Updated: Sep 20, 2022
The majority of prostitutes choose their work — the real moral failure of human trafficking is the exploitation of immigrants from poor countries
The difference between prostitution and sexual slavery
This is the one Big Lie about prostitution.
It has been denounced in prestigious medical journals, like The Lancet (Butcher, 2003; Steen et al., 2015) and others (Decker, 2013). But politicians are paying no heed. They use the words “prostitution” and “trafficking” interchangeably, like they are the same thing.
It is true that some prostitutes are coerced into sex work. Common definitions of sex trafficking include two different set of criteria: 1) minors under the age of 18 years being sexually exploited (Willis and Levy, 2002), or 2) adults doing sex work “under conditions of force, fraud or coercion” (Decker, 2013; Steen et al., 2015). Forced sex work should not be called prostitution, but sexual slavery. Sex with minors is statutory rape.
Scientists have also pointed out that this lie has grave consequences, not just for the sex workers, but also for the general population, because it seriously undermines the prevention of HIV and other sexually-transmitted diseases (Ditmore and Saunders, 1998; Steen et al., 2015).
What percentage of prostitutes are “trafficked”?
The excuse for this deliberate confusion is that most prostitutes are trafficked, as the Spanish newspaper El País proclaimed in its editorial of September 4, 2018, without any evidence. In fact, it is far from clear how many women who get paid for sex are forced into it (“trafficked”). This is not by accident. Research into this topic seems to be purposely discouraged. Or maybe it’s just that doing statistics on a business in which the worker, the client and the manager risk being thrown in jail is extremely hard. When research is done, it is in developing countries in South Asia like India, Thailand or Bangladesh (Decker, 2013). Then their conclusions are mindlessly applied to create legislation in Europe and the United States.
A study carried out by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Trafficking in Persons to Europe for the Purpose of Sexual Exploitation (PDF in Spanish; details on pages 7-9) addresses the dimension of prostitution in Europe and the percentage that comes from sexual exploitation.
Number of victims of trafficking identified in Western and Central Europe (in 2006): 7,300 victims.
Assuming that only one out of 20 victims is identified, the total figure would be 7,300 x 20 = 146,000 victims. This assumption is from the UN report, not mine.
Estimated number of prostitutes in 25 European countries: 700,000 prostitutes. Extrapolating to the total population of Europe gives about one million prostitutes.
146,000 victims / 1,000,000 prostitutes = 14.6% of the prostitutes are victims of sexual exploitation in Europe.
There is great a study by Aella in her blog Knowingless. She compares different sources for the number of prostitutes trafficked in the USA:
“So in the US: the Trafficking In Persons report says ~16,000 newly trafficked per year (if we assume 2 years spent trafficked, this is ~32,000 currently sex trafficked). The Human Rights Center report says 4,600 currently sex trafficked, the Ohio study says (maybe?) ~76,000 currently sex trafficked, and mine says ~39,000 currently sex trafficked. I don’t know if averaging these is the right thing to do, but I did it anyway, which leaves us with 37,900 (or ~0.01% of the US population).” What Percentage of Sex Workers in the US are Trafficked? by Aella.
She estimates the number of sex workers in the USA as being between 830,000 and 1,200,000, which is similar to the number for Europe. Putting both numbers together, she concludes:
“So: given my estimated sex trafficking prevalence, I estimate about 3.2% of active, in-person sex workers in the US are currently being sex trafficked.” What Percentage of Sex Workers in the US are Trafficked? by Aella.
Using the numbers she gives, the higher and lower boundaries for the percentage of prostitutes trafficked in the USA would be 9.5% and 0.38%. Even the higher number is still lower than the estimate in the UN study for Europe. I think that their assumption that only 1 in 20 victims is identified is wrong. This assumption involves a lot of guesswork, and can significantly change the resulting percentages.
In any case, even the higher estimates show that it is false to equate prostitution with trafficking. The great majority of prostitutes choose this work voluntarily.
The real human trafficking: immigration from poor countries
A fact that is rarely discussed about human trafficking is that a lot of people want to be trafficked - in the sense of wanting to migrate from poor, developing countries in Africa, South Asia and Central and South America to the rich, developed countries of Europe and North America. They are so desperate to do this that they are willing to risk their lives in the process.
Being exploited for their labor - including sexual labor - it’s not the worse outcome they face. Much worse is to die, lose their children, being forcibly sterilized, or being imprisoned at the hands of the same State that sanctimoniously preaches against the horrors of prostitution.
Undocumented women from Mexico or Central America crossing the border into the USA assume that they are likely to be raped on their way. These women, and those crossing the Mediterranean in precarious boats to reach Spain, Italy or Greece, have to give large sums of money to their coyotes or smugglers. Often, they don’t have money at hand, so they assume a debt to the smugglers. Prostitution is just the most expeditious way to pay that debt. Of course, this is coerced sex, but the fact that sex is involved is not the most salient moral issue here. It is the economic injustice that forces people into these extremes.
There have been cases in which immigrant women have been locked in secret factories and made to work excruciating hours in what can only be described as modern-day slavery. Others have been forced to work as intern maids in the households of the rich. Often, their children are held as ransom.
The immorality of confusing prostitution and human trafficking
Most prostitutes are not trafficked. Most trafficked women are not prostituted.
These two things are confused on purpose to advance a repressive ideology that could not gain traction otherwise.
This is a huge ethical failure. It involves turning a blind eye to an injustice much larger than sexual exploitation: the steep difference in wealth between rich countries and the poor countries that they colonized in the past and continue to exploit economically. Famine and violence make life in some of these poor countries so harsh that the risks of migration seem the most rational option.
If you lived there, you would want to be trafficked, too.
Butcher K (2003) Confusion between prostitution and sex trafficking. Lancet 361:1983.
Decker MR (2013) Sex trafficking, sex work, and violence: evidence for a new era. Int J Gynaecol Obstet 120:113-114.
Ditmore M, Saunders P (1998) Sex work and sex trafficking. Sex Health Exch:15.
Steen R, Jana S, Reza-Paul S, Richter M (2015) Trafficking, sex work, and HIV: efforts to resolve conflicts. Lancet 385:94-96.
Willis BM, Levy BS (2002) Child prostitution: global health burden, research needs, and interventions. Lancet 359:1417-1422.