Sex Workers, Trafficking Victims, and the Language We Use

Sex Workers, Trafficking Victims, and the Language We Use

what it would look like if you were coming into the room by Bradley Gordon

Image by Bradley Gordon at Flickr Commons

When I was 20 years old, my boss was a professional escort.

She was a madam, and had several girls working under her. I was her personal assistant. Let’s just say she was good at her job, and needed someone to take care of the day-to-day this and that’s while she ran her business.

She became an escort in her early twenties, and treated it like a business from Day 1. When she hired me, she was 45. So she was able to make a good livelihood, and she made decisions that kept her safe, fed, and out of prison.

No one coerced her into the escort business. She wasn’t controlled or manipulated by a pimp. She set her own rates and chose her own clients. If she didn’t want to do something, she didn’t do it.

I didn’t find what she did particularly glamorous. There was definitely a gritty aspect to it. But she did go to some swank parties and she only saw clients who could shell out some serious dough. She also had to be very careful. I wrote a book about working with her that goes into more depth.

Some people think all women involved in prostitution are in that position.

Or that, if they have a pimp, the pimp protects them and only takes a cut of the pay. It’s like a partnership.

There’s a reason my boss stayed away from pimps. Maybe some are okay, but they are not usually benevolent guardians who protect their girls and pay them fairly.

Your typical pimp is a manipulative bastard, coercing girls as young as 12 and 14 into prostitution, forcing them to perform sex, threatening them or their families, and taking all of the pay. (12 to 14 is the average age girls are sexually trafficked.)

These girls, obviously, are not in my boss’s position.

Can we even call them prostitutes? Or sex workers? Or any number of words you want to use? No.

A sex worker is someone like my boss. A trafficking victim is not a sex worker.

But in much of the research and reports I’ve read, trafficking victims are referred to as sex workers or prostitutes (or even, in some cases, “employees”). I realize language can be a sticky issue in research, so I usually don’t freak out about it. But it clumps all women who work in the sex trade into the same category. Either they are all victims, or they are all “whores.” They can all be thrown in prison if law enforcement gets the chance.

Yes, trafficking victims often wind up in detention centers. They’re the ones the cops can see (the pimps lurk in shadows and shiny cars and are harder to find), so they’re they ones charged with prostitution.

But there is all the difference in the world between my boss, and a 16-year-old girl being shipped from city to city on a trafficking circuit, or being sold online by a man who prevents her from returning to her family and forces her to perform sex acts on as many men as he chooses. (“Perform sex acts.” Such a PC phrase for such an unforgiveable violation of a human being.)

For officials, it can be tough to find the lines between willing career escorts like my boss, and girls who have been trafficked. One of the hardest things about working with a trafficking survivor is getting her to admit she has been a victim.

“Nobody made me do it,” said a young survivor in the film ‘3 a.m. Girls.’ “Nobody put a gun to my head.”

“And what would happen if you didn’t do it?” asked the group leader, a trafficking survivor herself.

“I’d get a beating. But so what? You can always get up from a beating.”

Sex and rape are two very different things, although sometimes the body parts go in the same places.

Willing sex work is very different than forced prostitution. Here’s a video of some sex workers telling you about it:

Anytime coercion is present, that’s a violation.

I firmly believe my boss had the right to work the career she chose without going to prison. Just as I firmly believe people who are trafficked should be rescued without going to prison.

But laws about prostitution are sketchy undertakings. A law about prostitution affects both groups—willing sex workers and trafficking victims—but they should be addressed in different ways.

How can we have laws addressing the different groups, when we don’t even have a common cultural understanding that differentiates them? When we argue over the definition of “rape”? When we don’t allow a woman autonomy, without condemnation or coercion, of her own body?

It’s a messy situation. Seems to me that one of the primary things we can do is raise awareness about the difference between sex work and trafficking. So thanks for reading this article.


L. Marrick is a fiction writer and freelance copywriter. 50% of proceeds from her book Working Girl, a memoir of her time working for a professional escort, go to sex trafficking non-profits. She waxes poetic about swords and the Renaissance Faire at her author blog. She looks all professional-like at her copywriting site. You can connect with her on Facebook and Twitter @LMarrick.

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