Recently, I was at a conference where an eloquent presenter was giving a talk about human trafficking. It’s a pretty big problem in Colorado, thanks to the I-25 corridor, lower levels of screening at Denver International Airport, and an enormous agricultural industry; in 2011, even though it only ranks 22nd of the states for total population, it ranked 3rd for lack of legislation vs. number of reported cases. Trafficking is one of those crimes that’s difficult to break down beyond ICE’s definitions of labour (sexual or otherwise) obtained through force, fraud, or coercion. It can include a variety of labours, from farm work to selling magazines door-to-door. But I think the form of trafficking most of us are familiar with is the trafficking of women and children for sexual exploitation. And that’s where things get hairy.

There are dozens of ways that people become involved in sex work. Some are kidnapped or sold, yes, but others are trying to make ends meet, are repaying a debt, are curious, or simply enjoy doing it. Yes, you read that right- some people begin doing sex work because they enjoy having sex (or stripping, or dancing, or escorting, or acting) for money or other compensation. Part of the problem with how we address human trafficking, prostitution, and porn is that culturally- and I know this isn’t strictly an American phenomenon- we fail to grasp this basic concept: not all sex workers are created equally. We automatically assume that a) sex work is degrading, so b) no one would choose to do it if they had any other options, and therefore c) sex workers are being exploited whether they realize it or not.

It’s important to know when prostitution is by choice and when it isn’t. Photo from

At the conference, when an audience member asked the speaker about this set of assumptions, the speaker told the crowd that she didn’t truly believe that anyone could- or would- choose sex work because the average age that someone enters the field is twelve. The crowd nodded and smiled. I left the room before I lost my temper entirely. This tendency to conflate trafficked sex workers and sex workers in the field by choice has enormous and devastating consequences for all of us. Let me illustrate a few.

First, when we automatically assume that a person doing sex work is exploited, we eliminate that person’s autonomy and choice. The message we send is that that person can’t make decisions for themselves about what they like and want to do, and therefore needs to be rescued from the degrading mess they’ve been exploited into. When a sex worker does assert that, in fact, sex work is what they’ve chosen without coercion or threat, we then enter phase two (judgement: how can someone WANT to be degraded?) and ties are severed. So not only have we attempted to oppress another person’s free will and choice, but we have also lost a potential ally. Who else might be able to engage- safely!- with victims of sex trafficking or other forms of sexual exploitation? Dismissing the sex worker who chooses sex work dismisses a whole world of opportunities to support the people who are being victimized and exploited.

Second, when we conflate voluntary sex work with forced sex work, we make laws that put everyone at risk. When I was living in Montreal, for example, it was illegal to pimp. The goal of the law was to prevent someone from controlling and exploiting sex workers, which is a wonderful objective. Its execution, however, was less than spectacular. The way pimping was defined  was so vague that, as a sex worker friend of mine put it, “I could be arrested for referring a customer to one of my colleagues.” What she frequently saw was that a sex worker would set a boundary- i.e. no anal sex- and a customer would be looking to hire her for exactly that. Not being able to make a referral put her in danger, because stereotypes about sex workers give customers permission to become violent to get what they want, and kept her and her colleagues isolated from each other. Had the law been written in collaboration with sex workers, a more concrete definition of pimping could have achieved the intended goal of the law. Instead it became a tool that put sex workers- all sex workers- at risk.

Another example of dangerous laws is California’s just-passed Proposition 35, which aims to crack down on human trafficking. Again, the overall goal is entirely in line with anti-oppression human rights goals, but again, the execution of the law is terrible. Among the list of its offenses:

  • Sex workers can be forced to register as sex offenders;
  • Some human trafficking crimes, such as forced sexual labour for noncommercial means (i.e. not for money), no longer qualify as human trafficking;
  • Anyone involved with sex work could potentially be charged with human trafficking.

Not only does this law severely punish voluntary sex workers, but it also doesn’t exactly help people who are being sexually trafficked for non-monetary exchange.

The final negative consequence that I’ll address, albeit briefly, is simply one of education. When we react to sex work without an educated understanding of its nuances, its sources, and its consequences for individuals, we fail to address it appropriately or to generate solutions that are truly effective. If we want to stop sex trafficking across the globe, we have to stop looking at sex work as inherently exploitative and problematic and start understanding the myriad ways in which power and control can be involved in it. We have to look to voluntary sex workers for information on how sex work can be done safely and how we can prevent the current culture of exploitation from continuing. Failure to understand an issue properly only results in failure to solve the problem.

In short, we need to learn to distinguish between exploitation and choice if we ever want to make a difference.