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  • Writer's pictureAntonia Boorman

SESTA: How misinformed policy hurts sex workers

Updated: Dec 20, 2020

[Sex Work Series] Paper 1: The Relationship between Sex Work and Sex Trafficking

A paper examining the definitions of sex work vs sex trafficking, and analysis into how the inaccurate assumption that they are synonymous can create harmful legislation.


Many academics, government officials, and media outlets have incorrectly assumed that sex work and sex trafficking are the same thing. This drives the misconception that criminalising sex work will reduce sex trafficking. This is inaccurate and leads to legislation that harms sex workers. As such, it is important to distinguish between the terms ‘sex work’ and ‘sex trafficking’ as they are not synonymous nor are they mutually exclusive. This paper distinguishes the terms, while also looking at the supposed relationship between sex trafficking and sex work and how the legislation around sex work effects sex trafficking. This paper aims to illustrate that sex work and sex trafficking are different and highlight the danger of treating them as equivalent.

Sex work is defined as "the exchange of sexual services or performances for financial or material compensation, including activities of direct physical contact between buyers and sellers as well as indirect sexual stimulation” (Valadier, 2018, p. 502). The terminology of “work” is purposefully used as it highlights the economic exchange and aspect of organised labor involved. Furthermore, a sex worker is defined as a person who is employed in the sex industry and engages in sex work as defined above.

Sex trafficking is a form of human trafficking. Trafficking is defined by the OHCHR as “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation” (Article 3, Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons Especially Women and Children, 2000). Sex trafficking is an urgent social justice issue. It is hard to measure the true extent of the problem due to the underground nature of the industry, yet the US State Department estimates that there are around 27 million victims of trafficking globally (US State Department, 2013). Additionally, a similar report found that of human trafficking cases between 2008-2011, 82% were sex trafficking cases and half concerned minors under the age of 18 (Banks & Kyckelhahn, 2011).

It is extremely important not to conflate sex trafficking with sex work. Yet, this conflation has been so societally ingrained that it has even influenced policy and legislation. A prime example of this is the newly introduced SESTA “Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act of 2017” (S.1693, 2017) and FOSTA “Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act of 2017” (S.1865, 2017) bills in the United States. These laws literally include the words “sex trafficking” and “sex traffickers” in their titles to make it extremely clear that these policies are aimed at targeting sex trafficking, yet in implementation, they solely focus on banning sex work (Ramsawakh, 2018).

The SESTA (S.1693, 2017) and FOSTA (S.1865, 2017) acts reduce the ability to advertise sex work online by banning associated websites and content. The creation of the SESTA (S.1693, 2017) and FOSTA (S.1865, 2017) bills in the United States were intended to reduce trafficking (Romano, 2018), yet there is little evidence to link any changes in trafficking rates to the advertising block. This is because they tried to reduce sex trafficking by attempting to abolish the sex industry rather than addressing the systemic social, economic, political factors that drive human trafficking ie. migration and citizenship laws¹. Unsurprisingly, this bill not work as intended, as again, consensual sex work and forced sex trafficking are different things and thus must be treated separately.

Not only is there little evidence that the SESTA (S.1693, 2017) and FOSTA (S.1865, 2017) bills have reduced trafficking, but there is significant evidence to show how the bills have harmed sex workers (Steimle, 2019). Since the introduction of the SESTA (S.1693, 2017) and FOSTA (S.1865, 2017) laws, there has been a 170% increase in police reports of human trafficking in San Francisco in 2018 alone (Steimle, 2019) as sex workers have been forced on to the streets and “into the hands of pimps” (Steimle, 2019, para. 8).

The SESTA (S.1693, 2017) and FOSTA (S.1865, 2017) laws do not stop sex work from occurring, it just makes it more dangerous. Banning the ability to advertise online forces sex workers on to the streets, which puts them in a more physically vulnerable position where they could be attacked or kidnapped and forced into trafficking, as illustrated by the increase of reports in San Francisco. Pike Long, the deputy director of St. James Infirmary² (Steimle, 2019), states that street solicitation is more dangerous as “it’s much harder to negotiate your rates, to negotiate safer sex condom use, to make sure that this person who is picking you up in a car doesn’t have a knife or a gun” (Steimle, 2019, para. 12). Advertising online allows sex workers to screen clients and agree on prices, conditions, etc from the safety of their home and in writing. Clients could be verified and other sex workers could provide references to ensure that violent clients would be avoided. It ensured clear communication and protection as other sex workers can create a blacklist of dangerous or violent clients to protect other sex workers (Fiveash, 2018). Online advertising enabled sex workers to advertise independently and reduce the need for a third party or pimp who could take advantage both financially and psychologically.

The myth that sex work and sex trafficking are a package deal is propagated by the “Anti-Trafficking Industrial Complex” (Tastrom, 2019, para. 12). This is when huge anti-trafficking corporations and faith-based NGOs fuel energy into criminalising sex work. This, usually, is fuelled by a religion-infused bias and negative stigma against sex work³. For example, Polaris and Faith Alliance Against Slavery and Trafficking poured resources into lobbying politicians to pass the SESTA (S.1693, 2017) and FOSTA (S.1865, 2017) acts, without truly understanding the impact it would have on sex trafficking victims and despite warnings from sex workers and trafficking victims, the very people their organisations aim to protect, that the policy would make trafficking worse (Tastrom, 2019). Sex workers understand the industry and many who have been trafficked also understand the factors that lead a person into that situation. Sex workers should be consulted on these policies, yet instead, government officials that are “well-intentioned but often ill-informed do-gooders” (Atkinson & Scurrah, 2009, p. 37) make policies without understanding the extreme consequences that they cause in reality.

Sex work and sex trafficking are not synonymous, yet are related as they both exist due to the commercial demand for sex. Sex trafficking as an industry thrives due to the commercial demand for sex. If there was no demand for sex they would be no supply of it. It’s simple economics. Human trafficking is a $32 billion industry (International Labor Organization, 2005). Furthermore, a sex trafficking victim costs an average of $1,895 per capita to house, fed, etc, yet generates a profit of $29, 210 annually for the pimp they are enslaved by (Seckhan, 2012). This indicates the huge demand for sex. What many governments misinterpret however is how to tackle this demand to reduce the supply (ie. the supply of women forced into the industry). Banning sex work entirely does not reduce the demand for sex, it just pushes the supply of sex underground and into the black market, which makes it much harder to monitor and quantify.

To contrast the ill-informed faith-based anti-trafficking NGOs, who support criminalisation laws such as the SESTA / FOSTA, organisations that are organised by trafficking survivors themselves, such as Freedom Network USA, La Strada International, and the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women, all support decriminalisation (Tastrom, 2019). The decriminalisation of sex work can be used to reduce the number of people being trafficked into the industry (Mehlman-Orozco, 2017). Theoretically, if more people were willing to go into sex work, whether that’s for economic or personal reasons, this would reduce the need for a supply of trafficked women. Sex trafficking would become less profitable for pimps as sex workers would be performing sex work legally and therefore meeting the demand for commercial sex.

Furthermore, if sex work was decriminalised, it would be easier to spot non-consensual sex trafficking as the women involved could recognise the signs of exploitation, coercion or abuse. Sex workers or even clients could report any underage or non-consenting person to the authorities without fear of their incarceration. Removing punishments for buying or selling sex could increase the incentive for a person to report abuse. Sex workers and clients could, therefore, be an effective part of the process to reduce trafficking. Decriminalisation could be used not only to protect the human rights of sex workers but could also be used in an effort to reduce trafficking by bringing the sex industry up from underground and making more people involved in spotting the signs of trafficking.

Sex trafficking and sex work are distinguishable, and criminalising sex work does not stop sex trafficking from happening. The main difference between sex work and sex trafficking is consent. It is paramount to distinguish sex work from sex trafficking, as there are different approaches needed to tackle the injustice surrounding each, and conflating them can lead to ineffective and even harmful policy. Effective policy is evidence-based with the potential consequences analysed and taken into account, rather than based on myths and assumptions.



¹ Explained fully in Paper 2: Human Trafficking: Common Misconceptions and Actual Realities.

² St. James is a peer-based occupational health and safety clinic for sex workers in San Francisco.

³ Explained fully in Paper 5: The influence of historical taboos on modern-day legislation.

Decriminalisation is the full removal of laws and policies criminalising or penalising sex work (Amnesty International, 2016).

Explained fully in Paper 4: Sex Work Legislation in Western Europe.



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