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Sex Work vs. Trafficking – What is the Difference?

Today we will talk about trafficking vs. sex work. Some people use the term ‘trafficking’ to describe sex work. What is really the difference between trafficking and sex work? Following is an excerpt from the recently published SWAN Media and Advocacy Manual.

• Sex work is a type of work. Trafficking on the other hand, is a type of migration.
• Trafficking is related to debt-bondage, slavery-like conditions, forced labor and confinement. Sex work is result of free will and personal choice.
• Sex workers decide for variety of reasons to join the trade. They are not always coerced in to it.
• Sex work is a job. Sexual exploitation is a violent crime.
• Sex workers are workers. Victims of crime are plaintiffs.
• Sex work is just one specific job. Trafficking is the moving of people using deceit, force or coercion in order to benefit from their forced labor or exploitation.
• People are trafficked into all kinds of jobs e.g. domestic work, factory work, seafarers, agriculture, construction workers, military service etc – not only into sex work.
• Trafficking is a global social problem not a problem sex workers should be responsible for solving alone.

• Sexual violence and abuse of women and children occurs in homes, churches, entertainment places, schools, NGO's, temples, garment factories, government institutions, on the streets, on farms, prisons and in cities. It is a global social problem, not a problem sex workers should be responsible for solving alone.
• Under the pretext of curbing trafficking, strict border control and discriminatory immigration laws effectively prohibit safe, independent movement of migrant women, especially young single women from developing nations.

Challenging by the opponents of the concept of free sex work:

• When it (prostitution) starts with violence and sexual abuse how can we call it "work"? … An action that violates human rights, how can we call it work?
• You say “sexual exploitation is a violent crime”. We agree about it.
• Using female body for sexual pleasure and selling female body on the market is indeed 'sexual exploitation'.
• Those who promote so called ‘sex work’, promote sexual exploitation.
• Therefore all sex work, even so called ‘legal’, ‘safe’ and ‘voluntary’ sex work, is a crime.

Exercise: How will you respond to these questions?


• It is important not to use the vague and undefined terms and to make sure that your language helps people clarify their understandings of the different issues.
• Try not to use the term 'sexual exploitation' at all.
• Everyone has a different understanding of the term with regard to adults. There is no definition in international law. In the Trafficking Protocol it is left without a definition.
• If you use it, or those with whom you discuss use it, always ask them to tell you what it means.
• If you have to use it, define it in relation to children.
• Use more specific terms for adults, such as forced or coerced sex work, un-free sex work, etc.
• Brainstorm with your colleagues about how the opposition will attack your standing, and develop effective responses, with fact, figures, quotes.
Further resources about sex work, migrant workers' rights and the "anti-trafficking" debate are available on http://www.nswp.org/mobility. Under the “Legislation & Conventions” section you will find laws, resolutions and official reports that deal with migrant workers and 'trafficking in persons’. Under “Analysis & Commentary” available is writing that examines migration and 'anti-trafficking' laws and discourse as well as their affects on workers and human rights. Under “Human Rights Groups on the Web” are listed contacts of the groups that offer support in dealing with migrant sex work issues. A report by Empower Chiang Mai on the human rights violations women are subjected to when "rescued" by anti-trafficking groups who employ methods using deception, force and coercion - http://www.nswp.org/mobility/mpower-0306.html  
Last but not least, an excellent backgrounder on sex work vs. trafficking prepared by Montreal-based group Stella can be found in English and Russian.