In the day before this year’s SuperBowl, news pieces circulated around the internet reporting a massive increase in sex trafficking that occurs around major sporting events. Whether or not this trend is true, trafficking is a real problem. 45 people were arrested in New York during the Super Bowl for forcing more than a dozen teens into sexual slavery. Though these teens were victims of sexual exploitation, some news outlets distorted this fact by referring to them as “sex workers” and “underage prostitutes” In another recent article about a 15-year old trafficking victim, Canada’s CBC called the girl a “teen sex worker.”
These word choices are misleading, and while I believe people generally place too much importance on labels, the distinction between an adult making a choice to exchange sex for money and person whose body is exploited against their will is crucial to discussions of prostitution, slavery, and freedom. The ability to make choices and decide our own fate is increasingly accepted, and the media distorts the value of choice when they use “sex worker” interchangeably with “traffic victim.”
Now, it goes without saying that sex trafficking is an appalling practice. Traffickers inflict horrific damage on their victims—many of who are incredibly young and already lack familial support—during their formative years and subject them to abuse, force them to take severe risks to their health, and rob them of any sense of worth outside their monetary value to their “masters.”
We’re right to be repulsed by the dangers and brutality of human trafficking. But it’s the forceful stripping of free will from human beings that is perhaps the most abhorrent aspect of sexual slavery—indeed, of any slavery.
Some anti-prostitution groups also blur or ignore the distinction between voluntary workers and coerced victims. They see sex work as inherently exploitative on the grounds that it’s a degrading profession that requires people to commodify their bodies and submit to increased health risks. The decision to sell sex is thus never an informed choice for these people, but is instead either forced upon sex workers by restrictive financial circumstances or is a self-destructive reaction to childhood trauma.
First of all, if women only decide to become sex workers in the absence of other options, how does removing the one option they have benefit them? If anti-prostitution advocates are really concerned about sex workers’ limited choices, they should instead combat oppressive regulations that prevent people from pursuing other entrepreneurial avenues. Then, if additional options become available and some people still choose to work in the sex industry, it can no longer be said that sex work is an illegitimate profession chosen out of desperation. And by the way, we should really be suspicious of any group that claims to promote women’s independence while simultaneously arguing that some women are incapable of making informed choices.
Yes; a lot of decisions we make are informed by our pasts and are sometimes to our detriment, but we are not victims of our choices. And there’s an inconsistency in saying that a person selling sex is not a moral agent because they’re responding to emotional trauma, but a person buying sex is a moral agent and their choice is inherently exploitative, whether it stemmed from emotional trauma or not.
Sex work does require commodifying one’s body and accepting an increased level of physical risk, but so does being a professional football player. Unlike sex workers, we don’t treat football players as victims, even if the choice to become an athlete resulted from having few other marketable skills.
The distinction between choosing to sell sex and choosing to sell season passes is based on a puritanical view of sex as something dirty. Even though workers in both professions commodify their bodies for the entertainment of others, society sanctions the decision to sell oneself for sports but denounces the decision to sell oneself for sex and calls it degrading, which is an insulting standard, frankly. No choice a person makes to support themselves or their families without harming others is degrading.
But trafficked victims, unlike sex workers or football players, didn’t make the choice to commodify their bodies and take the associated risk; their abusers made that decision for them. Victims’ lack of choice, not the nature of the sex industry, is what makes them victims and warrants intervention. They are not “sex workers” because sex without consent is rape and work without consent is slavery. Calling traffic victims sex workers or prostitute undermines the severity of the violation against them, just as it undermines the agency of men and women voluntarily working in the sex industry.