Human and sex trafficking: how we define and prevent it

A picture of a person's green eyeball, in the center of which, a crying child's reflection is visible

Human trafficking is an issue that’s been discussed a lot recently, though it’s a topic where public perception doesn’t always match reality. This starts with how it’s defined and why it’s defined that way. According to a United Nations report, 79% of human trafficking is sexual exploitation, mostly of women and girls. It’s here where the story gets murky.

In the United States, a lot of media outlets and police departments will refer to sex work busts as “sex trafficking” and talk about large numbers of arrests. However, when these reports are inspected, the arrests are most often of people engaging in sex work. In other words, the strategy taken by law enforcement and the media is to present a story of “sex trafficking” while arresting victims instead of those responsible for the exploitation. This has been heavily criticized not only because it lumps actual victims of sex trafficking in with consensual sex workers and brands them all as sex trafficking perpetrators, but also because the way those victims and sex workers are treated is often violent – sometimes sexually violent.

When we say sexual exploitation, we’re not referring to adults engaged in consensual sexual activity. We’re talking about children forced to engage in sexual activities for the benefit of others. We’re talking about adults forced into sexual activity, not because they like the money and prefer the work, but because someone is taking their earnings and using their body. Human trafficking is essentially all that, minus the sexual component. It’s modern slavery, or worker exploitation: forcing people to work for little to no money in dangerous conditions.

How and why does this happen?

According to the UN’s report, the evidence in this area is lacking because a lot of countries don’t have the resources to track and deal with this issue. What we do know is that most trafficking is national or regional in nature. That is, most trafficking occurs within the country or region where the victim (and perpetrator) live. We also know that women are involved in human trafficking not just as victims, but also disproportionately as perpetrators.

A graph comparing the proportion of females convicted for trafficking versus other crimes in various countries, indicating that women are consistently more likely to be responsible for trafficking than other crimes
Page 10 of the UN’s Global Report on Trafficking in Persons

Essentially, trafficking operates as a business. People with little interest in the wellbeing of others use it to obtain goods, services, or sexual gratification. Much like a real business, they often go with the cheapest option. In most regions, consensual sex work is just as illegal as sex trafficking, so both with human and sex trafficking, buyers of these services are already breaking the law. As a result, they may be less likely to scrutinize the transaction and the source and may end up taking advantage of people, even without realizing it.

This is why many campaigns target the demand of sex trafficking and getting potential buyers – who are the funders of these operations, knowingly or unknowingly – to make better choices. The goal is to disrupt the business. However, many of these initiatives target both consensual sex work, consensual work, and exploitative situations rather than addressing the core inequities that fuel the exploitation.

How human trafficking is normalized today

Human trafficking, while sharing some blurry lines with sex trafficking, is often normalized by businesses, both large and small, that rely on the cheapest labor and goods they can find rather than paying workers a living wage and ensuring they have reason to care about the business for which they work. An example of this focus on cheap labor taken to the extreme is people including children who are forced to work in dangerous conditions, including children as young as 16 years old working at a poultry plant.

How you can help prevent trafficking

There are many guides to how you can fight human trafficking, such as one from the US Department of State, which mentions that people’s shopping habits fuel human trafficking. Be an informed consumer by knowing where your goods are sourced from, and whether they were produced using child labor. For example, you may not know that the production of bananas and coffee in many countries like Brazil involves child labor. Lack of awareness is a major part of the issue.

The first step is understanding the issue and what trafficking might look like. When people are forced to work for the benefit of others, they won’t want to admit to it. They may appear to be struggling or lash out at people. They will have been traumatized and may not immediately seek out support under the false belief their situation is their fault. Some victims will also be perpetrators and may not want support. That awareness helps inform our response to people who are struggling or lashing out – they may be suffering in ways we can’t imagine, even if it isn’t trafficking. While it’s hard to approach someone who’s struggling, it’s a kinder thing to do than just ignoring them.

When people are educated about what positive sexual behavior, sexuality, and human relationships look like, it’s easier to prevent harmful exploitative behaviors like sex trafficking. This is because education and awareness make the erosion of boundaries prior to that exploitation much harder. If people have access to the resources they need, it’s harder to exploit them into forced labor – sexual or otherwise. By supporting comprehensive education and comprehensive legislation that provides a saner law enforcement response as well as community resources, we can ensure the vulnerabilities that traffickers exploit aren’t there in the first place.

The role of sex work in combatting sex trafficking

Sex work can help disrupt sex trafficking, much like legal cannabis has disrupted the black market sale of cannabis products in many places where it has become legal. If there are educational, safety, and regulatory systems in place to ensure the safety of consensual sex workers, it becomes much easier for someone to find an ethical place to purchase sexual services that don’t involve exploitation.

This can’t happen without involving sex workers. Their voices and experiences need to be central to any initiative in forming an educational and safety framework. It is not enough to form a system that enables sex work if their voices are not included, because they’ve been the target of law enforcement discrimination, and any policy that is formed must take that into account. Sex workers know their trade, and they know how to keep minors and exploitation out of their trade. They are a valuable resource and must be consulted.

That can’t happen if we’re confusing legal sex work and sex trafficking in statistics, in law enforcement responses, and in our understanding of the issue. If we want to prevent and address sex trafficking, we need to ensure we’re addressing sex trafficking – not something entirely different.

Doing prevention work

When we’re aware of the true nature of the issue, and not just a cheap and easy depiction of law enforcement as the magical solution, we’re better able to prevent trafficking in all its forms. Engaging in the prevention of trafficking is vital work that takes effort and research, and this overview should serve as a springboard into learning more about what you can do if that’s something that interests you, even if all you want to do is make sure that your coffee isn’t produced with child labor.

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