Like every industry, people who engage in commercial sex sometimes face exploitation and trafficking as one form of violence. Unlike other industries, though, the movement to criminalize trafficking has actively sought to re-categorize all commercial sex as exploitative, a move which has harmed trafficking victims and sex workers alike. This page is meant to only be a primer. There is extensive information on the history of efforts to define trafficking, the impact on sex workers, and trafficking in other areas of labor available online at sites like the Anti-Trafficking Review and openDemocracy, which provide an archive of years of essays and articles. This page discusses forms of violence committed against people engaged in sexual exchange and attempts to avoid details.

Exploitation and trafficking is only one form of harm or violence identified by people in the sex trades. It is not the highest reported experience of harm or violence.

The page looks at the experience of exploitation in commercial sex experienced through force, fraud or coercion by a third party. Federal and state definitions also consider any minor who exchanges sex for resources to be a victim of trafficking. For a discussion on youth involvement in the sex trade, go to this page.

Exploitation and Trafficking in the Sex Trades: Experience

Due to the informal and criminalized nature of the sex trades, many people face differing forms of exploitation when engaging in commercial sex. Informality both makes the industry more accessible for those who face barriers to other forms of labor, and also makes exploitation more challenging to identify. Wage theft is only clear in industries which have a minimum wage. Criminalization creates both a barrier to reporting victimization and harm, making sex workers a target population for victimization. Additionally, criminalization and fear of law enforcement is a common target for exploitation by traffickers who wish to take advantage.

Trafficking and exploitation do not happen in random incidents, but instead target existing vulnerabilities, often created through inadequate support and state-constructed marginalization. Many victims of exploitation report homelessness and other forms of economic needs prior to a trafficking situation. Traffickers target this vulnerability, and force or coerce a person to trade sex as a result, sometimes engaging in physical or sexual violence, or threats of violence, to gain control over victims. Situations may also resemble something similar to intimate partner violence with elements of financial exploitation. Forms of coercion can include threats to call ICE if an undocumented person tries to leave, threats to call a parole officer if that person is a substance user, or threats to out a person to their friends and family if they will face rejection for their engagement in the sex trade. Traffickers may also use physical and sexual violence to instill fear of retribution if a victim does not comply or tries to leave. These experiences of exploitation are not unique to trafficking victims or sex workers, and mirror other forms of violence and exploitation.

Read about how traffickers targeted incarcerated women using the isolation of incarcerated women and the bail bond system. Note: the article uses imprecise and anti-sex work language at times.

Read this twitter thread (CW: homelessness, substance use, withdrawal) on an exploitative situation she was in and the complicated relationship to her abuser.

Despite the overwhelming discussions about people who are trafficked into commercial sex, there remains strikingly little research into the experiences of exploitation and trafficking within the context of people who trade sex broadly, so knowing the prevalence of trafficking through the legal definition is almost impossible. The study Youth Involvement in the Sex Trade on youth respondents (13-24) found that 15% had an exploitative third party. The London-based study on migrant sex workers reported similar numbers at 13%.

There are many forms of labor exploitation which do not reach the level of trafficking, such as illegal wage deductions or non-payment, contract violations, and outrageous fees by others who prey on vulnerability. This may be working at a dungeon where a new person must “apprentice” and do unpaid sessions, or cab drivers who wait outside of a strip club at closing and upcharge, knowing dancers will feel unsafe taking public transit with cash on them. Focusing only on the actions which meet the definition of the crime of trafficking instead of broader labor rights leaves most sex workers without options or remedy.

At this Denver strip club, dancers are suing in response to payment structure which they say violates labor laws. The suit discusses payment structures and misclassification of workers, a common issue in strip clubs.

Recommendations: Focus on Root Causes

Expand economic and resource support to address vulnerabilities and prevent trafficking. Invest in communities for support and alternative justice interventions.

Create a process for migrants who wish to formalize their status and ease provisions on accessing labor markets for cyclical migrants. Move migration enforcement from DHS back to DOL.

Divest in law enforcement and decriminalize the many forms of survival that sex workers and other marginalized people engage in to survive, and the legal precarity that traffickers exploit.

Exploitation and Trafficking in the Sex Trades: Law and Legal Definitions

Human trafficking is defined by the United Nations international protocol as

the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs;”

Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons Especially Women and Children, supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime; United Nations, 2000.

This definition was replicated for the 2000 Trafficking Victims Protection Act (18 US 1591 for trafficking into the sex trade, 18 US 1590 for trafficking into other forms of labor), which created the United States criminal defining trafficking Federally. Since 2000, every state has adopted an anti-trafficking law as well which largely replicates the federal definition. Only Massachusetts does not require adults in the sex trades to prove that they have been exploited through force, fraud or coercion, meaning trafficking charges in the state do not require a person to have engaged in any acts of harm or violence.

In both federal and state laws, human trafficking into the sex trade was bifurcated from other forms of labor trafficking as a reflection of the history of anti-sex work advocates hoping to define all commercial sex as exploitative and disrupt the advocacy of sex workers to define their labor as work. This bifurcation has fostered an inappropriate focus on the sex trade, policing it broadly as a proxy for anti-trafficking efforts, and left everyone other industry to fight for resources. As evidence of this disproportionate focus, some states still do not have a labor trafficking law (ie Florida) and federal trafficking prosecutions for industries outside the sex industry have never reached 5% of the total in any single year since the law’s passage in 2000.

Services for Victims of Trafficking

For victims of trafficking who have resource or legal needs, access to anti-trafficking service providers is vital. Sadly, these services remain under-funded and many victims do not receive the holistic support necessary following a trafficking situation. Eligibility for services allocated to victims of trafficking is different based on the location, service provider, needs, and a victim’s documentation. Service providers often piece together federal and state funding to serve victims who meet the criteria established through the service grants. For undocumented victims, the process involves Federal certification and may be enhanced through cooperation with law enforcement on the concurrent criminal case against the person identified as their trafficker. Services may include case management, access to housing/shelter, and legal support. For undocumented victims, they may be eligible for a special visa known as a T-visa, which allows them access to social benefits and to remain in the country. Victims with criminal records may also be entitled to post-conviction relief to remove convictions from their record which relate to forced criminal activity. For more information on post-conviction options, see the ABA’s Re-Entry project.

A challenge to accessing services, beyond basic accessibility barriers, is that services may not be available to people who do not meet the definition of a victim of severe trafficking. Identification of a trafficking situation may be complicated and re-traumatizing and takes extensive trust building. Many victims of trafficking stay in their situation because they are not able to access other options, especially if they have language barriers, are substance users, are not able to immediately stop trading sex, remain fearful of their trafficker, or do not want the person causing them harm to face legal sanction.

Recommendations: Support survivors

Expand support for survivors to prevent re-trafficking and create low-barrier opportunities for people to exit exploitative situations.

What survivors ask for is often basic – supportive housing, living wage employment that meets their needs, and health and wellness services to heal. This should not be constrained to victims of trafficking, and no one should have to face violence before they are offered such basic, lifesaving resources.

Further Reading:

The Disaster of Trafficking Enforcement

Both internationally and domestically, the fight to craft anti-trafficking policy contained many course-shifting fights. The two which are most impactful to this conversation are the creation of trafficking primary as an interpersonal crime, and the fight over whether sex work

When the International Protocols for Trafficking Persons was developed, it marked a deliberate shift for advocates from international human rights mechanisms into a criminal-legal framework. Advocate Ann Gallagher, who worked on the Protocol, describes the reasoning behind the shift. The Trafficking Victim’s Protection Act of 2000 modeled that same framing and created trafficking as a criminal act by an individual. As a result the last twenty years have shown an expansion of law enforcement tactics, jurisdiction and funding as the primary intervention of exploitation, and a focus on people in the sex trades with little corresponding expansion of services, especially for those who are vulnerable to trafficking.

Secondly, the fight over trafficking has always been a fight over whether or not women could willingly engage in commercial sex, regardless of their economic and life circumstances. Anti-prostitution advocates successfully pushed out and further disenfranchised sex workers during debates on the protocol both internationally and domestically, which on the fostered the conflation of all commercial sex and trafficking in persons. Conflation of commercial sex and trafficking is rampant in federal policy, including NSPD-22, a presidential directive which states that prostitution is a driver of trafficking, or bans on federal USAID employees from purchasing services from sex workers as anti-trafficking protocol.

Read More about the Creation of the Polermo Protocol and TVPA

These two issues in particular has foregrounded twenty years of ineffective anti-trafficking efforts which have mostly resulted in increasing criminalization, stigmatization and precarity of the sex trades. As anti-trafficking efforts have almost exclusively been treated as a problem of criminal justice, funding and capacity investment has reflected this in several ways. Funding for anti-trafficking efforts has mostly been directed to law enforcement bodies, despite most trafficking occurring in legal industries where law enforcement has no expertise in, and no relationships with. Law enforcement training often encourages front line officers to arrest sex workers and then simply inquire about trafficking – something not recommended for victims of any crime, and not possible for workers like domestic workers who would be breaking no obvious law. Metrics are focused on prosecutions as a primary definition of success, and law enforcement often includes prostitution-related charges with anti-trafficking charges, inflating numbers and incentivizing prostitution charges. Vice squads in multiple cities have been re-branding as anti-trafficking units such as in DCColumbus, Ohio and Dallas, Texas; some after it has been discovered that they have been engaging in physical and sexual violence towards sex workers. Red flags for trafficking may simply point to the sex trades instead of indicators of violence or exploitation.

The impact of this is that funding, resources and capacity that should go towards anti-trafficking efforts instead goes to criminalizing the sex trade. Even when called anti-trafficking efforts, increased criminalization has the same impact: increased vulnerability to violence, isolation and exploitation.

Recommendations: Fight Trafficking, Not Sex Workers

Anti-trafficking efforts should focus on fighting exploitation, not the sex trade broadly. Efforts to investigate and identify trafficking should prioritize community relationships, improving labor rights and creating non-criminal legal options for reporting safely.

Justice doesn’t always mean law enforcement. Anti-trafficking must prioritize healing of survivors of violence, and deprioritize criminal-legal interventions. Justice looks different to every survivor, and restoration is not served by prioritizing the needs of DAs over victims.

Further Reading:

Decriminalization and Trafficking

Many efforts for decriminalization of the sex trade have been hindered by the same anti-sex work advocates who have long attempted to undermine sex workers’ fight for their rights. Decriminalization of the sex trade is one important step to addressing one aspect of vulnerability which sex workers experience, keeping working conditions precarious and law enforcement intervention in violence difficult. Criminalization turns sex workers into a target population for violence and exploitation, as traffickers know sex workers are less likely to report to police and less likely to be taken seriously when they do. Avoiding law enforcement also means sex workers are willing to take more risks, prioritizing interpersonal violence over the experience of arrest.

Anti-trafficking efforts are harmed, not helped, by criminalization. In no other area of labor is anyone suggesting criminalization of workers, clients or non-violent management. Anti-trafficking investigators in agriculture are not clamoring for criminal law as an excuse to enter farms. In every other area of trafficking, investigations take lifting labor rights and improving conditions and are improved with positive relationships with organizing. Criminalization of the sex trade instead compromises sex worker organizing, making industry improvement almost impossible. Because of widespread policing from both law enforcement and private companies, sex workers find it hard to connect and share important information, and organize to improve conditions.

Recommendations: Decriminalize to support workers and worker organizing

Decriminalization removes one barrier for sex workers to report violence and exploitation, and dismantles one point of vulnerability that traffickers prey on.

Decriminalization making community building, resource and info sharing, and workplace improvement possible.

Further Reading: