What Anti-Trafficking Advocates Can Learn from Sex Workers

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For the last year, I've been trying to get my head around different aspects of human trafficking and the commercial sexual exploitation of minors. I've been meeting with a variety of relevant actors, including anti-trafficking advocates, law enforcement officers, researchers, and sex workers. I've talked with survivors and buyers, observed online traces, and scoured the literature. Throughout all of this, I've developed a very uneasy feeling about the way language is leveraged in this domain. In particular, I'm deeply bothered by the ways in which the concept of "trafficking" is employed by different groups in ways that confuse and obfuscate different aspects of commercial sex. There is no doubt that the politics around sex work and trafficking are ugly, but if we're actually going to help those who are abused and exploited, we need to get beyond coarse categories and try to understand the messiness.

As I've grappled with my own conceptualization of the issues in this space, I've come to realize that those invested in anti-trafficking interventions would gain a lot from talking with--and, more importantly, listening to-- sex workers. (See: Sex Workers Project to learn more.) I know that's controversial, but let me offer some of what I've learned by talking with those who identify as sex workers and why I believe that this divide must be bridged.

The Language of Choice, Circumstance, and Coercion

Commercial sex is not a homogenous practice. In talking with various sex workers and sex-positive activists, I often hear the language of "choice, circumstance, or coercion" employed. Although I've heard a variety of different definitions, I've come to understand this language as a spectrum. On one end, you have choice where individuals with a high level of agency and capital (social, economic, cultural) choose to engage in sex work, often because they hold pro-sex attitudes and believe that the world would be a better place if people were more open and honest sexually. Terms employed by these sex workers (and their clients) include "sex workers," "escorts" and "high end prostitutes"; those who identify as such are often engaged in pro-sex public narratives.

On the other end of the spectrum, you have coercion where individuals lack any form agency or capital and are directly or indirectly forced into the trade through manipulation or force. In between, in a category that describes what I suspect is the bulk of commercial sex, is circumstance. Circumstance itself can also be treated as a spectrum. On the end closest to choice, you have individuals who believe that they should have the right to sell any part of their bodies for financial gain. The logic is simple: why should one's genitals be off-limits when one is allowed to sell one's brains, hands, or back for labor? The bulk of circumstance has more to do with challenging economic issues, including poverty or financial desperation. Finally, closest to coercion, there are individuals who are both financially hard off as well as grappling with serious mental health issues, including drug and alcohol addiction, gender identity disorder, a history of abuse, and/or co-dependency.

Many anti-trafficking advocates, including second wave feminists and religious individuals, view all forms of commercial sex as being coercive in nature. Many who cite religious beliefs in condemning prostitution focus on the issue of morality, either drawing on texts that condemn prostitution or arguing that people who engage in such sinful acts must not be in their right mind. Feminists who are opposed to all forms of sex work highlight that the structural conditions of oppression--including a long history of sexism, racism, homophobia, and classism--make it impossible for low-status individuals to freely choose to consent to sex for money.

The language of choice, circumstance, and coercion can get murky for precisely the reasons the feminists highlight. Plenty of oppressed individuals believe that they are engaged in sex work by choice, even when they're grappling with mental illness and abuse. And the history of inequality and structural oppression means that many low-status individuals see few opportunities beyond commercial sex to make ends meet.

While this framework--choice, circumstance, and coercion--is primarily used to describe adult sex work, talking about youth is more complicated. On one hand, it makes sense to talk about youth as coerced, regardless of how they see themselves, for teenagers definitely lack legal agency, typically lack social agency, and are often unaware of how their circumstances create conditions in which they cannot consent to trading sex for money. Yet, in talking with teenagers--especially those who do not work for a pimp--it's clear that many see themselves as making a choice that's predicated on circumstances. Some teens see commercial sex as a mechanism by which they can achieve financial independence in light of existing oppression.

As I struggle to make sense of how to understand teens' self-perception, I started to realize that addressing the entwined issues involved in trafficking requires starting with where people are, regardless of how we feel about their own self-perceptions. In other words, rather than externally evaluating where someone is on the choice, circumstance, and coercion spectrum, it's important to begin by asking them where they see themselves to be. Why? This spectrum of commercial sex doesn't just provide a road map for understanding how people perceive their own practice, but it also provides a framework for thinking about interventions.

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