Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Don’t call it ‘sex trafficking’

‘Sex trafficking’ isn’t a sub-category of human trafficking, but a rhetorical ploy designed to delegitimate sex work and deny the rights of sex workers. Don’t use it.

Ben Chapman-Schmidt
24 February 2021, 8.00am
coolloud/Flickr. Creative Commons (by-nc-nd)

Over the past three decades, we have seen an increase in awareness of and measures to address human trafficking. We have also seen increasing discussions of and legislation aimed at something called ‘sex trafficking’. These terms are often used interchangeably, particularly when discussing human beings trafficked for sexual exploitation.

This needs to stop. These two terms have different meanings, both linguistically and legally, and using ‘sex trafficking’ instead of ‘human trafficking’ is causing real-world harm to vulnerable populations. To understand why, we need to first look at what ‘sex trafficking’ means, and what the consequences of the proliferation of this term have been.

What is ‘sex trafficking’?

What do drug traffickers do?

This is not a trick question: drug traffickers are involved in the business of illegally buying, transporting and selling – in other words, ‘trafficking’ – pharmaceutical compounds. Similarly, human traffickers are, according to UN protocol on trafficking, involved in the buying, transporting and selling of human beings, through the use of force or coercion.

So then, what do sex traffickers do?

Following the pattern above, they should be in the business of illegally buying, transporting and selling sex acts. That is not, however, how many people, including many journalists, activists and researchers, would answer the question. Instead, they would suggest that sex traffickers are in the business of buying and selling people for the purpose of forcing or coercing them into sexual labour – the ‘modern day slavery’ we hear about on the news.

In the eyes of the American criminal justice system, sex workers are as culpable as their clients in the crime of ‘sex trafficking’.

The US government, on the other hand, adopts a more literal view of the term. Its legal system defines ‘sex trafficking’ as: “‘The recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, obtaining, patronizing or soliciting of a person for the purpose of a commercial sex act.” Note that this definition does not include any mention of force, coercion, or age. This is by design. In the United States, paying for sex, soliciting for sex, and providing lodgings or other services to sex workers has been intentionally defined in the law as ‘sex trafficking’.

While American federal law defines ‘sex trafficking’, it does not actually criminalise it except for cases in which “a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age”. However, in the United States, most criminal law enforcement is conducted at the state level. And at the state level, buying and selling sex is already illegal in every state but Nevada (and even there, only in certain rural counties).

Who are ‘sex traffickers’?

The legal reality in the United States is that ‘sex trafficking’ refers to the illegal buying and selling of sex. This means that ‘sex traffickers’ are not only the people running brothels or taking a cut of the profits for sex workers, but also the clients of sex workers. They are also, legally speaking, the sex workers themselves. And while some states do sanction clients, others have deliberately targeted sex workers on the logic that criminally sanctioning them is the most effective way to diminish the availability of commercial sex.

Branding sex workers as ‘sex traffickers’ is not always explicit, and a current trend is for politicians and legal practitioners in the United States to refer to sex workers (in particular women) as ‘victims of sex trafficking’. However, despite this change of labels, no state has ended the penal sanctioning of adult sex workers. In some cases these sanctions have simply been rebranded. The State of New York, for example, established diversionary courts for ‘victims of sex trafficking’, where they can be tried and sentenced as victims. In Houston, the police have claimed that arresting and prosecuting sex workers is intended to help them escape from trafficking. Meanwhile, Rhode Island, where previously only solicitation had been illegal, criminalised the sale of sex in 2009. Much of the driving force for this change came from the local activist Donna Hughes, who has publicly stated that she views ‘sex trafficking’ and sex work as one and the same. Thus, rhetoric aside, it is clear that in the eyes of the American criminal justice system, sex workers are as culpable as their clients – if not more – in the crime of ‘sex trafficking’.

What is ‘online sex trafficking’?

In the United States, Section 230 of the Communications Act of 1934 holds that “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” This provision made it possible for websites like eBay, Facebook, and Google to host user-generated content without worrying that they would face civil and criminal liability for the actions of those users. For sex workers, this meant they could use these services for activities including networking, exchanging safety tips, and advertising (discreetly) to clients.

This ended in 2017 with the passage of the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act of 2017 (FOSTA), which criminalises anyone who “owns, manages, or operates an interactive computer service […], or conspires or attempts to do so, with the intent to promote or facilitate the prostitution of another person.” FOSTA, as its name suggests, made it a crime to run a website that facilitates ‘sex trafficking’, with sex trafficking defined – as it is elsewhere in US law – as the buying and selling of sex.

Policymakers calling for measures against ‘sex trafficking’ often do not have the best interests of human trafficking victims at heart.

This has had predictably devastating impacts on sex workers’ ability to use the internet. Reports suggest that Reddit has shut down social spaces (‘subreddits’) for sex workers, such as r/escorts; Instagram has increased scrutiny over hashtags used by sex workers; and Patreon, a site for content creators to seek funders, has shut down accounts linked to adult content. Smaller sites have also been impacted, with HungAngels removing forums that had previously provided social spaces for trans sex workers, and VerifyHim removing the ‘JUST FOR SAFETY’ screening tools which had allowed sex workers to discuss safety concerns and avoid abusive clients. FOSTA has also led to the cancellation of the largest sex worker conference in the US, out of concern that some of the workshops would now be illegal, and the shutting down of sex worker outreach services.

The existing empirical evidence on services like these suggests that they have had a positive impact on sex workers’ safety. Thus, while we do not yet know the full impacts of FOSTA, it is clear that this law has been directly harmful to sex workers. However, it is also clear that this was, from the beginning, the law’s intended purpose: these sex workers are, after all, engaged in ‘online sex trafficking’.

Don’t call it ‘sex trafficking’

One of the important accomplishments of the sex workers’ rights movement has been the development and diffusion of the term ‘sex work’ itself. This term allowed sex workers to describe themselves in terms other than ‘prostituted women’ (a term that objectifies them by denying them agency) or ‘whores’ (a term that stigmatises them as criminal deviants). The development of this terminology opened to door to recognition by groups such as Amnesty International and the International Labour Organization. It also helped reconceptualise how HIV researchers engage with and help deliver services to sex workers, which, in turn, created fora for sex workers to organise and rally for political changes.

The term ‘sex trafficking’, however, shuts down these possibilities. It once again transforms sex workers from workers who can claim their rights into either active ‘sex traffickers’, stigmatising them and subjecting them to criminal sanction, or else passive ‘victims of sex trafficking’, objectifying them and subjecting them to forced rescue. At the same time, this shift in language makes it more difficult for even non-sex workers to advocate for sex worker rights. As the sociologist Elizabeth Bernstein notes, no one wants to claim they are ‘for’ sex trafficking. This language has even helped anti-sex worker groups to recruit nominally progressive celebrities, such as the comedian Amy Schumer and the talk show host Seth Meyers, to appear in a public service announcement claiming that laws aimed at harming sex workers will instead help them.

This attempt to destroy the very language used by sex workers and to make it impossible to advocate for their rights is, as I have argued elsewhere, a form of epistemic violence. As such, any researcher or journalist concerned about the health and safety of sex workers needs to educate themselves on the distinctions between ‘sex work’ and ‘human trafficking’, and to use those terms where appropriate. At the same time, those individuals need to remember that policymakers calling for measures against ‘sex trafficking’ often do not have the best interests of human trafficking victims at heart. The responsibility falls on them to call out these terms and avoid propagating violence against already marginalised groups.

A longer version of this article first appeared in Issue 12 of Anti-Trafficking Review.

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