Sex Work versus Sex Trafficking: Understanding the Difference


Sex work and sex trafficking are emotive issues about which much has been written, often with more feeling than objectivity. Both are high-priority concerns that affect the core of our beliefs about morality, religion, justice, gender and human rights. There has, however, been an increasingly dangerous conflation between sex work and sex trafficking. Following nationwide calls to decriminalise sex work in South Africa, it has led to the term – and the industry generally – to act as a synonym for sex trafficking. 

It is imperative to understand the difference between sex work – that involves transactional sex between adults who have consented – and sex trafficking, which is an abhorrent abuse of human rights. Failure to separate this distinction will increase societal ignorance that ultimately filters through to legislation, law enforcement and social justice work, and thereby exacerbate the existing risks and dangers faced by sex workers.

Sex trafficking is defined as, “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of 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 for the purpose of [sexual] exploitation.” Sex trafficking – and human trafficking more widely – is internationally recognised as a gravely serious offence and violation of human rights. South Africa, through its Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Act, has made the crime thereof punishable with a life sentence. No one would dare assert that this form of slavery is imagined, but it is crucial that one acknowledges the multitude of fallacies and inaccuracies peddled about sex trafficking, and the potential ways in which it could permeate how society confronts and protests this particular crime. 

According to Ronald Weitzer, within the discourse about sex trafficking there exists what is referred to as the oppression paradigm, where all types of sexual commerce are depicted as institutionalised subordination of women irrespective of the circumstances under which it occurs. This perspective does not consider domination and exploitation as variables, but instead perceives it as integral ingredients of sexual commerce.

Those abolitionists/prohibitionists who perceive sex trafficking and sex work as being interchangeable ignore the significant role of consent. In a society where rape culture is entrenched, the harmful rhetoric of sex work as involuntary perpetuates the idea of sex workers as helpless victims sans agency or voice. It perpetuates the notion that sex workers are women in need of moral redemption and it reinforces that sex workers as those who do not belong. Rarely are sex workers depicted in their full humanity, as empowered persons deserving of legal and social protection. The popular imagination that captures sex work as sex trafficking holds that the former is inherently oppressive and exploitative and objectifies the already marginalised bodies of women. 

Numerous articles and information about sex trafficking are saturated with unfounded statistics, and frightening and sensationalist stories that centre the most salacious and violent acts to garner support and mobilise public outrage in service of, what is, a necessary cause. The danger herein is that advocacy for the abolition of modern-day slavery and sex work are frequently well intentioned, but have harmful consequences for sex workers themselves. Advocating for the full or partial criminalisation of sex work pushes the industry further underground where human rights abuses can go unnoticed and unreported.

Sex work includes all types of consensual sex work, such as pornography, escorting services, professional BDSM, exotic dancers, phone sex operators, etc. The list includes those workers who do it because they enjoy their job, as well as those who choose to do it because it is a more favourable preference for survival. The sex work profession, much like others, is a choice that is frequently directed by economic vulnerability, and/or social pressure to be a productive and, by extension, worthy member of society. Sex work is, at its core, a class issue, and cannot be discussed or debated outside the capitalist paradigm. Sex work exists within market capitalism, and the market’s demand for bodies – again, commodified under capitalism – means that sex workers are able to participate in wage labour as a way to survive.

The traditional 9-5 job remains the pinnacle of middle-class aspirations and success; those who work in non-traditional jobs – such as construction or fast food – are frequently devalued and stigmatised. Pause for a moment and consider the wages received in non-traditional paying jobs, and the rigidity of work schedules, and the traumatic toll it takes on workers’ mental and physical well-being. For a moment, imagine that the worker is physically disabled, or mentally ill, or without tertiary education, or is the sole provider for a family of three. Pause for a moment, and consider South Africa’s unemployment rate and poverty levels, and the low probability of securing employment that actually allows for flexibility, leave, and medical assistance. Sex work provides individuals who experience challenges relating to the abovementioned with flexibility and independence that is not frequently offered by traditional 9-5 jobs.

If society, through its self-righteous moral lens, considers sex work to be degrading, then surprise: every job under capitalism is degrading. Most people do not- cannot- wholly choose the type of job they do; the job you are employed in is guided by a mixture of need for survival, enjoyment and convenience. And if society is honest with itself, it will admit that free choice under a capitalist system is actually a myth; that choice is, more frequently than not, negotiated and restricted. Patriarchal capitalism in particular has, for centuries, denied women and other marginalised gender/sexual identities job opportunities, or entry into the formal economy. 

Through the violent control of women’s mobility, reproductive system and household labour within the domestic space, patriarchal capitalism has allowed for the continued exploitation and under-compensation of women and the work they do in the public sphere. Vilification of those who sell their skills to the sex industry is hypocritical at best. Sex work is work, and society must collectively interrogate the meanings it has ascribed to sexual intercourse that categorises sex workers as unwholesome, and as wickedly different to miners or construction workers, for example. Society must interrogate why it legitimises the choice of those who sell their labour and lives digging in coalmines, or building skyscrapers, but smear and mistreats those who sell their companionship.

It is important that our social and legislative response to sex work be informed by evidence from empirical research. We must keep prioritising the voices and experiences of sex workers, to ensure that they are protected from those who seek to prey on them or exploit them. We must ensure that sex workers have full access to their human rights, to be free from social ostracisation and to participate fully as citizens of South Africa. Engaging with sex workers’ narratives will take the debate forward.

Danielle Hoffmeester is a Project Officer for the Gender Justice and Reconciliation Project at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation