Human trafficking has captured the attention of many Americans, partly thanks to years-long advocacy and awareness efforts by anti-trafficking groups across the country. We are starting to see stories on our local news channels about trafficking, and national headlines appear on our phones’ news app. Sadly, some people have come to know what human trafficking looks like because a friend or loved one becomes a trafficking victim.
What is the Difference Between Sex Trafficking & Prostitution?
Yet, many myths and misinformation are still being spread about what human trafficking is and is not. Sex trafficking can include prostitution, but not all prostitution is necessarily sex trafficking. Two main factors differentiate the two.
First, trafficking must involve a third party-beneficiary, meaning someone else besides the “john,” or the person receiving the sexual act, must be involved. This is often a pimp, boyfriend, friend, or family member.
Secondly, human sex trafficking – when involving adults over the age of 18 – is achieved through force, fraud or coercion. Importantly, if the person prostituting him or herself is not 18 years of age, then whenever a third-party beneficiary is involved, the prostitution constitutes sex trafficking. In other words, if a person is under the age of 18, there is no force, fraud or coercion requirement to prosecute the person recruiting, enticing, harboring, transporting, providing, or obtaining the minor as a sex trafficker.
Prostitution can be a euphemism for human trafficking. This is why I do not refer to people prostituting themselves as “prostitutes.” The label implies a choice when the reality is that many people are not prostituting themselves by choice. The word “prostitute” evokes a certain negative connotation, and victims of human trafficking deserve better.
What Constitutes Force, Fraud or Coercion?
In reality, force, fraud or coercion takes form in many different ways. It rarely involves handcuffing a victim to a bedpost, as some people may envision.
- Fraud is a broken promise. It is the promise of a better life, a safe place to live, or a loving relationship with a new girlfriend or boyfriend.
- Coercion can be highly addictive drugs, threats of harm to a victim or their family, or blackmail to release intimate photos of the victim.
When we recognize the various ways traffickers force victims to perform services or labor, we can start identifying more victims across the board, including victims of labor trafficking.
If a boyfriend or husband tells his adult partner that he will post intimate photos unless the partner performs sex acts for money, that is sex trafficking. If an adult posts an ad for sex in return for money, by his or her own volition, and a person pays for and receives sexual acts as a result, that is not sex trafficking. If a 16-year old runs away from home and meets a new friend who encourages him or her to make money by selling sexual favors, that is sex trafficking because the person is under the age of 18.
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