In a brilliant piece for RHRealityCheck.org sex work researcher Melissa Ditmore elaborates on the importance of understanding the difference between sex work and sex slavery:
The trafficking of women and children into sexual slavery is undeniably a gross abuse of human rights. Like all trafficking, it involves coercion or trickery or both. Sex trafficking is an odious form of trafficking, but it is far from the only one. Men, women and children are also–and more commonly–trafficked routinely for purposes of household and farm labor as well as sweatshop manufacturing. Their lives may be less media-genic than those of sex trafficking victims, but they are no less brutal, dangerous and degraded.
A narrow focus on the single aspect of sex trafficking is often fueled by sensationalistic and sometimes salacious accounts of sexual abuse. It leads us to ignore these other forms of trafficking, and so denies help and protection to all the men, women and children forced into and trapped in abusive working situations in other industries.
By the same token, treating sex work as if it is the same as sex trafficking both ignores the realities of sex work and endangers those engaged in it. Sex workers include men and women and transgendered persons who offer sexual services in exchange for money. The services may include prostitution (sexual intercourse) and other services such as phone sex. Sex workers engage in this for many reasons, but the key distinction here is that they do it voluntarily. They are not coerced or tricked into staying in the business but have chosen this from among the options available to them.
A national anti-trafficking law enacted in 2000 recognizes “severe forms of trafficking” as a modern form of slavery that involves a broad spectrum of workers and industries. In this interpretation, trafficking is clearly distinguished from voluntary sex work and thus avoids the absurdity of equating the fear and suffering of a trafficked person with the typical working conditions of voluntary sex workers. These conditions are often far from ideal, but nevertheless they are far removed from debt bondage or enslavement.