Pro-Sex and Anti-Sex Trafficking?


Last spring, Dressember’s Communications Manager, Madeline MacDonald, and I had a chance to grab a cup of coffee and lavender tea. Before long, our conversation began to touch on some typically controversial areas and questions surrounding human trafficking. We continued to grapple with one question in particular:

Can one be both pro-sex and anti-sex trafficking?

As the conversation progressed, we realized this question interconnects with many other issues and questions surrounding sex trafficking, including the following:

What is voluntary vs. involuntary sex work? What is consent? Can pornography be pro-sex or not?

Honestly, we found support for multiples sides of each issue and concluded that there’s no one black-and-white answer; instead, the range of answers might fall somewhere between every shade of paint store color chips. That’s why as we headed our separate ways that day, we both decided to dig into research surrounding these questions.

Of course, we want to start by saying that Dressember will always fight against forced sex trafficking, and we acknowledge and in no way downplay the seriousness and trauma that sex trafficking has on both the individuals and to society. What remains less explicitly clear is how the issue of sex trafficking should or should not reflect how we view sex work, sex empowerment, pornography, etc.

In my research, I stumbled upon an article by Danah Boyd, a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, who wrote What Anti-Trafficking Advocates Can Learn from Sex Workers: The Dynamics of Choice, Circumstance, and Coercion. In this article, she tackles some of the interweaving topics that were brought up in our coffee date conversation. She states:

“There is no doubt that the politics around sex work and trafficking are ugly, but if we’re actually going to help those who are abused and exploited, we need to get beyond coarse categories and try to understand the messiness.”

Which is exactly why we thought, “Why not open up the conversation here on Dressember’s blog? Why not ‘try to understand the messiness’ along with all of you amazing, thoughtful readers, especially if it can aid in providing better support for trafficking victims, trafficking survivors, sex workers, and many others?”

Because this post launches the discussion, it will not be able to cover every interconnected topic. Thus, today’s focus pertains to one of the core debates: the existence of voluntary sex work and what this potentially means.

On one hand, many maintain that all commercial sex remains involuntary. Some reasons for this include religion and/or the belief that commercial sex derives from systemic oppression. On the other hand, many believe that the answer might not be as black-and-white. Boyd’s article introduces a continuum with three Cs: choice, circumstance, and coercion.

So, how exactly might choice, circumstance, coercion relate to voluntary or involuntary sex work?

Well, Boyd states that individuals in the sex trade continuously shift across a range of choice, circumstance, and coercion. Though choice, circumstance, and coercion vary across a much more vast and nuanced spectrum, Boyd describes four general areas that gave me a better understanding of how choice, circumstance, and coercion might relate with individuals involved in the sex trade.

  1. Choice: Towards this side of the continuum, individuals with high economic, social, and cultural capital voluntarily consent to work in sex work. Sexual liberation, sex positivity, and overall pro-sex beliefs are acclaimed. The body and sex is generally celebrated, and sexual exploitation is opposed. Common terminology used within this sector might include “sex worker,” “escort,” or “high-end prostitute.”

  2. Coercion: On the flip side, individuals with little to no capital become forced into sex slavery. Common force tactics include violence, manipulation, or debt bondage. This is one area considered to be trafficking.

  3. Circumstance: Somewhere in the middle of 1 and 2, circumstance plays a large role. As circumstance occurs over a range as well, one area we will look at is the area somewhat closer to choice. In this area, individuals believe they should be free to utilize any mental and physical part of themselves for work, including their genitals.

    • Within circumstance, an area edges somewhat closer to coercion. Here, individuals often come from poverty or dire financial situations and feel that they have no other option but to sell their body in this trade. In this case, individuals can also be “grappling with serious mental health issues, including drug and alcohol addiction, a history of abuse, and/or co-dependency.”

What are your thoughts after reading this? How do you think that grappling with and discussing this question of pro-sex and anti-sex trafficking can further aid intervention and advocacy efforts? How can we include sex workers in the conversation much more than in the past? What other important questions do you think stem from this one?

We recognize so many more topics could be addressed, including youth and teen involvement, similarities and differences across genders, and more, and we’d love to hear what you think. We encourage you to respectfully chat with us and one another in the comments section below.

Small Run, Big Impact.


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About the Author

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Lauren Farris is a recent graduate from the University of Washington with a degree in Creative Writing and Sociology, and she's excited to partner with Dressember in the fight to end slavery. She also adores corgis, messy paint, mud, hiking in wildflowers, reading, traveling, and a good Lord of the Rings marathon.