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Is All Commercial Sex Work Considered Human Trafficking?

January is Human Trafficking Awareness Month — a perfect time to break down some of the more pervasive myths and stereotypes about this crime. This week, we are focusing on an aspect of human trafficking that is often highlighted in news stories and on social media: commercial sex.

Commercial sex is defined as the performance of a sex act where something of value is given or received. It can take many forms, and occur in any number of places, including on the street, online, or in private homes or businesses.

There is a tendency to assume that all commercial sex work is a form of human trafficking. This is false. While all commercial sex involving a minor is considered human trafficking under U.S. law, the same is not true for adults. Commercial sex involving an adult is only considered human trafficking if the person is doing so against their will as a result of force, fraud, or coercion.

As an initial matter, it is important to recognize that minors — anyone under the age of 18 — cannot legally consent to engage in commercial sex. Depending on the laws of their state, many minors cannot legally consent to any type of sexual activity. It is vital that we recognize this, and acknowledge that minors can never willingly engage in commercial sex. Instead, they are victims of trafficking.

However, the same laws do not apply to adults, who generally can consent to sexual activity. While commercial sex is illegal throughout most of the United States, an adult can still choose to participate in this activity. People may choose to engage in commercial sex for a variety of reasons, from believing that they have no better alternative to it being the best option that they have. Although this decision may be influenced by difficult life circumstances, such as addiction or poverty, it is important to recognize that adults have sexual agency: the ability to make sexual choices according to their own free will. Unless an adult has been compelled to engage in commercial sex through force, fraud, or coercion, it is not human trafficking.

This distinction is critical, as it helps us better understand what human trafficking is — and what it is not. It also allows us to focus on the people most vulnerable to commercial sex trafficking, including:

  • Youth with a history of sexual abuse and/or dating violence

  • LGBTQ youth

  • Youth with disabilities, including mental health disorders

  • Children with minimal social support

  • Youth in the foster care system

  • Runaway and homeless youth

  • People with a history of domestic violence

  • Undocumented immigrants

  • People with a history of drug and/or alcohol addiction

It’s important to note that anyone can be a victim of sex trafficking. While the common stereotype is that women and girls are more likely to be forced into commercial sex, men and boys — particularly LGBTQ boys and men — may also be targeted by sex traffickers.

It is also vital to learn the signs of sex trafficking. Some warning signs that sex trafficking may be happening include:

  1. A person is hanging out with someone older, and is receiving gifts in exchange for favors;

  2. A person lives where they work, or is transported between home and work by guards;

  3. A person has a pimp or manager for commercial sex work; or

  4. A person works in an industry where it may be common to be pressured into performing sex acts for money.

If you believe that you or someone you know may be a victim of sex trafficking or another type of violence or abuse, reach out to us for help. Our hotline is available 24 hours a day at 1-888-832-2272, is available at no charge to callers, and can be anonymous.


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