The Blurred Lines Between Sex Work and Sex Trafficking

“But what about sex trafficking?”

Many sex workers who are open about their jobs will know this question well; it comes up in every conversation about sex work, whether it is on social media, at parties, or at conferences. The average person is ignorant of the realities and complexities of how human trafficking, sex slavery, and sex work are defined and where they intersect, especially when the primary sources of information about sex work range from horrifying statistics on sex trafficking, Lifetime movies about glamorous “happy hookers,” and Law & Order: SVU episodes that feature dead whores as props. Even the definition of human trafficking has become muddled; it has been whittled down to mean solely “sex trafficking,” which completely ignores victims of forced labor. The misinformation surrounding sex work and human trafficking leads to the general public voting in measures that endanger the very people that they are striving to protect.

In November 2012, the Californians Against Exploitation Act, also known as Prop 35, was passed by an overwhelming majority with 81.1%. Prop 35 expanded the definition of human trafficking to include child pornography, increased the penalties for the act, and required convicted traffickers to register as sex offenders and disclose all Internet identities and activities. If not for the ACLU, under Prop 35 sex offenders would have been required to report information regarding their internet service providers (ISPs), email addresses, and any internet handles, as well as report any changes or additional internet aliases within twenty-four hours of the alteration. The ACLU won a preliminary injunction against the online speech provisions of Prop 35 on the basis that “they prohibit anonymous speech and [that] the reporting requirements burden all sorts of online speech.” This is only one example of legislation that sounds innocuous enough, but has the potential for disastrous unintended consequences.

Most recently, three anti-trafficking bills were signed in Texas, and they may affect one of the primary advertising sources for private entertainers. Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, and Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, put forward these bills in an effort to crack down on human traffickers and provide additional assistance for victims. In particular, the last of the three bills, SB94, would allow trafficking victims to take civil action against traffickers and advertisers, including online classified advertising sites like

Proponents of SB94 expected to face opposition, especially considering that in 2012, Backpage did win an injunction against a somewhat similar Tennessee law. Backpage sued the Tennessee Attorney General and thirty-one other district attorneys in the state to fight a law that would have held the popular website responsible if they were found “selling ads involving commercial sex with anyone appearing to be a minor if they don’t make a reasonable attempt to verify the individual’s age.” Backpage argued that the expectations of the government were unreasonable based on the sheer volume of posts that Backpage receives each month, and that it was essentially requiring the company to “become the government’s censors of user-submitted content.”

This is hardly unfamiliar ground for websites like Backpage and Craigslist, both of which regularly receive criticism for allegedly contributing to what is seen as a huge sex trafficking problem. Pressure from anti-trafficking advocates caused Craigslist to shut down their “Adult Services” section in 2010, and in fall of 2012, Village Voice Media split Backpage into a separate corporate entity as the site received increasing criticism for enabling human traffickers.
This level of attention seems to make perfect sense when you read trafficking statistics; the numbers sound overwhelmingly horrific, from estimates of 100,000 to 300,000 underage children trafficked into prostitution to 27 million trafficked persons worldwide. If those numbers sound nearly unbelievable, it’s because they are: The former of those numbers is based on questionable data collection, and the latter of those “estimates” is misquoted from a study by Richard Estes and Neil Weiner of the University of Pennsylvania.

Part of the problem is that there is not really one concrete set of parameters to determine who is defined as “sexually exploited.” Some studies include all sex workers in the numbers of people who are being trafficked, which is incredibly problematic when it comes to collecting data that accurately represents the issue. Conflating consensual sex workers with trafficked victims is insulting to the abused parties and robs individuals of making the choices that best suit their lives. The distinction between “prostitution” and “sex trafficking” is vital; as long as the two terms are seen as interchangeable, the laws will remain flawed, ineffective, and downright destructive.

Additionally, the legal definition of “pimping” is extremely vague, making the scope of who is affected and charged is far broader than it should. Rather than focusing on the real bad guys, innocent persons can be caught up in these laws easily. In California, any person who “knowing another person is a prostitute, lives or derives support or maintenance in whole or in part from the earnings or proceeds of the person’s prostitution,” could be charged with pimping.

This becomes especially dangerous when proposals like Prop 35 come into play. SWOP Bay, a regional subset of the Sex Worker Outreach Project, commented on the issue in a short blog post drawing attention to the unintended casualties of Prop 35. They pointed out that sex traffickers could now include “anyone who lives off the profits of sex work can be charged with trafficking, including live-in partners and spouses, children, and support staff, who look to those who are in the industry by choice for sustenance.”

That means that small children, dependent parents or grandparents, and the partners of sex workers who are not at all involved in any kind of sexual exploitation could be legally held accountable for not merely the absurd accusation of pimping, but the additional punishment that comes with being charged as a human trafficker.

Social justice activist, sex worker, and feminist writer Emi Koyama wrote in a May 2012 blog post that “One reason [the laws are] so broad is that real pimps (i.e. those who control other people and pocket their earnings) are notoriously difficult to prosecute for what they do.” She pointed out that prosecutors want the option to hold pimps accountable with something that is easier to prove than what is referred to as “compelled prostitution,” which the law defines as when “A person knowingly…causes another by force, threat, or fraud to commit prostitution.”

Koyama went on to point out how the ambiguity of these laws can be damaging to consensual sex industry workers. She wrote, “The same law can be and are used to target sex workers, survivors, and our associates–sometimes even as a threat to coerce us into ‘cooperating’ with the prosecution against those they perceive to be ‘pimps.’”

Despite the accusations of sex work abolitionists, most sex workers are not in favor of human trafficking. One of the anonymous founders of the Sex Worker Problems Tumblr spoke to the issue, saying she was both excited and apprehensive about the potential changes that the Texas bills could put into action. While she said that it was “extremely gratifying and exciting to see lawmakers putting some power behind their words to stand up for trafficked and victimized youth,” she was concerned, “that only youth are the focus of these proposed bills….It seems, as with most cases, adult victims are left out of the picture…Once again, sex workers, and the sex industry, are demonized by generalizations and inflammatory scare terms.”

Texas does not have a reputation for being generous with support for sex workers. According to Maggie McNeill, retired call girl and the writer of The Honest Courtesan, Texas is spending millions of dollars to arrest and prosecute sex workers. They are one of only ten states that actually sends people convicted of prostitution to prison, and their “human trafficking” laws disproportionately affect sex workers. Texas also recently made headlines for aquitting a man who murdered an escort because she wouldn’t have sex with him.

When one considers how the terms “human trafficking” and “sex work” have become practically interchangeable in modern society, it’s easy to see how a well-meaning saviour can actually be yet another obstacle for sex workers to overcome. Of this recent package of Texas bills, SB92 seems like it has the potential to be the most beneficial: It would prevent young victims from being shuttled into the criminal justice system, vacate criminal prostitution convictions, and increase privacy for trafficking victims. The problem with this approach is that it immediately makes “prostitute” and “victim” interchangeable, without regard to how the sex worker feels about themselves or their own experience. No rational person wants victims of any kind of trafficking to go unheard, unnoticed, or unprotected, and part of that is acknowledging the voices of those who are being labeled victims.

Unlike former attempts to shut down sites like Backpage, Texas SB94 doesn’t make the site criminally liable for advertisements of trafficked persons. The bill signed means that, should a victim desire to, they are within their rights to seek civil restitution for the damages that Backpage assisted in inflicting. Although this does carry less severity in the short-term, it still may prove to be the kind of pressure and threat that forces Backpage to remove its erotic services listings.

Sabrina Morgan, fetish companion, educator, and activist, believes that this is a very real possibility that carries serious consequences for both sex workers and trafficking victims alike.

“[Sites like Backpage are] much more likely to simply disallow ads for adult commercial services – which means that human trafficking is pushed further underground right along with legitimate sex work, making it harder for sex workers to seek clients who are more likely to treat them with respect.” Morgan concluded, “I’ll go out on a limb and say that this seems exactly what this bill is designed to do.”

There is also concern in the sex work activism community about the implications that laws like this (and others seeking to shut down sites like Backpage) can have on freedom of speech. Mistress Matisse, a professional dominatrix and activist based out of Seattle, recently commented on Twitter about how “sex workers are the canaries in the coal mine” when it comes to free speech and privacy issues. When asked for further clarification via email, she went on to say, “These measures will affect us first, but we have seen that our government can and does invade the privacy of adult citizens, and it will use any pretext to do so. Even if you aren’t a sex worker or the client of one, you should realize that any laws designed to control those things affect everyone.”

Mistress Matisse isn’t the only person concerned about what this could mean in terms of censorship, privacy, and further delegitimization of the private entertainment industry. “The issue at heart, from which all else is built, is this protection of voice and freedom from censorship under the First Amendment. We respect the voice of adult entertainers and allow them a platform to speak the truth for positive change, whether it’s popular or not,” said Kathy Harris, our marketing director.

When discussing how Slixa addressed some of these potential risks when starting up the company, Harris said, “When choosing our company legal counsel, we didn’t look for a business or criminal defense attorney who specializes in prostitution or sex work issues. We sought out the best in the protection of First Amendment rights…Time and again, consenting adult sex workers are swept up in law enforcement actions where those resources were allocated for the prosecution of human traffickers, and their advertising can be held against them in this attack. A recent Slixa blog post by Chris Hall observed that even anti-condom laws can be rationalized as essential to fight trafficking and that ‘every law ever written about sex work has been justified as a way to help sex workers…the sex workers themselves are rarely allowed to say which they think would be best.’”

Most people are not aware of how common it is for government entities like the police and prosecutors to regularly misuse legislation to target sex workers instead of traffickers. For the sake of making arrests, police use human trafficking laws to infiltrate the sites sex workers use to vet clients. Undercover officers also regularly accept sexual services before making an arrest. Despite the belief that these laws are enacted with the best intentions, many police officers use the law to safeguard their flagrant abuses of power. In the words of Maggie McNeill, “Places like Texas and Pennsylvania waste tremendous amounts of money to victimize us, and places like Nevada and Surrey conspire to rob us, but in both cases we are the ones on the receiving end of the attack; no matter which direction the cash flows, whores are the ones who suffer.”

The damnable behavior of the system that claims to be working toward protecting the safety of vulnerable persons makes the issue of how human trafficking laws are enacted (and whether they should be put into place at all) a bit sticky, to say the least. The language surrounding human trafficking is extremely emotional and often manipulative. The mindset is that it cannot be questioned; after all, who wants to be accused of being in favor of human trafficking? Furthermore, the aforementioned ignorance of the general population when it comes to sex workers’ lives and rights means that many folks never even get close to understanding just how complex this issue can be. The presumptions about sex workers and their need for a savior combined with an unchallenged trust in law enforcement leads to a lack of visibility of how nuanced sex workers’ lives can be.

Another insight that Mistress Matisse shared comes to mind:

“No one wants children or adults to be victimized, but the methods we adopt to curb those things must not do more damage than the problem itself. And by damage, I mean both to society as a whole, by the erosion of civil liberties, and also damage to the “rescued”, who are often fed into a punitive legal system that forces them into either jail/juvenile detention or bleak poverty.”

This problem may seem too large to take to task, but there are a few things that could be done to help, like taking preventative moves toward protecting those who are typically trafficked. Homeless queer youth are often forced into performing survival sex due to the marginalization they face. They also tend to be the most vulnerable to suffering from the laws enacted to supposedly protect them; trans* sex workers and sex workers of color are disproportionately targeted for police harassment, abuse, and assault. Offering support for homeless queer youth, and offering safe spaces for sex workers to seek support without fear of violence will be a vital element of this fight against legitimate predators.

Decriminalization of sex work is also a significant element of fighting human trafficking. If sex workers are in a position to report violence without fear of arrest or assault, they can not only feel comfortable coming forward when they feel threatened, but can serve as watchguards for others in the industry. Decriminalization would allow sex workers to lobby for standard labor rights, including the right to work safely and consensually. Creating a distinction between human trafficking and prostitution, one as forced labor and the other as a legitimate job option, will allow these laws to focus on punishing the actual predators. It will also allow sex workers the freedom to actually utilize law enforcement for their protection when necessary, rather than being concerned about facing arrest (or worse). Although decriminalization is not a foolproof final solution to the issue, having legal legitimacy would allow sex workers to focus on social stigma and work toward recognition of sex work as real work.

Shutting down sites like Backpage will not end human trafficking. Creating harsher penalties for laws that usually sweep up sex workers, rather than those who are abusing them, will not end human trafficking. Ostracizing sex workers from their support systems will not end human trafficking. As Sabrina Morgan said, driving traffickers into the shadows is not going to make life easier for those who they are abusing. It merely makes their victims more invisible than they already are.

Stop Human Trafficking

Human trafficking is abhorrent and Slixa works tirelessly to ensure our platform is not used by traffickers or any who would limit the freedoms of others.

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