Prostitution and Sex Trafficking

Sex trafficking and prostitution is an industry that thrives on the exploitation of women.  The proceeds of money generated from this exploitation serves to enrich the criminal element (Monzini, 2005, p. 7).  According to Farr (2005), worldwide the sex industry is only below drug and weapon trading in terms of profitability. What follows is a discussion of the relationship between prostitution and sex trafficking with a discussion of the causes, consequences, and prevalence rates as well as factors such as the impact of globalization on the sex industry, the effects of poverty on women’s migration choices, and the mechanics and evolution of the sex industry.  The discussion concludes with a look at the ways in which a human right’s perspective can translate into positive action to eliminate the trafficking of girls and women.

In both prostitution and sex trafficking women are sexually exploited for the purposes of a consumer who is willing to pay for her services (Burn, 2011, p. 35).  Barry (1995) states that “prostitution is a form of sexual slavery because women and girls are held over time for sexual use and because getting out of prostitution requires escape” (as cited in Burn, 2011, p. 35).  Sex trafficked women and prostitutes earn very little as there is a large group of individuals that benefit monetarily from the work she does (p. 35).  According to a research study by Farley (2005) most women want to escape but cannot (p. 962).

Sex Traffic Prostitution, Crime and Exploitation book

Economics is at the root of the cause of both prostitution (Burn, 2011, p. 166) and sex trafficking (Wilson & McCrae, 2015, p. 37).  Women are enticed to foreign countries with promises of employment such as domestic help or waitressing and sometimes even “false marriage offers” (Burn, 2011, p. 167).  Bales (2002) notes that families “may even sell their daughters to brothel brokers and agents, in most cases believing that the girls will work as maids, waitresses, or dishwashers, but sometimes understanding the work will be as a prostitute” (as cited in Burn, 2011, p. 167).

The consequences of trafficking is realized for the women almost immediately upon arriving in the foreign country as they are sold to a club or brothel (Burn, 2011, p. 167) where they must work to clear their debt “purportedly incurred through their transportation or recruitment” (U.S. Department of State, 2009, as cited in Burn , 2011, p. 167).  They are also charged for their keep while working to clear the debt (p. 167) which seemingly is never paid as the wages the women get to keep are minimal.  If they try to escape without clearing their debt they are physically assaulted or tortured by their keeper and even the police (Gajic-Veljanoski & Stewart, 2007, p. 352).  Their opportunities for escape are minimal.

The working conditions are dismal and the women are forced to work long days and kept under constant surveillance  (Monzini, 2005, p. 47).  They often have to meet quota for turning tricks (p. 47).  If they are working on the street they also face violent consequences as “they are vulnerable to assault, robbery, rape, and murder” (Weitzer, 2005, p. 946).  “Sex-trafficked women and girls face especially high risks of HIV infection” as condoms, when available, are often turned down by clients who know that anything can be purchased for a price (Burn, 2011, p. 168).

Adding to the predicament is that the women are unfamiliar with the language, as well being in the country illegally (Burn, 2011, p. 168).  In many countries “law enforcement agencies respond to them as lawbreakers rather than as victims” (p. 168).  “To make things worse, they may be prosecuted for illegally leaving their own country should they attempt to return home” (p. 168).

According to the US State Department there are around “800,000 to 900,000 persons . . . trafficked each year throughout the world, while other US official agencies consider that each year 600,000 to 800,000 persons (70 per cent female, and 50 per cent under age) fall victim to international recruitment, transport and exploitation, at least half of them for the purposes of sexual exploitation” (Monzini, 2005, p 50).  The United Nations Office of Drugs and Crimes states that “79 percent of all global trafficking is for sexual exploitation, and an estimated 1.2 million victims are children (as cited in Burn, 2011, p. 166).  Unfortunately the true numbers of people who are trafficked are not accurate because of the hidden nature of the exploitation (Monzini, 2005, p. 50).

Pathways into Sexual Exploitation and Sex Work The Experience of Victimhood and Agency

Globalization has led to new developments in the sex industry with the Internet and sex tourism  (Monzini, 2005, p. 19).  Researchers suggest that “the growing exploitation of women and children from the world’s poorest countries is linked to the appalling amount of pornography on the web that shows young girls, boys and children, mostly of Asian, African, Latin American and Slav origin” (p. 27).  Webcam use for pornography, which further exploits women, has been growing at a phenomenal rate (IOM, 2004a, as cited in Monzini, 2005, p. 27).  Customers can access any type of pornography from the privacy of their house (p. 27).  Taylor and Jamieson (1999) state “[t]he various branches of the sex industry has thus become the trailblazer for major innovations: porn circuits were, for instance, the first to adopt credit-card transactions, multimedia content compression and marketing models that prefigured the use of video conferencing” (as cited in Monzini, 2005, p. 27).  “Special ‘market products’ seem to be emerging from the crystallization of stereotypes around certain physical and racial characteristics” (p. 28) as certain nationalities become more sought after by customers.   As well there is a growing trend of women taking advantage of sex tourism  (Richards  & Reid, 2015, p. 419).

Women make up close to seventy percent of the world’s poor  (Monzini, 2005, p. 59).  More than ever before women are seeking ways out of poverty through the promises of employment in foreign lands and “[i]nternational migration has doubled over the last thirty-five years” with women making up a large portion of it (p. 58).  The United Nations estimates that “at least half a million young people . . . are prepared to emigrate without proper assurances, and are therefore liable to be heavily exploited in foreign labour markets” (p. 62).  People want to leave their country thinking that it will be easier to find employment. They often also want to change the circumstances under which they are presently living, believing that it will be better for their loved ones.  Sometimes women are so desperate to leave their country and escape poverty that they are willing to take great risk.  Often they are being pressured by their families, who are also living in poverty, to earn money that can be sent back home for support.

The flow of trafficked women typically is from poorer regions of the world to richer areas (Monzini, 2005, p. 6) where recruiters prey upon those who are poorest. Some areas of the world such as the Balkans, where up to ninety percent of women have been trafficked (UNICEF 2002, as cited in Monzini, 2005, p. 90), thrive because they are highly profitable and women welcome the escape from poverty.  Recruiters often have extensive networks situated in many different areas of the world (p. 85).  However, as trafficking becomes more complex it has “come together in a single global network” (p. 86).  The routes the women are taken through change often as authorities beef up their surveillance.  Traffickers seek the easiest routes where they do not have to produce documentation.

Butcher (2003) states that “[r]ather than promoting opposition to prostitution” we would do better to promote human rights as women have “the right to work with the law’s protection from harm, be it rape, violence, robbery, or other violations” (p. 1983).  As Burn (2011) states “[s]topping human trafficking is difficult because the demand is high and there is a steady supply of potential victims to feed it-a supply sustained by poverty, ignorance, organized crime, and government and police tolerance and corruption” (p. 168).  Stopping the tolerance and corruption requires a “commitment from governments worldwide” (p. 168).  Given the large numbers of women who live in poverty strategies are needed to improve employment and education choices so that women have alternative ways to escaping poverty rather than having to turn to sex work.  “Reduction of supply will only be accomplished through a lessening of poverty, educating potential victims, and the dismantling of criminal trafficking networks” (p. 168).

Prostitution and sex trafficking exploit women for the purposes of sex.  Poverty is often at the root of why women enter into both prostitution and sex trafficking.  Once they are in the sex industry it becomes difficult to get out as the women are controlled through violence by their pimps, or by their keepers to whom they must repay their debt for their transportation and keep.  The sex industry is transforming as globalization has seen a boom in sex tourism and Internet pornography.  A concerted effort by law makers, policy makers and governments internationally, nationally, and locally that focuses on human rights where the basic safety of person is a priority that is necessary in order to eliminate the trafficking of girls and women.  The issues of both supply and demand need to be addressed because as long as both exist the exploitation of women in the sex industry will continue to thrive.


Burn, S. (2011). Women across cultures: A global perspective (3rd ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Butcher, K. (2003). Confusion between prostitution and sex trafficking. Lancet36 (9373), 1983-1983.

Farley, M. (2005). Prostitution Harms Women Even if Indoors. Violence Against Women, 11(7), 950-964.

Gajic-Veljanoski, O., & Stewart, D. (2007). Women trafficked into prostitution: determinants, human rights and health needs. Transcultural Psychiatry,44(3), 338-358.

Monzini, P. (2005). Sex traffic: Prostitution, crime, and exploitation. London & New York: Zed Books.

Richards, T. , & Reid, J.  (2015). Gender stereotyping and sex trafficking: Comparative review of research on male and female sex tourism. Journal Of Crime And Justice38(3), 414-433. doi:10.1080/0735648X.2014.1000560

Weitzer, R. (2005). Flawed Theory and Method in Studies of Prostitution. Violence Against Women, 11(7), 950–964.

Wilson, A., & McCrae, K. (2015, September). Engaging Community: Addressing Sex Trafficking in Edmonton, Final Report.