Trafficking and Commercial Sexual Exploitation: What You Need to Know

By: Hannah Blair, expert in the field – both clinical and lived experience

Allison is 22. She is a single mom to a three-year-old and bears all the weight of providing for him. After losing her job, she becomes desperate. She never graduated high school and does not have much work experience, so she places an ad on an online escorting site and begins selling her body to make ends meet.

Connie is 16. Abused by a cousin and frequently left alone by her parents, Connie develops a relationship with an older man in her community. He woos her with gifts and promises, roping Connie in and giving her the love she so desperately desires. When he begins to force her to have sex with people for money, she does not bat an eye. He has convinced Connie that he loves her and always has her best interest in mind.

Both Allison and Connie are driven by desperation. Both find a way to fill their need. Both need resources and support services to escape their situations and find the healing they deserve. But their situations are not the same.

If we were to place the commercial sex industry on a continuum, one end would consist of those adult individuals who participate in commercial sex “willingly” – those who “choose” to engage in the sex industry. On the other end, you would find victims of sex trafficking – those who are participating in commercial sex because of force, fraud, or coercion.

In between these two ends of the spectrum is a vast gray zone. It is in this area that the margins between force and consent are unclear; where the line between human trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation (CSE) is undistinguishable.

It is in this middle zone where we find women who are working in strip clubs because the costs of chemotherapy and other necessary treatments are out of reach without the supplemental income of selling their bodies. We find college students who escort because they can’t afford to keep a roof over their head on top of what they owe for student loans. We find high school students who are selling their bodies of their own volition but are still trafficking victims because minors can’t consent to sex. We find men who were sold for sex as children and grew up never knowing a different life was possible.

In many situations regarding commercial sex, labels are problematic, complex, and ultimately contingent on local laws. Sexual exploitation is found at each point along the continuum, but it occurs in different degrees.

More often than not, the intersection between sex trafficking and CSE has no clear boundaries. It is rarely this or that, because both are rooted in a system of gender inequality; both view people as objects to be used by others; both do not allow for consent or self-advocacy.

So, how do we differentiate between the two?

By definition, commercial sexual exploitation is any sexual activity that is traded or exchanged for something of value, often for the purpose of survival. CSE manifests in many forms, such as prostitution, pornography, stripping, erotic massage, and sexting. CSE is a term that developed due to the recognition that any commodification of sex is inherently exploitative. A third-party is not always involved in CSE. Sex trafficking, on the other hand, always involves a third-party who coordinates or profits from the exploitation of another. If an individual is driven into participating in any commercial sexual activity through force, fraud, or coercion by another individual, that is sex trafficking.

Ultimately, the commercial sex industry fuels trafficking. 70% of females who are trafficked are trafficked into the commercial sex industry. In CSE, the exploiter is a victim’s circumstances. In trafficking, the exploiter is the trafficker. Those in the sex industry are often bought not by choice but by circumstance. The concept of choice is rooted in the privilege of a genuine alternative – a choice is only a choice if you have choices.

Regardless, individuals in both the commercial sex industry and sex trafficking need exit strategies and resources to empower them to live a life free of exploitation. Whether or not they are there by “choice”, they should still be afforded the opportunity to exit the sex industry with an array of resources designed to empower them. As we begin to embrace the broad spectrum of complex and nuanced experiences that make up the commercial sex industry and sex trafficking situations, more victims will find freedom, more traffickers will be prosecuted, and more resources will become available for survivors to live an empowered life.