Is prostitution a choice?
A disturbingly frequent answer to this question is “yes;” based upon the belief that if individuals choose to engage in prostitution, society should respect their right to sell their bodies….right?
The fundamental issue with this argument: “choice” as normally conceptualized cannot exist within the exploitative sex industry. To argue otherwise contributes to a dangerous narrative perpetuating sex trafficking and undermines efforts to transition women out of dangerous prostitution.
The International Labour Organization estimates 4.3 million children are sex trafficked globally. The definition of sex trafficking only includes individuals under 18, meaning this figure overlooks coerced adults or former trafficked victims. Prostitution and sex trafficking perpetuate each other, with prostitution venues providing an avenue to sell trafficked individuals, who then also drive the supply of prostitution.
Truly changing the sex industry and combating trafficking requires accurately defining and understanding “choice” in this context. Sex work isn’t a “willing” vs. “unwilling” dichotomy.
First, even those who choose sex work in the traditional sense (consider the oft-used trope of the poor graduate student earning rent money) are invariably and seriously harmed. Choice doesn’t equal safety. Those who do “choose” to be in the industry, can not deny the safety issues and abuse. Nearly 100% of women have been abused or even raped. It is common practice for boundaries to be set only for the man to cross and ignore them. The woman may have initially chosen to be there, but as soon as those lines are crossed, it is no longer consensual. It is a devastating reality that these aspects are just “part of the job description.”
Second, both willing and unwilling prostitutes have experiences predisposing them to exploitation. These individuals are typically:
Female– The vast majority of sex workers are female, bringing inherent barriers particularly in patriarchal, hyper-sexualized, or deeply religious cultures.
Young– The average age of entry for sex trafficked children has been estimated as low as 12-14 years-old, and higher among broader sex industry. Young people have decreased abilities to make fully-informed choices within an inequitable power dynamic. Too frequently, traffickers are also trusted adults.
Neglected or abused– Many victims come from dysfunctional homes, foster care, or juvenile detention, and have been physically or sexually abused, driving them to run away or become attached to a seemingly sympathetic trafficker. Traffickers target runaways within 48 hours of homelessness, and 1 in 6 endangered runaways were likely sex trafficking victims.
Sexual exploitation is a nearly $150 billion commercial industry. Motivated by extreme profit, sellers handpick the vulnerable and foster an environment of dependency. By eliminating choices, they trap these often young girls for monetary exploitation.
Coercion and manipulation saturate every “choice” made within the sex industry. To claim it’s a vocational choice requires ignoring the abuse, predatory grooming, constant violations, and lack of balanced options these individuals face. Homeless and starving is not a fair alternative to sex work, especially under physical and psychological threat.
If society presents prostitution as a choice, we will come to legitimize it.
Predatory exploitation of vulnerable people violates their rights. Appropriate solutions to end trafficking and reform the sex industry require confronting the myth that sex workers are empowered.
We must give these individuals real choices. We’re working to build a Restoration Home here in Pennsylvania to provide safety and rehabilitation for these women, offering a lifeline too many people have been denied.
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