Innovations In The Fight Against Human Trafficking: Considering Sex and Labor Trafficking Together– Open Source Innovation Development Session

By: Hayley Pine

During the Open Source Innovation Development portion of the Innovations in the Fight Against Human Trafficking symposium, a number of attendees spoke about ending the bifurcation between sex and labor trafficking. This idea is based on the concept that sex and labor trafficking are intertwined. Sex work should be viewed as labor. Part of the horror of sex labor trafficking is that it involves sexual exploitation as a means of maintaining control. Also, many trafficking experiences involve multiple forms of labor and commercial sexual exploitation. Therefore, the distinction between the two should be eliminated.

Society responds to labor trafficking and sex trafficking differently, so it may seem logical to separate them. However, one of the major differences between the two, which helps create this dichotomy, is the criminalization of sex work. Criminalizing sex work also creates other issues. Many of the problems associated with sex trafficking remain in the shadows because individuals involved in it are afraid to come forward for fear of criminalization.

In contrast to sex trafficking victims, labor trafficking victims have some level of recourse, because if they come forward with the work that they have been doing they will not be penalized. Women engaged in sex work also have little resources available to them because of the criminalization of sex work. There are resources that are available to victims of trafficking, but who falls into that category is often narrowly defined. Many women, unfortunately, are not included in that category, because they either: engaged in sex work voluntarily after being trafficked, or they entered into sex work voluntarily and were then trafficked. Since the work started or ended on a voluntary basis, and sex work is criminalized, those individuals who were trafficked have far fewer resources available to them. Rather than being considered victims, and being able to receive the help they need, they may be viewed as criminals.

During this session, the group also identified the positive and negative reasons for the decriminalization of certain prostitution crimes. Many of the positive reasons focused on bringing light to the problems within the industry and regulating those issues. For example, shedding light on underage sex work could lead to a greater ability to regulate it, therefore providing greater protection to young girls. The regulation of the industry would also reduce a trafficker’s financial incentive, which would help remove the economic viability of being a trafficker.

However, one group member explained that there would still be significant economic incentive in trafficking individuals who are under-aged. There was also a discussion of the problem with criminalizing “johns” rather than the sex worker. This discussion caused the most back and forth. While one individual stated that it could be dangerous for the girls, another thought that it was currently the best option. The individual against the criminalization of “johns” stated that they are potentially a resource for the women being trafficked, and at times help them escape. By focusing on the “johns,” it will again push the problem further into the shadows. However, the other individual thought that criminalizing ”johns” was an effective means of dealing with the problem, because it no longer blames the victim, and is a way of addressing the crime.

In spite of a divergence of opinions on how exactly to reach the ultimate goal of decriminalizing sex work, there was significant agreement that decriminalization should inevitably occur. However, there was extreme skepticism that it was a viable option at any point in the near future.