“Sex trafficking” is a hot topic right now. Magazine and newspaper articles, celebrities, feminist blogs, conservative blogs: they all weave a similar story. Supposedly millions of women and children around the world are enslaved- kidnapped and forced to sell sex for the profit of pimps. But this story does not fit the reality of the vast majority of sex workers. In fact, this narrative has largely been largely constructed by a “rescue industrial complex” that benefits from a certain image of a helpless “sex slave” being perpetrated.
I personally do not believe that it is inherently wrong to sell sexual acts. I think it’s likely that there will always be demand for this type of labor, and there will always be people who are willing to provide this type of labor. However, that’s a topic for another post.
The real issue at hand is this: people are selling sex. It’s happening, and it’s not going to stop happening any time soon. After all, in our society, as we live under capitalism, you need to earn money to survive. And some people find that sex work is a better way to earn money than any other alternatives they might have. For many people it feels more demeaning working minimum wage in a demeaning and tedious job over 40 hours a week rather than spend a few hours a week selling sexual acts. So the question is, given that people are going to be doing this work, whether you personally morally agree with it or not, how can we make these workers safer, happier, and less at risk for abuse and exploitation?
Because we live in a patriarchal and puritanical society, sex work is generally looked down upon, and sex workers are therefore marginalized- their work criminalized. This leads to a huge number of safety concerns. It’s makes it harder for sex workers to screen their clients. It makes it difficult for sex workers to enforce rigorous safety protocols. And it makes it nearly impossible for sex workers to seek help or support if they are harmed by clients or other people they are working for.
Certain interests long ago saw an avenue of exploitation open to them as a result of this marginalization. This is how the “rescue industrial complex” was born. And as it has developed, the monetary interests of factories and sweat shops, law enforcement, government agencies, prisons, and for profit residential centers has become increasingly interconnected.
The reality is, some teens, and a very small number of children, are forced or coerced into sexually exploitative situations. Although this certainly occurs, research shows that these numbers are in reality much smaller than the general population believes. The number is small enough that the rescue industrial complex could not actually turn a large profit if it only rescued those truly in need of rescuing. However, the “sex trafficked child” makes for a great heart wrenching story, one that the bleeding heart liberal, the radical feminist, the white savior imperialist, and the puritanical conservative can get behind.
The department of justice and the FBI have continually changed the definitions of “trafficking”, “pimps”, “victims”, etc. in order to make larger and larger demographics the targets of their operations against “trafficking”. For example, under the “official” definition of trafficking, anyone who crosses a state or country line to do sex work is “trafficked”, regardless of the circumstance. Therefore a woman who travels to a nearby city to do sex work can be charged with “trafficking” herself. A “pimp” is anyone who provides any kind of material or financial resource that may be seen as contributing to the sex industry. A landlord who knowingly rents to a sex worker is considered a “pimp” under these definitions, as well as a friend who provides security, or a partner that helps keep up with client correspondence, regardless of the existence of any power dynamics in their relationship. Despite their efforts to expand these definitions to the point of being nonsensical, the data shows reality. In 2015, 34,240 people were arrested for prostitution, only 457 of which were minors. Where are these thousands of victims that law enforcement agencies describe? They simply do not exist.
Those 457 minors are still a concern. The picture that law enforcement paints is lurid, one that both disgusts and titillates civilians. But the “child sex slave” narrative so often believed by the average media consumer is quite different than what it generally looks like.
Your average “trafficked child” looks like this: they are 15-17 years old, they grew up in an unstable, abusive and/or neglectful household, and their family is in poverty. The youth generally isn’t getting their basic needs met at home and finds that they can trade sex to help pay their family’s bills and buy them things they need to survive or soothe themselves (food, drugs, accessories, treats, etc). In the worst case scenarios, the youth is being abused at home and runs away, and due to a lack of youth shelters and other resources, decides to trade sex for a place to sleep that feels safer than their family’s home. This is not the lurid, titillating scene most people picture when the think of “child sex trafficking”. But it is much closer to what most of these cases actually look like.
I think everyone would agree that youth, or anyone, should not be in these difficult situations where trading sex may be their only, or at least one of their only options. What happens to these teens when they are “rescued” by an anti trafficking campaign?
Law enforcement agencies tend to make a big show about the fact that they don’t arrest “child prostitutes”, due to “progressive” anti trafficking legislation. However, most “rescued” youth will be held in youth detention centers for awhile, while authorities figure out what to do with them. After detention, they may be sent to a residential treatment center, they may be sent into a foster home, they may be dumped back out onto the street with no resources or help, or most likely they will likely be sent back into the abusive and/or poverty stricken homes they were trying to flee from in the first place. If placed in an institution or in foster care, they will often be slapped with a stigmatizing mental health label like borderline personality disorder or conduct disorder. They will likely be heavily medicated. And they will fairly often experience abuse by staff, police, guards, counselors, or members of their new foster families.
There are countless examples of police being the ones abusing and raping sex workers, including exploited youth, or trading sex in exchange for not arresting or detaining youth they find involved in drug rings or the sex trade. In fact, the case I’ve heard of that most closely fit the mainstream narrative of “child sex slave ring” was actually being run by police. Another rare story that fits the more mainstream was a sex trafficking ring run out of group foster homes for disabled adults. Disabled adults being abused in foster care is not nearly as titillating a story as innocent young girl lured into sex slavery, so most people don’t hear about it.
These are the real problems that our society faces: youth with no resources, no help, no options, no one to truly advocate for them. And the institutions currently set up to “help” are vastly inadequate at best- horribly traumatizing at worst.
We have to really be serious about what the issue really is, and what kind of problems our so called “solutions” may actually cause. There awful truth is that there are some things more traumatizing to teens than trading sex for a place to stay. Being held in isolation in detention because they are a “danger” to the other girls (due to panic about “grooming”), being returned to a home where their mother tortures them, or their brother rapes them, or there is never enough to eat, being sent to a foster home that overly medicates them and stigmatizes their behaviors as “borderline” or “anti social”… People don’t want to think about these realities. But they exist- and “rescued” teens face these terrible circumstances every day.
We have to think about other consequences of these anti trafficking operations as well. What about the children of the mostly adult, consenting sex workers who are arrested after being caught up in these “rescue” operations? The family loses a steady income, and often the children are taken out of their custody for no reason other than their parent is a sex worker and therefore seen to be inherently unfit to parent. If people are really worried about the well being of children, they would consider the fate of children of the 34,000+ adult sex workers who were arrested last year to supposedly combat child sex trafficking. Does their well being somehow matter less?
Especially in developing countries, there has been huge outrage by sex workers against these rescue industries coming in and taking root. Many of these women have intentionally chosen sex work over dangerous and exhausting factory work. However, when the brothels are raided by police, they are often “rescued” by being forced into sweat shop and factory work. Nicholas Kristof’s organization Half the Sky is notorious for these coercive practices. Who is really the trafficker here?
Of course it is important to help minors forced into the sex industry because of adverse life circumstances. But arresting mostly adult sex workers under the guise of “fighting trafficking” is not a helpful way to go about that. I’d love to see the huge amounts of money poured into these operations to go towards opening more youth shelters, which would actually help the root issue. I would love to see more free after school programs implemented for at risk youth. I would love to see more resources available so that all families are able to find relief from poverty, and able to seek out and receive culturally competent mental health services if they desire it.
So why aren’t these programs being implemented, if they would actually address the root issues at play here? Because the rescue industrial complex exists to profit police departments, sweatshops, and privately funded “treatment” centers. They do not actually exist to help people. That is why supporting these operations is never actually helpful. Let’s show our outrage by withdrawing our support of these unfounded hysterics and instead support funding youth shelters, after school programs, and other alternatives for vulnerable kids fleeing abusive homes. Don’t support these “rescue” missions- they are only aimed to increase profits of the”rescue industry”.
The even more disturbing part is that sexual exploitation is not the primary way that youths or even adults around the world are exploited. There are far more people exploited in other kinds of labor: garment industries, farming and agricultural industries, and other physical labor such as mining, tourism and hotel industries, house keeping, factory work, etc. People in these industries are often working in extremely dangerous and abusive conditions. So why are these children not being targeted by “anti-trafficking” campaigns?
This is an important question to ask. Why are these children so much more out of the media spotlight? Why are they less worthy of our rescuing? I would argue that it has to do with misogyny, it has to do with slut shaming, it has to do with our sexual fantasies in the context of a violent yet puritanical society. As much as we might deny it to ourselves and each other, the image of the “child sex slave” titillates us in way that the “child factory slave” simply does not. This holds true from the fierce feminists to the raging conservative. So let’s admit what’s really going on here. Can we step back, look at the real issues, find other outlets for our darker fantasies, and do what we need to do to actually help the kids now?
For sources that back up the claims I make here, please visit and explore the following websites: