The tendency to treat trafficking and prostitution as if they were the same thing has a long been a problem.
The trafficking of women and children into sexual slavery is undeniably a gross abuse of human rights. It involves coercion or trickery or both.
Treating sex work as if it is the same as sex trafficking both ignores the realities of sex work and endangers those engaged in it. Sex workers include men and women and transgendered persons who offer sexual services in exchange for money. Sex workers engage in prostitution for many reasons, but the key distinction here is that they do it voluntarily. They are not coerced or tricked into staying in the business but have chosen this from among the options available to them. That being said, most sex trade workers that chose to participate didn’t wake up one morning and decide that is what they wanted to do for a career. Most that gravitate toward the sex industry have typically had a rough childhood and a majority of them have been sexually abused. These individuals are at high risk to be trafficked.
Prostitution and Human Trafficking: A Paradigm Shift
By Steve Marcin
In 2010 the Anaheim Police Department (APD) vice detail in Orange County, California, realized that most of the prostitutes it had contact with came from similar backgrounds. Analysis of their common circumstances and reasons for prostituting caused investigators to believe that they were sex trafficking victims. Human trafficking is using force, fraud, or coercion to recruit, obtain, or provide a person for sexual exploitation. This shift in perspective produced an innovative approach to addressing the problem.
In over 100 arrests, most of the women expressed that prostitution was not their career of choice. In a 1998 study, 88 percent of the prostituted women surveyed stated that they wanted to leave the sex trade industry.1 The majority of prostitutes interviewed by APD vice investigators believed that selling themselves was their only alternative for survival. Further investigation showed that these women shared similar circumstances that led them to prostitution. Many came from dysfunctional homes, had few friends or family members who cared about them, and were drug addicts or alcoholics. Arrest and contact data indicated that most of these women were between 18 and 29 years old. Unfortunate situations and poor choices made them vulnerable.
Most of the women described their path into the sex trade as a boyfriend transforming into a pimp or a girlfriend becoming a prostitute. A man recognized the woman’s situation and gained access through affection, compassion, and a promise to care. He became a companion who listened, understood, and shared the desire for a better future. The new beau quickly made an offer—leave with him and he would take care of her. She left for a better life. The man quickly moved her to another county or state. Once relocated, the partnership transitioned into an abusive domestic relationship. The man dominated the woman and controlled where she stayed, when and what she ate, what clothes she wore, what she did, and when she did it. Even if the woman could call for help, she had no one to rescue her. The man told her that they needed money and that she would have to earn it. People see a pimp as someone who obtains customers for a prostitute. The reality is that they use manipulation, threats, and violence to keep these women from leaving. They depend on the women they recruit into prostitution. These men use mental, emotional, and physical abuse to keep the women generating money.2 Out of fear or a desire to be cared for, hookers protect their pimps. The men abandon women who are unable or unwilling to provide any more revenue. Most prostitutes recognize their actions as illegal; however, a substantial number of them truly are victims.
Pimps use various control methods to keep the women working the streets. Many of the prostitutes spoke of daily physical abuse, emotional dominance, and lies about caring. These men burned the women with curling irons, strangled, and punched them. They told the prostitutes that their families would be ashamed of them for being a hooker and that no one else would care for them.
Alone and removed from family and friends, these women have no money and depend on their pimps for food, shelter, and clothing. Human sex trafficking victims equate to modern day slaves. The vice detail’s findings supported the argument that “The most insidious and common pattern appeared to be young women being convinced to exploit themselves for the financial benefit of someone else. Betrayals by the people closest to prostituted women appeared to be only the first injustice in a path . . . rife with violence, degradation, and extreme physical stress.”3
After close analysis of prostitutes and their situations, the APD instituted a new approach where it viewed prostitution as possible human trafficking. The recognition, rescue, and aid of these victims became the most important tactic in addressing the problem.