shopify stats
Human Trafficking Center

Separating sex and labor trafficking is ahistorical, misguided, harmful

Protestors conflating sex trafficking with human trafficking.


Sep 2015



by Rex Hamaker, Marketing and Communications Director

In the moral panic surrounding the conversation about commercial sexual exploitation, what is often overlooked is the exploitation of labor. The societal focus on sex trafficking – at the expense of labor trafficking – is ideological, not logical, and certainly not based on any reliable data. Moreover, this focus ignores the victims of labor trafficking, makes a value judgment about what “real” trafficking is, and reduces political will to make necessary legal changes to combat labor trafficking- by far the most prevalent form worldwide.

All too often in conversation and discourse the phrase “human trafficking” is used to mean “sex trafficking,” and only that. This is a major oversight; imagine if we never referred to the Atlantic slave trade as “slavery” because those victims weren’t trafficked primarily for sex with their enslavers- even as sexual abuse occurred.

A number of studies have shown that the media, legislation and law enforcement, and academia focus predominantly on sex trafficking. This ignores the millions worldwide exploited for labor while also ignoring the sexual abuse labor trafficking victims face because it happens outside of brothels and isn’t advertised online.

Two issues emanate from this misframing of human trafficking: ignoring some of the trauma victims experience as well as the true extent of trafficking.

Issue One: Defining “trauma” for victims

A major issue with this divide is the value judgment made about what “real” trafficking is, regardless of the actual circumstances of trafficking victims. Each trafficking case is unique in its exact circumstances, especially in combination with the personality and resiliency of the individual victim. By primarily focusing on the sexual trauma victims face, it assumes this aspect of the experience is the most traumatic part of being trafficked, regardless of how the victim experienced the trauma.

The sexual abuse of those exploited for forced labor is well established in history as well as modern times. By ignoring labor trafficking, society is effectively telling victims they aren’t really victims if they were not primarily sexually exploited.

The focus on sex trafficking assumes there is a clear difference in forced sex and labor exploitation. Despite international, federal, and state laws that separate sex and labor trafficking, the lived experiences of many victims from ancient times to the present defy the notion of two separate “kinds” of trafficking. Focusing on sexual exploitation is an injustice both to victims of labor trafficking who don’t experience it and to victims of labor trafficking whose sexual exploitation is ignored because it happens outside of brothels. The trauma associated with sexual abuse of labor trafficked people is ignored because it doesn’t happen in ways that law enforcement are looking for. By not acknowledging or even looking for this kind of trauma, it limits the services people can receive.

Issue Two: Ignoring exploitation close to home

Another issue is outlined by Georgetown University Professor Denise Brennan in her book Life Interrupted, “The hyperscrutiny of the sex sector, meanwhile, often has eclipsed efforts to expose exploitation in other labor sectors. In common parlance trafficking has become synonymous with prostitution. Forced labor is simply invisible, overshadowed by the dominant discourse of sex trafficking. The reality of migrant exploitation, however, is all around us.”  This ignored reality is uncomfortable as acknowledging it requires acknowledging the complicity of everyone in who buys clothing, electronics, or food produced with unfree labor.  In the modern globalized economy, this implicates more people than would care to admit it.

Outdated immigration laws and ineffective enforcement of existing ones creates a climate that fosters both sex and labor abuse of migrants, legally present or otherwise. As Dr. Brennan notes, “Highly publicized ICE raids in workplaces have sent clear messages to exploited migrants not to report abuse.” With many immigrant workers tied to their employers for continued legal presence in the country, a power balance comes into play, and workers are unlikely to report either labor or sexual exploitation for fear of retribution.

Having such a focus on just one aspect of trafficking also limits the ability to find solutions. For example, one way to reduce labor trafficking in the United States (as well as the underreported sexual exploitation that comes with it) is through immigration reform. However, as this isn’t perceived to be as relevant to brothel and internet-based sex trafficking, it is rarely a part of the conversation.

Vulnerable and exploited people are vulnerable and exploited. They deserve attention, protection, and services regardless of how they are victimized.


Photo via TheIRD. Use of this image does not imply the creator’s endorsement of the views expressed in this post.


Print This Post Print This Post

3 Responses to “Separating sex and labor trafficking is ahistorical, misguided, harmful”

  1. Rebecca watson

    Human Trafficking is a disgrace,I am doing a project and paper on it now.

    • HTC

      Thank you for taking the time to study what’s going on! We feel research is key to both understanding what is actually happening and finding solutions.

  2. John Vanek

    Excellent post! If only we could have a balanced approach in the fight against trafficking! (I’d settle for 50/50 effort even though the labor/sex split worldwide is 68% / 22% (and 10% state-imposed).
    Source: International Labour Organization, Profits and Poverty, 2014

Leave a comment