Human Trafficking Essay

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The Inextricable Correlation between Human Trafficking and Prostitution


Despite ongoing efforts by the international community, human trafficking remains a global problem today. Tens of thousands of men, women and children are routinely exploited by human traffickers each year, and the practice generates billions of dollars in criminal proceeds at home and abroad. In fact, after drugs and gun-running, sex trafficking is the largest source of money for criminal organizations in the United States. Given the enormity of the problem and the vast sums of money that are involved, it is not surprising that the international community has not been successful in eliminating this practice. To determine the facts, this paper provides an analysis of the relevant literature concerning the correlation between prostitution and human trafficking to demonstrate that the two have an inextricable but difficult to quantify effect on each other. A summary of the research and important findings concerning human trafficking and prostitution are provided in the conclusion.

Review and Analysis

There are dichotomous views about prostitution and how it correlates with human trafficking. According to definition provided by Article 3, paragraph (a) of the United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, human trafficking is “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons” through “the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation,” including sexual exploitation, forced labor or services, slavery or similar practices servitude or the removal of organs. As shown in Table 1 below, the constituent elements of human trafficking are all for the purposes of some type of exploitation, including prostitution and sexual exploitation:

Table 1. Elements of Human Trafficking





Threat or use of force

Exploitation, including



Prostitution of others



Sexual exploitation



Forced labor

Receipt of persons


Slavery or similar practices


Abuse of power or vulnerability

Removal of organs


Giving payments or benefits

Other types of exploitation

Source: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime at

One school of thought holds that prostitution is a normal part of the human condition that allows otherwise unskilled workers to earn a living. This view is congruent with the definition provided by Black’s Law Dictionary which states that prostitution is “engaging in, or agreeing or offering to engage in sexual contact with another person under a free arrangement with that person or any other person.” In this context, the term prostitute applies to both males and females. This view is also congruent with the position adopted by many female advocates who argue that sex work is a socially acceptable practice that satisfies a need while providing gainful employment to millions of women worldwide. For instance, Brock advises that, “Sex work is a malleable and fluid, yet constituent, element of the material reality of people's lives, rather than an aberrant feature of social order.”

From this perspective, in those cases where the sex worker is an adult and is exercising free will, prostitution is a free market exchange that takes place between consenting adults who are aware of the implications and risks. This view treats prostitution within a country as a victimless crime that is fundamentally incomparable to human sex trafficking which involves transnational abductions and violent means of coercion. A growing number of experts, though, argue that domestic prostitution and human sex trafficking are essentially the same thing. Moreover, law enforcement authorities are also beginning to adopt this view and have increasingly targeted pimps as traffickers and customers while providing social assistance for the prostitutes involved. In fact, some analysts maintain that sex trafficking and prostitution must be viewed as completely separate institutions that demand different responses. For instance, according to Martina Vandenberg, an attorney with the Washington law firm Jenner & Block and a former Human Rights Watch researcher, “The 'abolitionists' truly believe all prostitution is trafficking, and if a woman says she did enter it voluntarily, she's mistaken.
It's the conflating of trafficking and prostitution (emphasis added).”

This view has also translated into increasingly restrictive domestic laws that have implications for all citizens. In this regard, Brock emphasizes that, “As a result, human trafficking is used as a rationale to tighten boarders and implement ever more restrictive immigration laws, and to criminalize or otherwise punish the very people who anti-trafficking advocates purport to protect.” Notwithstanding the social assistance that prostitutes receive in the process, the fact remains that their primary source of income is disrupted when law enforcement authorities crack down on prostitution. Indeed, Brock points out that, “Much of what is pursued in the name of a war on trafficking has troubling consequences for poor people around the world. Women are of course disproportionally represented among the poor.”

The other school of thought concerning prostitution maintains that irrespective of how well off women may believe they are as prostitutes, the profession is inherently exploitive in insidious ways that place it on the level of human trafficking. For example, according to Chicago-based lawyer Catherine Longkumer who works with trafficking victims to help them restore their lives, “We've got this idea of an ideal victim - someone who is physically locked in a room, chained up and who makes no money. Certainly that classic example of the locked-up trafficking victim exists on our shores, too.” Likewise, some prostitutes in the United States have been lured into the profession using less violent but still effective coercive methods that prevent them from quitting. In this regard, Irvine points out that, “While it's not always obvious to the outside world, intimidation and drug addiction become tools for control. The reality is that traffickers are very smart. You can use a lot of psychological coercion to keep a person bonded, things like threats, or, ‘If you try to leave, you'll be deported, or your family will be harmed.’”

Moreover, there are other issues involved in the conceptualization of victimhood when applied to prostitution. For example, a trafficking expert and clinical professor of law at the University of Michigan, Bridget Carr, argues, “Can people be ‘victims’ if they sell their bodies for sex - and keep some of that money or trade it for drugs? Are they victims if a pimp provides cell phones, buys them clothes, or even cars, or places to stay? In some instances, a prostitute might even have children with her pimp.” Given these tendencies, it is little wonder that some people view prostitution as satisfying the legal definition of a free arrangement between consenting adults with no victimization involved. As a result, even some members of the law enforcement community may have problems conceptualizing prostitutes as being “victims,” even in those situations where they are young. Nevertheless, when children are forced into prostitution, even advocates have trouble supporting the institution.

A number of factors have been cited concerning why children in some countries throughout the world continue to be victims of sex trafficking, and although these reasons differ from country to country, there is a common denominator of exploitation involved. According to Mathews, “The common variable for all victims is that they are exploited, whether by a family member, their community, or even a corrupt government. How and why this exploitation permeates young lives is found in varying explanations in countries around the world.” For example, some researchers have maintained that the lack of a universal definition for "child" has contributed to the problem of human trafficking because without a common definition, it is not….....

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Article 3, paragraph (a), United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons.

Barrett, Ted, Jones, Athena & Jaffe, Alexandra, Deal reached on human trafficking bill paves way for Lynch vote, CNN. [online] available: Loretta-lynch-attorney-general-vote-senate/.

Black’s Law Dictionary. St. Paul, MN: West Publishing Co. (1990).

Brock, Debi, Trafficking and Prostitution Reconsidered: New Perspectives on Migration, Sex Work, and Human Rights, 31 Resources for Feminist Research 3/4, 151 (January 1, 2006).

Cwikel, J. & Hoban, E., Contentious issues in research on trafficked women working in the sex industry: Study design, ethics, and methodology, 42 The Journal of Sex Research 4, 306 (2006).

Edwards, C., & Harder, J. Sex slave trade enters the U.S. 16 Insight on the News 44, 14-16. (2000, November 27).

Goss, Melisa, Closed for Business: The Fight against Human Trafficking, 129-131, The Christian Century 21, 13 (October 17, 2012).

Irvine, Marta, More Officials See Prostitution as Human Trafficking, The Charleston Gazette (Charleston, WV), 3A (September 3, 2013).

Kuo, M. Asia's dirty secret. 22 Harvard International Review 2, 42 (2000).

Leuchtag, Alice, Human Rights Sex Trafficking and Prostitution. (Perspectives on Prostitution), 63 The Humanist 1, 11 (January-February 2003).

Mathews, S. International trafficking in children: Will new U.S. legislation provide an ending to the story? 27 Houston Journal of International Law 3, 649-655 (2005).

McKelvey, Tara, Of Human Bondage: A Coalition against Human Trafficking Worked Well until a Prostitution Litmus Test Was Imposed. Now, Groups Are Losing Funding-And the Women Aren't Necessarily Better Off, 15 The American Prospect 11, 18 (November 2004).

O'Grady, R., Eradicating pedophilia: Toward the humanization of society. 55 Journal of International Affairs 1, 123 (2001).

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