Sex work vs sex trafficking: People often conflate the two, but here's how they differ

Sex work vs. sex trafficking: Spotting the difference

For many sex workers, having to hear that sex work is the same as sex trafficking can be difficult, frustrating, and in many cases dangerous.

Here at Vivastreet we want to clarify both terms, highlighting the importance of understanding how they differ and why it’s so important to distinguish between the two.

It’s important we continue to have conversations surrounding this subject matter, to help remove the stigmas often associated with sex work, whilst bringing more awareness to sex trafficking. With many sex traffickers operating worldwide, sex trafficking still continues to be an issue experienced by many.

What is sex trafficking?

The act of sex trafficking occurs when a person is forced into sexual activity without their consent. Whether under threat or abduction, the cohesive nature of this is a complete exploitation of a person’s human rights.

Unfortunately, anyone can be at risk of being sex trafficked, with studies showing that it can and does happen to various people, regardless of their age and sex.
Unbeknown to many people, sex trafficking often occurs in plain sight.

Sex trafficking in the UK

Unfortunately, because of the very criminal nature of sex trafficking, it is almost impossible to find the exact numbers of people who are being trafficked.One reason for this is that those who exploit and sex traffic people will be doing so illegally.

This means the exact numbers can not be accurately documented. However, organisations like Unseen UK have claimed that around 4.8 million people are victims of forced sexual exploitation.

How sex trafficking differs from sex work

Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for people to conflate sex work and sex trafficking. However, doing so can be harmful for sex workers. To understand how sex trafficking differs from that of sex work, we first need to define what is meant by both in the right context.

The table highlights the key differences between sex work and sex trafficking.


Spotting the differences between sex work and sex trafficking

We refer to sex work here as that of consensual and willing. This means a sale for sex and one that in no way infringes on the sex worker’s rights.
So, when we compare this willingness and agreement against that of sex trafficking, the difference between the two soon becomes immediately apparent.

Perhaps the reason behind sex trafficking being referred to as that of sex work is because some of those trafficked will end up on the streets looking for sex work.
Because of this, they are automatically assumed to be a sex worker.

Why it’s harmful to conflate the two

When people continue to clump both sex work and sex trafficking together as the same thing, the potential is for sex workers to be targeted unjustly.

Though sex workers themselves along with some organisations are aware of the differences, other organisations can often combine the discussion of consensual sex work with that of trafficking. This in turn can mean the wrong group of people are targeted.

This means that those who choose to enter the sex industry can find themselves being incorrectly labelled under the trafficking category. This may result in them being forced into a bad position which requires them to operate in the shadows, potentially making it dangerous for them in the process.

Signs someone is being sex trafficked

Although they are different, sex trafficking continues to be a problem. It’s important to know that all sex worker charities oppose sex trafficking, and as such are in a position to refer victims of trafficking to fitting services.

When it comes to spotting signs of potential sex trafficking, there are several tell-tale signs that could be an indicator.

These include, but are not limited to:

  •  Is the person closely guarded? Most people who are sex trafficked will not be able to stray far from their capturer for fear of them revealing the situation. So, you may well see them continually guarded as such.
  • Do they display any signs of physical abuse? Though not all those sex-trafficked will highlight such physical abuse, as to not draw attention to them, some will. This can include bruising, cigarette burns, or medical conditions that are left untreated.
  • Do they display any signs of emotional abuse? This is just as common but albeit the harder to spot. But, people who have been sex-trafficked will often show signs of anxiousness. They may also display a significant lack of confidence. Their manner, too, may also come across as severely depressed.
  • Do they have a specific tattoo? Sometimes, groups of those who are trafficked for sex will be branded with a symbol. Though such inking will be unique to that particular group, it may be possible to discern that this makes the person a product of trafficking.
  • Is the person without family? For many that are sex trafficked, they have been removed entirely from their family and friends, most often brought to a completely new country.
  • Does the person have a limited English vocabulary? Many sex workers, away from their home country, will be unable to speak good English. A tell-tale sign to being sex trafficked is, therefore, a most limited vocabulary that tends to focus only around sexualised words.
  • Is the money they make theirs to keep? Another most common sign for those being sex trafficked is that their money is often taken immediately from them. Most trafficked workers will be unable to access their own earnings or have limited money given to them.

What to do if you suspect someone is being sex trafficked

Though it’s often a hard call to make, if you do have your suspicions about someone being sex trafficked, there are a number of things you can do to sound the alarm, without drawing any attention to yourself and staying safe in the process.

The organisations below allow you to remain supported and, if you prefer anonymous:

Modern Slavery Helpline

The National Human Trafficking Hotline

Crime Stoppers UK

Stop the Traffik

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