few years now after her husband left her and did not pay support(and then went to prison on drug and asault charges) She gets enough food stamps for about half the month and medicaid for the kids–but nothing else. She tried to work a few jobs but kept getting fired because one of the kids would be sick or her unreliable car would break down and she had some health problems. Working at the club she can set her own hours and makes in 2 nights far more than she would at a regular job. I have helped her all I can and am financially drained. She has told me that the vast majority of strippers are single Moms–maybe 1 out of 20 actually likes being there. As for the drug habits–which comes first? Well many of the women use drugs to help them get through the night of humiliating work–it is one way to numb oneself to reality. Though some do avoid hard drugs–most do smoke pot and drink.Also, where are all those “pro-life” people when women like my daughter need help? Just a side note, I suggested she think strongly about abortion when she was pregnant with #3(she and ex had breifly gotten back togehter and he left her again) She was convinced by anti-abortion people to not “kill” her baby and she went on with the pregnancy, and of course they are nowhere to be seen now that she needs help with her kids. Of course I love my grand son –but since my religous beliefs are that we are not human until ensoulment,which can happen anytime during pregnancy and last time I checked we still had freedom of religion and I believe that souls can and do come back to the same mother, I would have preferred she waited until she met a decent guy to be the father and then the little guy would have had a better life. Anyway, we need change and i hope that with a new president we maybe can have change for the better for women–please everyone get the word out about the dangers of McCAin! See the other articles on this site about his connection with the preachers who are much crazier than REv Wright!

  • invalid-0

    I also worked as an exotic dancer and really believe that exotic dancing should be respected as a beautiful art form rather than treated like a social ill. However, there’s nothing beautiful about the stigmas and disrespect that dancers are sometimes subject to, which I also experienced myself. Doing this work really made me appreciate the talent it takes to get good at exotic dancing and despite the stereotypes, a lot of us didn’t do drugs or get drunk while we were working. I wasn’t a drinker or drug user inside or outside of work. Also, I wasn’t ashamed of dancing and didn’t need to “numb” myself to do my work. However, sometimes I need to emotionally numb myself to deal with the elitist, condescending, and prejudice attitudes that some people express toward sex workers, but I don’t do that with drugs or alcohol.
    In response to anonymous, I recognize that there are people in exotic dancing who don’t ideally want to be doing that, but that’s true of people in various occupations, and just because people in some other occupations keep their clothes on doesn’t make the work more desireable for everybody. Also, being stigmatized and ostracized isn’t a pleasant experience, so that could also have something to do with why some people dislike dancing. Thus, it might not just be the work in and of itself.
    However, from a sex workers’ rights perspective, whether people enjoy working in exotic dancing or not should have nothing to do with our ability to organize for our rights. I say this because I’ve heard and read about clubs threatening to fire dancers if they showed up to a dancers’ rights rally in Las Vegas in 2002. Regardless of whether people ideally want to be dancing or not, they should not be fired for mobilizing for their rights.

  • invalid-0

    I don’t disagree with you Holly –women who work in these fields should be treated with respect and have rights. My point is we as a society have failed when mothers choose to dance or prostitute to support their familys when they would rather be going to school so they can get a good paying day job. I used to be ashamed of what my daughter does but not anymore–I am sad–I would also be sad if she had to work in a meat packing plant with terrible working conditions for minimim wage(one of places the welfare office sent her to)
    Maybe where you work there is less of a drug problem, and I know my daughter says different clubs have more or less of this. She is currently going to NA to deal with her addiction issues so maybe she is more aware of it in the clubs than you are.

  • invalid-0

    Anonymous, best wishes to your daughter as she works to overcome her addiction. I hope everything works out for her and her children. Being a vegetarian, I’d prefer sex work over that job at the meat packing plant that the welfare office tried to send your daughter to. Not to mention, the working conditions and pay are also probably really bad.
    I’d like to reply to the issues you addressed about college. For some people, stripping is how they put themselves through college, so some people are both exotic dancers and college students. I was one of these people when I was an undergraduate.
    I’m currently a student pursuing a graduate degree and between school and my job as a graduate assistant, I find myself having a lot less freetime than I used to and making a lot less money than I did when working in the sex industry. I’d like to be able to devote more time to sex worker advocacy and my exercise routine (need to stay in shape), which I used to be able to do when I was a sex worker. Academia can be elitist and constraining in certain respects and there is some level of ignorance toward sex workers’ rights issues, even though I thought education was supposed to be about expanding people’s minds and stopping ignorance. I guess education isn’t in and of itself a cure for ignorance. However, on the positive side, there are also people in academia who are very supportive of sex workers’ rights and knowledgeable about the issues on a deep level.
    In some ways, I don’t find going to school to be so much better than being a sex worker. This isn’t to say that I don’t like school because I do (or at least certain aspects of it) and I also like my graduate assistantship (even though the pay is really low and I’m struggling finacially between working for low pay and having to pay tuition as well as my other living expenses). Also, I can use my role in academia to educate people about sex workers’ rights issues and challenge the prejudices and overgeneralizations about sex workers. After all, that’s what academia should be about-education and expanding people’s minds. In some ways, I found sex work and sex worker advocacy to be much more of an education than going to college, but I think academia is somewhere in which I can make a positive difference.

  • invalid-0

    Oh, and one more thing……….I totally agree with Anonymous about the welfare system in the U.S. It definately needs improvement. Parents receiving welfare need to have opportunities to earn liveable wages and to attend college or other forms of vocational training which will provide opportunities to improve their incomes, rather than being sent to work in low-wage jobs where they don’t make enough money to support their families.

  • invalid-0

    If Ms. Ditmore is the editor of a journal called Research for Sex Work, why is there no mention of any research supporting her opinion that most sex workers willingly choose prostitution and want to remain in sex work if only social stigma were lessened? Is there any research supporting this opinion?

  • invalid-0

    I think you’re missing the point of Melissa’s article, Juliewhen. Melissa isn’t saying that most sex workers do or don’t ideally want to work in the sex industry. What I think she’s trying to get across is how harmful it is to conflate all prostitution with sex work. (Please correct me if I’m wrong, Melissa). Though I think she did an excellent job of addressing the harms of conflating all prostitution with trafficking, I noticed that some of the replies focused on writing about sex workers as drug users and drinkers or disputing whether people ideally want to work in the sex industry (without also addressing whether people want to be persecuted or stigmatized for working in the sex industry), even though these issues weren’t what Melissa’s article was about. As I mentioned in a previous post on this thread, I agree with Melissa that conflating all prostitution with human trafficking is such a dangerous conflation, and I wish more of the replies addressed this important issue. I’m concerned that some people are so preoccupied with pathologizing sex workers and the whole sex industry that they overlook this harmful conflation and the harms of criminalizing prostitution.

  • melissa-ditmore

    Juliewhen, thank you for your question. There is considerable research documenting that sex workers are not all trafficked. I’m currently reading the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women’s report Collateral Damage, which includes information about Thai women working in brothels in Australia. The Thai women told the researcher that they knew they would be working in brothels but that they did not know that they would be forced to endure terrible conditions including debt bondage. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for migrants in any sector to say the same, and the report also includes information about migrants in Thailand who faced abuse in domestic work and fishing.


    Holly, thank you for replying. You are right about the main point of this piece.



  • invalid-0

    You didn’t answer the question about research, you gave an anecdote.

    The question was about research that supports the position most women in prostitution made the choice as consenting adults so the abuses they suffer in brothels should be considered substantively different than the abuses enslaved women suffer in brothels.

    I don’t understand how a purported woman’s choice to be a sex worker is supposed to change how we deal with a man who abuses her. A rapist is a rapist, and rape is not a labor infraction, so what does it matter if a raped Thai woman chose to work in a brothel or was forced when it’s the actions of rapists we should be focusing on?

  • invalid-0

    Juliewhen wrote:
    “I don’t understand how a purported woman’s choice to be a sex worker is supposed to change how we deal with a man who abuses her.”
    Regardless of why a woman works in the sex industry, this shouldn’t affect how we deal with a man who abuses her. Women in the sex industry deserve the same protection under the law as women outside of the sex industry. Thus, abuse in the sex industry should be treated like abuse rather than just like “part of the job description.” When people conflate all sex industry work with abuse, that does nothing to stop abuse and it treats abuse like nothing more than part of the job. This would be like telling somebody who is abused in marriage that abuse is just part of marriage.
    Furthermore, under the criminalization of prostitution, sex workers in prostitution are denied equal protection under the law and these workers cannot report abuse without incriminating themselves in the process and they are less likely to go to the police when they are trying to run away from the police. This makes sex workers in prostitution easier targets for abuse because perpetrators, who are sometimes the law enforcement officials enforcing the anti-prostitution laws, can rest assured that they are almost guaranteed to get away with the abuse. So, in closing, the reasons why a woman works in the sex industry shouldn’t affect how a man who abuses her is dealt with, but because of the stigmas associated with sex workers and the criminalization of prostitution, it unfortunately does. Many times, the abusive man isn’t even dealt with at all.

  • invalid-0

    I am very intrigued in to this subject and am thinking about studying it in more depth.
    What you are saying about paying bills, with the money they earn from the job to be honest is just common sense to me.
    But of course all the representations of women as prostitutes overwhelmingly tell me they have a drug problem or being forced.
    I would never do it, but the thought of getting a lump sum of money and not paying taxes on it is almost tempting, but only almost, as unlike other employment there is no regulation, so anything can happen to you as a sex worker. Raped,beaten etc…because if they go to the police they will be crminalized.
    What I always seem think when I read stories about this, is why men actually go to this place/brothels etc anyway, this excuse about not being able to control there sexual urges?
    they see sex as a right to have?
    I watched ‘nightwatch’ the other day, and they were folowing the vice team, who go around stopping men picking up women.
    The police man said that most of these men that they see are sad and lonely and see sex as a way of relief…he laso said that some men seem to have a brutal attitude but most that he encounters don’t.
    I really want to know why men do it.