Sex Work Vs. Sex Trafficking

The terms sex work and sex trafficking have caught the attention of most criminal justice and social justice stakeholders. One of the dominant factors is that both sex work and sex trafficking include the element of prostitution. Sex work refers to the act of willingly taking part in commercial sex. However, on the other hand, sex trafficking is the use of force, deceit, or coercion to make a person involve themselves with the sex trade. A significant concern in creating a distinction between the two is that sex work is legal in some countries and the government gets tax from the business but some of those who are joining the industry willingly end up in becoming victims of sex trafficking. Those who are against the idea of sex trafficking argue that it is never a choice, and thus, it is more of a form of exploitation. According to the opposers of the sex trafficking, the acts should be criminalized in all parts of the world. However, the issue of increased unemployment is to blame for the idea of both sex trafficking and sex work. Therefore, it is essential to analyze the condition in countries where sex work is a legal practice and the perception of those who support or against the criminalization of the trade.

Sex trafficking is a complex trade that is often hard to estimate the number of people who are involved or affected by the act. Most of those who force others to engage in sex trafficking often use underhand methods that make it hard for law enforcement officers to distinguish between willing engagement and forceful engagement. In the United States and most of the developed countries, prostitution involving minor is a criminal offense. Sex trafficking is treated in most democratic countries as a human rights violation that can affect anyone in the community regardless of their gender or age. However, women are the most affected group. The human rights group have been at the forefront of advocating for stricter penalties for those who engage in sex trafficking. However, not everybody believes that sex work exposes the community to sex trafficking. According to the supporters of sex work, everyone in the community who is above the legal age has a right to choose what is right and what is wrong. However, it is essential to distinguish between sex trafficking and sex work. More so, most of those who willingly engage in sex work are taking part in sex trafficking without their knowledge.

Key characteristics of sex trafficking

Social justice organizations acknowledge that a larger population are unaware of what comprises of sex trafficking. However, one of the dominant signs that a person is engaging in sex trafficking and not sex work is how closely the person is guarded. Sex workers do not require close supervision. However, most of the kingpins of sex trafficking expose their victims to close monitoring and are kept away from law enforcement officers. The victims are mostly made to believe that law enforcement officers are their enemies. More so, they are brainwashed, and most of their talk sounds scripted. According to (2018), victims of sex trafficking have little possession because they usually are on the move. The most significant risk in differentiating sex trafficking from sex work is the freedom that the victims have. Victims of sex trafficking have little control over the finances they receive after position. They are subjected to long working hours, and most are isolated from their family members. A legitimate work environment will not need to take away the freedom of their works and preventing them from enjoying their pay.

Another significant sign of a person being a victim of sex trafficking is that they lack proper identification document. The workers are perceived as the property of their master, which is often the leader in charge of the entire business. The aim of taking away the victim’s identification materials is to increase their dependency on their owners. For example, those who are forced into prostitution are often transported from foreign countries, especially those that are struggling economically. Their traveling documents are taken away, making it impossible to return to their country of origin. Their forms of identification, in some cases, are tattoos that are either branded on their neck or the lower back. According to Heber (2018), sex trafficking is hidden engagement that is well established in commuting crimes against human rights.  Most of the sex workers who are lured into sex trafficking are made to believe that they are being subjected to strict workplace policies. However, not all those who end up forceful prostitution are picked from sex work business. Some are lured that they are being hired for modeling activities or for opportunities to work in the hospitality industry, but in the end, they are forced into the illegal sex trade. The complexity of the issue makes it hard for the government to identify those who are traveling into the country to engage in the business.

Decriminalization of sex work

Criminal justice stakeholders have been under increased pressure to reconsider their stand on the issue of sex work. One of the main problems is that the current harsh policies against sex work are contributing to the rise of sex trafficking. According to those who call for the decriminalization of the trade, those who engage in position willingly should never be made to feel as if their choices are wrong. More so, they perceive the act of sex work as a section of the expansion of the country’s workforce. Over the years, countries such as the United States have adopted policies for protecting the country’s workforce from any form of harassment. Besides, the need to protect the worker’s rights should focus on the issue of prostitution and how it should be protected from forceful practices. More so, they argue that coming up with policies to guide sex work will frustrate the efforts of sex traffickers. The sex workers are barred from receiving health befits as it is the case with other workers in the United States, and the form of discrimination is compelling the weak to join the vice.

The vulnerability of the sex workers who are forced to work in secrecy from law enforcement workers is blamed as the reason why the victims fail to realize that they are already involved in sex trafficking. According to (2019), the debate on decriminalization of sex work has already caught the attention of Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris and Former California Attorney General. According to the two influential figures, sex workers should be protected by the law with the only requirement being the consent between two adults. The same concerns are shared by a section of the human rights activist who claims that sex work should not be perceived as victimization. The lack of transparent laws creates an avenue for the cartels of sex trafficking to thrive across the world. Besides, with the issue of unemployment affecting both the developing and the developed countries, maybe it is time to legalize sex workers.

Another dominant issue is the need to decriminalize sex work is that the existing policy that makes the act illegal only target women and the LGBT society. According to the supporters of the decriminalization act, the government is failing to come up with strategies that will create alternatives for the groups to earn a living. Besides, the cost of living is on the increased with few opportunities in the formal employment sector. The number of graduates who do not have formal education is on the rise, and they are likely to engage in vices that will hurt the country’s security level. The impact of preventing legal prostitution is that the funds generated from illegal sex trafficking are channeled into expanding the cartel industry. More so, it leaves a larger population depending on the government. Therefore, the victims suffer due to the lack of laws that will protect their activities, and consequently, it is time to consider other alternatives.

The situation in countries that have legalized sex work

Several countries around the world have laws that protect sex workers. According to (2018), sex work is legal in 53 countries across the globe and limited in 12. Some of the states that have legalized sex trade include Argentina, Belgium, Germany, and Kenya. However, even though there is an assumption that legalization of sex trade will help lower the sex trafficking vice, there is little evidence to support the claim. According to research conducted in Argentina, the act of legalizing sex work creates an avenue for cartels to lure unsuspecting women into sex work (, 2017). According to the research, an innocent person disappears every thirty seconds due to the sex trade. More so, the policies in Argentina prohibit the establishment of brothels but support the exchange of money for sex. The laws in the country also support advertisement of position using online publication or in digital media platforms (, 2017). The impact of the proposals is that they create a loophole for sex trafficking in Argentina. More so, the neighboring countries for Argentina such as Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay have laws that legalize sex work, but their differences create a loophole that supports human rights violation. Therefore, the lack of unifying policies on the issue of sex workers make it impossible to determine whether legalization of sex work can help in lowering the activities of sex trafficking in the region.

However, in other regions, research has shown that adaption of sex work policies is indeed helpful in wring the issue of sex trafficking. According to a study conducted on decriminalization of sex work in the Netherlands, legalizing the activities creates a channel for the victims to seek help from the law enforcement officers (Bisschop, Kastoryano & Klaauw, 2015). The Netherland’s government had allowed street prosthion in certain areas in 1994. The researchers found out that the legalization of the vice heled lower sexual abuse and rape cases by 30% to 40% within the first two years (Bisschop et al. 2015). It is an indication that when supportive policies control the vice, then the rate of sex trafficking can go down. However, in other countries that have decriminalized sex work, the issue of sex trafficking is low. According to a report published by (2018), Kenya is making significant efforts to meet the threshold of eliminating sex trafficking, which is a position that most countries are yet to achieve. More so, in some states where prostitution is illegal, there have been claims that the level of sex trafficking is high.

Opposing decriminalization of sex work

Other stakeholders in the criminal justice system and the social organizations are worried that decriminalization of sex work will further escalate the vice. According to the opposers of the act, the voluntary sex trade is a legitimization of violence against the affected groups. The optional sexual business is exploitation that needs to be fought by the collective society efforts. Research by Bakhtadze (2013), attempted to evaluate whether prostitution is a victimless crime. The main reason why prostitutes are argued to involve in the victimless crime is that it is hard to establish whether there is ever consent between them and their clients. However, there is a lack of a clear strategy to develop what comprises of consent. For example, at times, prostitutes who engage in legal sex work are assaulted and paid, which is a shared characteristic of sex trafficking. Therefore, the opposers of decriminalizing sex work are afraid that the lack of transparent laws and definition of what comprises of sex trade will affect the liberty of the citizens. More so, it contradicts the element of freedom which should be shared by all citizens.

Another argument against decriminalization of sex work is that it will lead to an increase in demand for sexual exploitation. The sex work industry is regarded as a vast industry that most nations are unable to curb. Besides, some countries use the argument that they are legalizing sex trade as a strategy for weeding out the organized crime, but the move hardly works. According to Osmanaj (2014), sex work is a modern act of slavery. The law violates the dignity and human integrity. Besides, it is against the religious and cultural practices of a larger population. The constitution of most states is derived from the traditional and religious belief which some condemn the act prostitution. The research by Osmanaj (2014), argues that the act of sex trafficking is a sign of social and phycological defects. When a community begins to legalize vices that violate the basic human dignity acts, it is a sign of an underlying, deep-rooted issue. People do not engage in prostitution as their first choice. Therefore, if they require help, they should receive it and not subject them to believing that whatever they are doing is right.

Sex work is also a burden to the law and exposes the victims of sexual abuse to discrimination by the community. For example, most societies are yet to believe that the sex business is a moral engagement. Therefore, when the government legalizes the vice, the individuals will be forced to work in open areas which will future make a more significant population adapt to the practice. More so, it is hard to prove that a victim of sexual exploitation did not engage in the specific act without their consent. For example, it is considered impossible to rape a prostitute. Sexual violence is regarded as part of the working condition for most prostitutes, where a client demands will differ. In such a case, the number of sex trafficking victims will rise because there is no clear distinction of what is legitimate and what constitutes violence. More so, when a person accepts to receive payment in place for sex, they expose themselves to being treated as sexual objects.

Another argument is that there is proof that the government will not receive all the taxes from the industry because it will give rise to sex trafficking. According to Vanwesenbeeck (2011), Dutch is a perfect example of why the expectation of taxes from the vice does not always work. The Dutch government in 2000 legalized the prostitution, and a high number of brothels were opened. More so, the government had expected that it would collect tax from the trade and in return, help lower organized crimes and sex trafficking. However, it is only 5% of those who engage in sex works were registered for their willingness to pay taxes. According to the research, the majority of those who participated in the legal activities feared that the community would learn their engagement since they were to have cards showing their profession (Vanwesenbeeck, 2011).  Besides, the legalization of the business makes it possible for sex trafficking and other degrading activities to thrive in society. More so, children will acknowledge that once they attain the legal age, they can choose to take part in the practice. Also, it is hard for the government to protect its citizens when individuals willingly take part in the practice. Therefore, legalizing sex trade only makes it hard for the state to fight sex trafficking.


Therefore, the debate on whether decriminalization for sex work will help lower the spread of sex trafficking is expected to continue. However, each of the sides is convinced that their argument is stronger than that of their opponent. For example, there are those who feel that criminalization of sex work has existed for so long, and it is yet to eradicate sex trafficking. More so, the reason that it is perhaps time to take a different root and observe the impact of legalizing the vice. More so, politicians and those who create laws are weighing in on the topic. Some countries, such as the Netherlands are an example of the impact of legalizing the vice. It is evident that legalizing it creates more issues than they are at the moment. On the other hand, a section of the stakeholder is fighting the decriminalization of the sex work, claiming that it will create a belief that the act is appealing. According to the opposers, the action is violating the fundamental human right, and those who are hooked to the vice require help rather than laws that further oppress them. Therefore, the differing views on sex work and sex trafficking will continue, but it is only best to approach the issue with caution.





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