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Human Trafficking Center

Sex: Drowning Out the Discourse on Trafficking


Apr 2014


by Ryan Goehrung, HTC associate

In anti-human trafficking work, we talk a lot about sex. Trafficking cases involving sexual exploitation receive the most coverage, incite the most intrigue and spark the most outrage. Despite the fact that sex trafficking cases account for less than one quarter of all human trafficking cases globally – 21.5 percent according to International Labour Organization estimates – the focus of the media and many anti-trafficking organizations seems to suggest sex trafficking is the most widespread kind of exploitation. As a result, similarly egregious and much more common labor trafficking cases receive little public attention and notably fewer resources.

So why does sex trafficking get so much attention? Sex is powerful and personal. Even in our modern culture, it’s taboo and tantalizing. It stirs up emotions, morals and judgments. It’s difficult to not project one’s own personal feelings and beliefs onto the discourse surrounding sex and sex trafficking. The deep visceral reaction I have toward the idea of sexual exploitation is what originally drove me to become involved in the anti-trafficking movement, and the emotional response it evokes is very different from the outrage I feel about other kinds of exploitation. It is therefore understandable to me that such a large amount of attention is paid to this issue and that stories surrounding this particular form of exploitation elicit such strong responses. My own personal feelings aside, the disproportionate attention garnered by sex trafficking begs the question, is exploitation that is sexual in nature inherently worse than other kinds of exploitation?

The question itself is problematic. Who is to say one form of suffering is objectively “worse” than another? It is misguided to suggest there is a scale on which outsiders can judge the severity of such suffering when the impact is only truly measurable by the subjective experience of an individual victim/survivor.

For the sake of argument, let’s consider for a moment the possibility that sexual exploitation is inherently more traumatic and psychologically or physically harmful. Is this true for all forms of sexual exploitation? Is it equally as harmful to men, boys or transgender individuals as it is for women and girls? Is it as traumatic for someone to be sexually exploited once as it is to be exploited repeatedly? If we look to the media coverage and the emphasis of many nonprofits and government agencies, it would seem that all forms of sexual exploitation are not equal. The kind of exploitation dominating the discourse in the American anti-human trafficking movement is the repeated commercial sexual exploitation of women, particularly girls.

Sex trafficking is an important issue and one that deserves attention. But if we are simply focusing on it for personal or emotional reasons, we not only do a disservice to victims/survivors by imposing our own feelings onto their experiences, but also risk neglecting other forms of exploitation simply because they do not strike such a strong emotional chord. Human trafficking in any form is one of the most egregious human rights violations of our time. If we prioritize victims/survivors based on the type of exploitation they experience, we are contributing to the inequalities that lead to trafficking in the first place – the idea that some people are more or less worthy of attention and resources is the same mentality that creates the social inequities perpetuating vulnerabilities to trafficking.

If you’re still not convinced that victims/survivors of all forms of trafficking deserve equal attention or still strongly believe sexual exploitation is inherently the worst form of trafficking, consider this insight from Professor Kevin Bales, shared in a Skype conversation with the Human Trafficking Center. He commented that sexual abuse and rape typically go hand in hand with any exploitation of women and girls. When a woman is exploited for labor, held in a position of slavery, and treated as property rather than as a person, sexual abuse or rape often follow. Sexual exploitation is not unique to commercial sex trafficking.

So please, be angry and outraged by the harms of sex trafficking, but don’t forget the plight and exploitation of other individuals. The child worker, the domestic servant held in captivity, and the migrant farmer forced to work without pay and live in destitute conditions deserve your attention, efforts and passion. From a human perspective, suffering is all the same. And all forms of exploitation are equally abhorrent.


*The views and opinions expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the position of the HTC

5 Responses to “Sex: Drowning Out the Discourse on Trafficking”

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  5. Damien Brooks

    I loved your piece, it was really well written and very informative. It is exactly how I feel about the issue as well, I couldn’t agree more. There are many forms of human trafficking and exploitation, so they should all be taken seriously and given attention. Not just one, because people feel some kind of way about sex. I couldn’t have written it better myself.

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