Is a Prostitute Trafficked?

Sex trafficking is defined by United States law in the “Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000″ when,

“a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such an act has not attained 18 years of age; or… the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor service, through the use of force, fraud, coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery.”

This standard definition of sex trafficking is necessary for research and scholastic analysis of the issue. Law enforcement, social services, medical services and legal services need research to use specific and consistent definitions as they are direct service providers to victims of sex trafficking. Epstein and Edelman admit that “trafficking cases are complex, resource intensive and time consuming,” requiring a more pronounced separation of prostitution and sex trafficking. So awareness can be cultivated allowing services to intervene sooner and avoid making victims criminals. The American public is entitled to clear research to make policy decisions and above all else, there must be a concern for human beings that are “forced, [by] fraud, or coercion” to have sex with strangers, which is undeniably unethical and a violation of their agency.

Conflating prostitution with trafficking has tangible ramifications that affect law enforcement and legal services interactions with victims. Prostitution is defined as “the practice or occupation of engaging in sexual activity with someone for payment.” The difference is a trafficked person is forced to commit commercial sex acts, while a pimp-prostitute relationship needs to be examined on a case by case basis as categorizing a person into a willful or unwillful relationship does the individual a disservice. Designating a person automatically a prostitute because they are selling sex is inimical to law enforcement because in a sex trafficking survivors survey 26.71 percent reported they had contact with law enforcement but received no assistance. Law enforcement has more interactions than any other service with trafficked victims and prostitutes. Nichols and Heil point out, “police are many times the first-responders to a trafficking situation” and yet “researchers have found that police may be limited in their knowledge of trafficking, as well as their ability to identify and respond to it…across the United States…only 12% of police officers believes trafficking was a significant issue in their departments.” A lack of distinctions between prostitution and trafficking leads law enforcement in Chicago to charge trafficked victims as prostitutes and in Florida victims under the age of 18 to be charged as prostitutes. An explicit distinction between trafficking and prostitution is needed to avoid victims becoming victims of the American legal system.

Law enforcement’s lack of awareness and training means investigators rely on a victim self-reporting and this is a problem because the trafficker will employ many tactics to retain control of their victim. For example, as Busch-Armendariz et al. observed, in Texas physical violence and false threats of deportation were used to keep victims loyal to their trafficker. Lloyd and Smith et al. in a different study reveal that traffickers “manipulate victims through promises of love and security, where victims themselves keep their activities hidden due to ‘trauma bonds’ or love for their traffickers, who may have initially posed as boyfriends.”  Polaris, a hotline that provides services for trafficking victims, and the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC) research further exposes the nuanced exploitative strategies used by traffickers. They show that victims thought of their trafficker as intimate partners in 31.51 percent of cases. Raphael and Shapiro uncover in Chicago that 20 percent of 222 women reported they were coerced by boyfriends to solicit their bodies and Kenny et al. found 16 percent of 54 victims were trafficked by boyfriends or individuals they had established “emotional bond with.” Victims should not be expected to differentiate themselves initially as victims of trafficking and not prostitutes.

Law enforcement, when treating trafficking victims as prostitutes, “risks re-traumatization,” causing the victim to relive abuse, hindering law enforcement’s ability to investigate and in some cases the victim will return to their trafficker. This emotional bondage to one’s traffickers is based on the victim’s history that involves abuse neglect, since “many [are] runaways thrown out of their homes, placed in multiple foster care or group homes, or detained in jails.” The top three categories that were reported by Polaris clients being trafficked were “childhood abuse/neglect, homelessness, [and being a] runaway,” while the NHTRC reported “poverty, homelessness, [and] substance abuse.” Victims are then, as Heil and Nichols explain, “abused both physically and psychologically, as well as constrained by an economic debt to the trafficker. They are made compliant as the trafficker may feed addictions to drugs and alcohol.” Traffickers’ use victim’s previous circumstances and use abuse to constrain the victim into sexual bondage.

Pre-existing conditions and inequalities put the victim at risk of being manipulated and will always factor in “well-planned crimes,” such as trafficking.  Admittedly, O’Brien et al. in their article, ‘Sex Trafficking and Moral Harm: Politicized Understandings and Depictions of the Trafficked Experience’ argue, “that it is not prostitution and migrant sex work[referring to trafficking] that is inherently harmful. Rather, it is pathological systemic inequalities and entrenched disadvantages that are harmful, and that harm in these contexts occurs where inequality and disadvantage are played out through sexual commerce.” O’Brien et al. believe that trafficking and prostitution are not distinct, thus trafficking laws were written to establish authority over women’s bodies. Establishing an individual as a trafficked person requires that harm occurs in the form of force, coercion, and/or fraud. Any pre-existing conditions, like other crimes, cannot negate the inherent harm in force, coercion and fraud. “Inequality and disadvantage” put an individual at risk of being trafficked; what if a person is devoid of these ‘inequalities and disadvantages’ and is trafficked? Does this mean there is no harm?  Coercion which is inherently harmful is defined by the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation as “threats of serious harm, physical restraint of a person, and schemes, plans ,or patterns intended to cause a person to believe that failure to perform an act will result in serious harm to or physical restraint against any person; or the abuse or threatened abuse of the legal process.” A specific example, comes from Los Angeles, where Hania Cardenas shares a normal narrative of someone who is trafficked: “One of the girls I’d been closely working with…was held captive, repeatedly beaten and raped, for four months. He[the trafficker] threatened to kill her mom and autistic younger brother.” Regardless of this victim’s economic state, any substance abuse or any other conditions, being “held captive, repeatedly beaten and raped, for four months” is an “inherently harmful” experience. Thinking of prostitution and migrant sex work as the same as trafficking leads to conclusions that undermine harm in regard to victims experiences and show the need for increased awareness of etymological differences in scholarship.

Forcible sex is harmful to both genders. Steele though considers that it is more harmful to men because

“For men, this experience of rape is troubling not only because it is violent, but because it interrupts the usual constructions of masculinity…Indeed the penetration of the man (either through the violation of him sexually or of his skin) is particularly abhorrent because it violates the normal expression of masculinity wherein (heterosexual) men by definition penetrate ‘the other’ (e.g. woman)…The brutalizing and penetration of the male victim’s body thus takes away both integrity and autonomy from the victim…the state’s intervention is necessary both to save him and to restore the normal gender order.”

But as I argue, forced commercial sex is ethically wrong because it violates someone’s agency and not learned gender norms or assigned sexual orientation. Women also have their “integrity and autonomy” robbed from them. The NHRTC in their case study found that 4.41 percent of their victims were male and Polaris’ study reported only 1.42 percent. The low numbers could indicate a lack of reporting, but these men were still coerced into having sex and are not more or less victimized than women. The reason for action against sex trafficking, as The Salvation Army puts it, people should “oppose the corrupt abuse of power against other human beings that is inherent in trafficking for personal gain.” Sex trafficking is not consensual regardless of what gender is involved and is significant because the traffickers are using the bodies of males and females for fiscal gain.

Regardless of societal values, forced commercial sex acts, as I argue, are harmful and societies have written laws criminalizing trafficking. O’Brien et al. believe that anti-trafficking laws were written because of a “relational model (men and women together are more productive) under industrial capitalism. Based on durable domestic relationships…this way of thinking of prostitution[and therefore trafficking] promoted adultery and promiscuity and challenged the sanctity of the family.” Trafficking laws are not enforcing industrial capitalistic values and are not establishing monogamous relationships as moral. Perhaps, anti-prostitution laws are legislating willful commercial acts as wrong, therefore reinforcing monogamous moral values but since trafficking is not prostitution, trafficking laws do not legislate “relational models,” and are not legislating that women who have sex before or outside marriage is a moral or legal transgression. Trafficking laws are not legislating morality but criminalizing the exploitation of a human’s body. Wirsing says it best:

“Inherent to the nature of human trafficking is a direct violation of humans rights…The techniques used by traffickers and the forms in which trafficking is manifested are various, but what is common to them all is the exploitation of some people by other people. Those who are victimized include children, teenagers, women and men. Human trafficking is contrary to the principle of freedom and dignity. The exploitation of human beings dehumanize[s] the individuals who are trafficked, rewards the inhumanity of the traffickers.”

Denying this intrinsic part of a human’s right to their body by conflating prostitution and trafficking is harmful and degrades a human right to a free life.

When academic and social services discourses do not establish the difference between sex trafficking and prostitution it undermines the citizen’s ability to vote, to pass legislation and to engage in public discourse. Perhaps the word trafficking causes confusion but in the United States sex trafficking comprises 83 percent of 1,229 of total trafficking incidents and 63 percent of those cases are United States citizens with 32 percent of victims being under the age of 18 according to the Department of Justice.  The crime of sex trafficking has the connotation of immigrants who are smuggling other immigrants into sexual slavery. Yet Steele propagates and expands this connotation, in ‘Combating the Scourge’: Constructing the Masculine ‘Other’ Through U.S. Government Anti-trafficking Campaigns’, that trafficking laws

“recreate a politic of hate around immigration that generates the conditions of poverty, restricted movement, and disempowerment driving trafficking itself” and that this ‘constitutes verbicide’ dehumanizing, ideologically based media that creates a fear of the different “Other,” particularly the visibly dark-skinned man, exacerbates racial stereotypes ‘marketing fear and fault.”


Steele is perhaps correct in asserting trafficking laws “exacerbate racial stereotypes” and create fear towards certain immigrant populations. If this fear is being proliferated by the United States Government or is a deeply held belief by the people it does not compromise the fact that the majority of trafficking cases in the United States are domestic and involve United States citizens as victims. Misunderstandings of populations involved in trafficking cannot cause a reasonable assertion that trafficking laws were created to target immigrants.

Domestically children involved in sex trafficking are estimated to amount to 100,000 with 325,000 at risk of being trafficked. Traffickers most targeted demographic is poverty stricken women with no home and substance abuse problems contradicting Steele’s idea that trafficking laws “create and reinforce divides in masculinities based on regimes of racial domination” and O’Brien’s argument that “narrow depictions of sex trafficking” harms women and immigrants. According to the NHRTC, 94.49 percent of their clients were female and Polaris clients were 96.45 percent female and Koltra’s survey states 63 percent of  victims were U.S. citizens. Immigrants are not the most at risk population but women in poverty and defining trafficking laws as purely an immigrant issue does not corroborate with the Department of Justice, NHRTC, and other domestic sex trafficking studies statistics.

Research that does not rely on actual qualitative and quantitative realities risks engendering a misconstrued view of trafficking to the American public. The American public at the moment would not knowingly support forced commercial sex acts and would oppose people under the age of 18 being coerced to have sex. The underground child sex industry alone is generating $32 billion according to the United Nations and is largely underreported. This lack of knowledge of domestic sex trafficking does not equal a ‘culture of tolerance’ as proposed by Koltra. She defines “a culture of tolerance” as “the glamorization of pimping, [and] is embodied in multiple venues of daily life, including clothing, songs, television, video games.” Koltra argues that the acceptance of child sex trafficking is fueling shows like Pimp My Ride or songs like ‘It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp.’ But the “glamorization” by the media of prostitution does not mean a tacit support of child sex slavery.

Raising awareness, especially of minors that are sex trafficked, is important to direct service providers and the public. Probation officers, in Los Angeles “observed that girls were being arrested on prostitution charges at an average age of twelve to thirteen-years-old…[case] managers learned that before the child has been trafficked they had come into contact with local authorities an average of thirty-five times whether it is law enforcement, social workers or health workers.” A twelve and thirteen-year-old cannot be a prostitute because federal law states that a “person induced to perform such an [commercial sex] act has not attained 18 years of age.” Increased awareness will allow law enforcement to intercede in children being victimized and allow for the public to make legislative decisions.

Old and outdated laws exhibit a lack of public knowledge about the sex trafficking of children. This is the case in California where “human trafficking carries a lighter penalty than kidnapping or rape even if the trafficking victim is a minor,” and in Kansas where “existing laws allow men who pay 16- and 17-year old girls for sex to only face a Class C misdemeanor, which carries the same type of penalties as driving with a suspended license.” For laws to change, accurate and comprehensive studies of trafficking laws must be in place so that communities can as Epstein and Edelman put it “demand greater penalties against buyers and more aggressive action to educate buyers to decrease demand.”

A lack of knowledge about sex trafficking and its presence on the internet has allowed traffickers to use the internet very profitably. Child sex trafficking has moved online offering traffickers and buyers more anonymity and lessens the risk of the buyer, seller and victim being monitored by law enforcement. The only way to deter the solicitation of a child prostitute on the internet is to have the public decide if laws need to be strengthened. Web sites such as enable the sale of sex without stating the seller’s actual age.  Wording like “‘fresh to the scene, ‘cheerleader’ and ‘new’ [are used] to identify the girl as a minor” but “an interested buyer needs to simply look at the photographs of the girl linked to the advertisement, or call the listed number, to determine if that is the type of sexual service being sought (i.e., sex with a minor).” (For an example, see page 11.) Heil and Nichols propose that websites should not be, “shut down…but rather, monitor these sites[] and use them as a tool in investigations.” Buying a prostitute online leaves the buyer at risk of purchasing a minor, perpetuating a child’s sexual bondage and enabling the abuse of young children.

The separation of prostitution from sex trafficking creates an ethical responsibility, as declared by The Salvation Army, “We…have the responsibility, both individually and collectively, to work for the liberation of those who have been enslaved in this manner, and to establish the legal and social mechanisms by which human trafficking can be stopped.” The Salvation Army’s STOP-It program in Chicago is leading the charge and provides “comprehensive trauma-informed care to 79 victims of human trafficking..34 were domestic minors…22 foreign nationals, 7 whom were victims of sex trafficking.” However, these services are only supported if the public is aware of sex trafficking.

Sex trafficking must be discussed and should be defined as a separate issue removed from prostitution. Reestablishing a definition of prostitution will greatly help direct service providers not to confuse a coerced sex victim with a prostitute. Academic rigor must be applied when addressing sex trafficking, and removing moral debates against prostitution, as they are distinct from one another, will enable more strident efforts in addressing sex trafficking. Sex trafficking is not prostitution and the American public would and should not stand idly by while men, women and children of all ethnicities are forced and coerced daily to have sex.



Epstein, Rebecca, and Peter Edelman. “Blueprint: A Multidisciplinary Approach to the Domestic Sex Trafficking of Girls.” 2013. Accessed June 29, 2015 from

Kotrla, Kimberly. “Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking in the United States.” Social Work 55, no 2 (2010): 181-87. accessed June 29, 2015 through

The United Nations cited by Kotrla, Kimberly. “Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking in the United States.” Social Work 55, no 2 (2010): 181-87. accessed June 29, 2015 through, 3.

Nichols, Andrea J., and Erin C. Heil. “Challenges to Identifying and Prosecuting Sex Trafficking Cases in the Midwest United States.” Feminist Criminology 10, no. 1 (2015): 7-35. Accessed July 1, 2015 from

Busch-Armendariz N., Nsonwu, M., Cook Heffron, L., Garza J. & Hernandez, M, “Understanding human trafficking: Development of typologies of traffickers cited by Nichols, Andrea J., and Erin C. Heil. “Challenges to Identifying and Prosecuting Sex Trafficking Cases in the Midwest United States.” Feminist Criminology 10, no. 1 (2015): 7-35. Accessed July 1, 2015 from

Raphael, J., Shapiro, D “Violence in indoor and outdoor prostitution venues” and Kennedy, M. A., Klein, C., Bristowe J., Cooper B., Yuille, J. “Routes of Recruitment: Pimp’s techniques and other circumstances that lead to street prostitution” cited by cited by Nichols, Andrea J., and Erin C. Heil. “Challenges to Identifying and Prosecuting Sex Trafficking Cases in the Midwest United States.” Feminist Criminology 10, no. 1 (2015): 7-35. Accessed July 1, 2015. 26 from

Heil, Erin, and Andrea Nichols. “Hot Spot Trafficking: A Theoretical Discussion Problems Associated Policing and Eradication of Sex Trafficking in the United States.” Contemporary Justice Review 17, no. 4 (2014): 421-33. Accessed July 1, 2015 from

O’Brien, Erin, Belinda Carpenter, and Sharon Hayes. “Sex Trafficking and Moral Harm: Politicized Understandings and Depictions of the Trafficked Experience.” Critical Criminology, no. 21 (2013): 401-15. Accessed June 29, 2015 from doi:10.1007/s10612-013-9183-6, 402.

Steele, Sarah L. “‘Combating the Scourge’: Constructing the Masculine ‘Other’ Through U.S.. Government Anti-trafficking Campaigns.” Journal of Hate Studies 9, no. 33 (2011): 33-64. Accessed June 29, 2015 through

Wirsing, Erin. “Outreach, Collaboration and Services to Survivors of Human Trafficking: The Salvation Army STOP-IT Program’s Work in Chicago,Illinois.” Socail Work &  Christianity 394 (2012) accessed July 1, 2015 through

Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation cited by Wirsing, Erin. “Outreach, Collaboration and Services to Survivors of Human Trafficking: The Salvation Army STOP-IT Program’s Work in Chicago,Illinois.” Socail Work &  Christianity 394 (2012) accessed July 1, 2015 through  

Salvation Army cited by Wirsing, Erin. “Outreach, Collaboration and Services to Survivors of Human Trafficking: The Salvation Army STOP-IT Program’s Work in Chicago,Illinois.” Socail Work &  Christianity 394 (2012) accessed July 1, 2015 through

“Chicago Escorts.” Chicago Naperville. July 28, 2015. Accessed July 28, 2015.


“National Human Trafficking Resource Center.” National Human Trafficking Resource Center. May 28, 2015. Accessed June 29, 2015.


“Definition of Prostitution in English.” Prostitution: Definition of Prostitution in Oxford Dictionary (American English) (US). 2015. Accessed July 25, 2015.

Picture from Google images.


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