Voluntary Female Sex Work vs. Sex Trafficking of Women

13 Oct



sex-workers-rights

@RachSafeek: Not all #sexworkers are products of sex #trafficking. There are women who enter sex work of their own volition.

The difference between human sex trafficking versus consensual and/or voluntary sex work among women is a topic that I’ve been meaning to address for a long time. Oftentimes, when I mention that I work with HIV prevention among Female Sex Workers (FSWs), many incorrectly assume that the women with whom I work are all victims of female sex trafficking.  Just this morning, I received an email from a fellow Duke graduate with a link to Nicholas Kristoff’s column about sex trafficking in the United States. The sender noted that I would likely appreciate the column  “because of the work [I] do with sex trafficking victims”.

Indeed, I value the article for the education that it reinforces to readers regarding sexual exploitation in the United States. However, I believe that an important piece of the story is missing, the part of the sex trade that includes the group that I DO work with: women/girls who choose to enter the profession “willingly”. (Note: I refer to “willingly” as such because I do acknowledge that it is debatable whether women who do enter the sex trade without being forced by a third party pimp or madam choose to do so 100% agreeably. Many who do choose to engage in sex work do so out of desperation or a lack of better options, including a lack of skills, resources, and education. These women, however, do not fall under the category of trafficked women, which is problematic, as I will discuss later in this post.)

In any case, global health students, researchers, and health care workers alike have responded to my work in a manner similar to my classmate’s, assuming I work solely with trafficked women. While directing attention to an important cause, they are simultaneously dismissing the value of work with women who voluntarily engage in the trade, an unintended effect.

Personal Experiences with Trafficking

Before delving into further discussion of consensual and voluntary sex work, I would like to first like to acknowledge that I do not wish, in any way, to alleviate the seriousness of human sex trafficking. We can all agree that the effects of unlawful human sex trafficking are damaging to the individual and society as a whole. Even Hollywood has made a supreme effort to portray the traumatizing and dehumanizing side effects of trafficking in films such as Taken (2008).

I myself have been the personal target of trafficking because of the work I do. On World AIDS Day 2011 (December 1), while leaving my workplace in Salvador, Brasil, I was grabbed by two individuals who attempted to force me into their vehicle. The two men were later identified as pimps. As an HIV researcher and activist, I am committed to decreasing stigma around HIV through prevention education and research. Eager to assist in the World AIDS Day festivities at my workplace, I stayed at work late into the evening, a dangerous decision which put my own life in jeopardy. Due to extreme luck and some willful attempts to fight back, I was able to escape the situation and run to the police, who were not much help and mostly likely involved…but police corruption in Brazil is another topic which I’ll reserve for future blog postings. In any case, having almost been forced into the trafficking system, I am without a doubt privy to the manner and degree to which sex trafficking is an issue of paramount concern and represents one of the highest and most inhumane human rights abuses.

From World AIDS Day 2011. Holding a red candle for HIV awareness and wearing a red ribbon HIV activism shirt

From World AIDS Day 2011. Holding a red candle for HIV awareness during a candle light vigil and wearing a red ribbon HIV activism shirt.

Sex trafficking is not the same as consensual Sex Work, but discourse should develop around each topic equally

Nevertheless, even with my own personal experiences with trafficking, I believe it is important to consider cases of women who are not forced or kidnapped and sold into the sex trade. There are a several reasons why I am against the singular portrayal of female sex workers as products of human sex trafficking:

First, I believe that assigning the title of “trafficked” to all women engaging in transactions of sex relegates women who voluntarily enter the profession, labeling them as “victims”. This is both an unfair and disempowering assumption. Many women, some of whom are highly educated and accomplished, willingly choose to enter the sex work trade. One rather famous case involves the Ivy League graduate who documented her experiences with prostitution.  Additionally, I have worked with many female sex workers in the past who noted that they were comfortable working in the sex trade. Sex work was their profession–their source of income. It was what they were comfortable with, and while perhaps they would not want their daughters to continue with the trade, they personally did not identify with feeling “used” or “victimized”. If anything, they were happy they could provide for themselves and their children. While the notion of “empowered” sex workers may not represent the overwhelming majority of sex workers in the United States or internationally, and while they certainly may not be the headlines for discussion around sex work, these women cannot be overlooked when engaging in discourse about sex work.

Secondly, and related to the first reason, dismissing all women who engage in sex work as “trafficking victims” ignores the job-related risks of women who voluntarily engage in the profession. Women who engage in consensual transactions involving sex cannot be discounted when considering the needs and, more importantly, the RIGHTS of those involved in the trade. If all sex workers are readily labeled trafficking victims–or victims, in general–, those who have chosen to enter and remain in the trade willingly (or for lack of better options), will have their rights overlooked. The focus will be shifted mainly to helping women leave the profession. As I noted earlier, not every woman wants out. Many are comfortable with the work they do, and so, it is essential that women who do choose to remain in the trade are not denied their rights e.g. safer working conditions, protection from rape/sexual assault and gender-based violence, and addressing key health concerns, including prevention of STDs and HIV. Focusing on cases of female sex trafficking ONLY subtracts from the much needed attention that should be paid to public health and gender-related risks associated with women who are not being forced and sold into sex work by a third party pimp/madam.

Finally, and this is a more subtle yet very important point, focusing solely on sex trafficking ignores the reality of women who engage in casual transactions using sex. For this point, I refer back to the definition of sex work:

“Sex work is the exchange of sexual services, performances, or products for material compensation”

Considering this definition, an individual who has offered sex in exchange for food, money, or a place to stay has engaged in a transaction that is deemed sex work, even if he or she does not formally identify as a sex worker. Take, for example,–a situation that I have heard time and time again from the women I work with–the case of a young woman/girl who is homeless, lacks formal skills and education, and the support and resources that a family can provide. She may see sex work as her only option for money and choose to enter the trade, albeit out of desperation. Oftentimes, she is not being forced by a pimp or madam, which does not qualify her as a trafficking victim. And while she may have entered the trade out of desperation and circumstance, she is still voluntarily engaging in sex work for money, shelter, or food. An unfortunate situation, but for many women who do voluntarily engage in sex work, it can be a reliable source of income which some (NOT ALL) women may be comfortable with.

This is a more common occurrence than society is willing to accept. However, even if we do not always include these transactions as instances of “formal prostituting”, we must acknowledge the role that they play in leading women to officially entering the trade and the number of health risks that develop as a result of engaging in these types of desperate transactions. Women who engage in sexual encounters for goods for money out of their own volition (even if out of desperation), and in the absence of a third party pimp/madam or John who forcefully demands that a woman submit to prostitution, represent an under acknowledged group.

This sheds light on a need to uncover the greater issues at hand: Ultimately, female sex trafficking and female sex work (excluding cases of women who entered the trade voluntarily and not out of lack of other options) are two micro issues in a macro problem: gender disempowerment. Whether actively forced by a third party, e.g. a pimp/madam or a John, or voluntarily engaging in sex work out of desperation or lack of skills, education, and resources (forced out of circumstance), the macro issue at hand is the vulnerability of women in each situation.

We all recognize the dangers that are present for women who are kidnapped, trafficked, and sold into the trade. However, if we choose to focus solely on female sex workers who are the products of female sex trafficking, we are ignoring the macro issue of disempowerment among women who are compelled to enter the trade due to circumstance ( lack of skills, education, and a strong support system/resources). This disempowerment should be a topic that is capitalized upon and addressed via public policy, and it is often overlooked by the assumption that all women in the profession are forced in by pimps or madams, rather than also by circumstance or choice.

Finally, there are various other issues to consider with regards to sex worker rights and public health/human rights issues. For the purpose of this post, I have restricted my discussion to women. I did this on purpose to demonstrate the role that gender plays in increasing vulnerability among sex workers. Gender is continually cited as a factor which predisposes women to violence and disease transmission, two key topics that I choose to focus on with my research. I focused on female sex workers, given my extensive background working with this group and in an effort to highlight the particularly devastating effect that financial disempowerment, gender-based violence, and rape/sexual assault can have on women in the trade. However, it is also important to consider the situation of male or transgender sex workers.

Additionally, one must consider what is truly consensual sex work.  I mentioned that I have met some women who are truly content with their earning income through the sex trade, but what percentage of all sex workers do these cases account for? Furthermore, do young girls/women who express content with engaging in sex work really have the ability to engage in consensual transactions using sex? All very important questions to consider. In any case, these questions represent even more of a reason to consider all instances of sex work, despite only the “sexiest” and most shocking stories of sex work/trafficking which are often highlighted in the media.
Email me at rachel.safeek@duke.edu
–Rachel Safeek

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3 Responses to “Voluntary Female Sex Work vs. Sex Trafficking of Women”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Exchange of Sex for Housing/Food & the Spread of HIV | blue devil banter - December 8, 2013

    […] this year, I published a piece about the differences between “Voluntary Female Sex Work vs. Sex Trafficking of Women“. In my post, I comment on the manner and degree to which women, particularly minority women […]

  2. HIV Transmission & Voluntary Sex Work in Exchange for Housing & Food | blue devil banter - December 8, 2013

    […] this year, I published a piece about the differences between “Voluntary Female Sex Work vs. Sex Trafficking of Women“. In my post, I comment on the manner and degree to which women, particularly minority women […]

  3. Voluntary Female Sex Work vs. Sex Trafficking of Women | - January 14, 2014

    […] https://bluedevilbanter.wordpress.com/2013/10/13/voluntary-female-sex-work-vs-sex-trafficking-of-wome… […]

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