Sex trafficking is still a topic kept in the dark and prone to myths. Even within the police force, there is a lack of proper education about the differences between prostitution and sex trafficking. January is National Human Trafficking Prevention Month, so we’re taking a look at recent news in our area concerning the matter.
At the end of December, the Benton County Sheriff’s Office posted a Facebook press release about a recent sting operation in which eight men from Corvallis, Albany, and Eugene were arrested, given a citation, and released for patronizing a prostitute. The press release asserted that this operation demonstrated how prevalent prostitution is in Benton County and then connected prostitution to human trafficking.
What’s the Issue?
A Corvallis social worker who wishes to remain anonymous pointed out a level of miseducation in two statements in that press release:
1) Prostitution is a dangerous criminal enterprise, closely related to human trafficking, narcotics, violence, and sexual assault.
2) Prostitution also fuels the growth of modern-day slavery by providing a façade behind which traffickers for sexual exploitation operate.
“Prostitution – or sex work – is to trafficking as sex is to rape,” the social worker said, highlighting the press release’s misconceptions on relating prostitution and sex trafficking.
They explained that the key element of the difference between prostitution and human trafficking is consent.
How Sex Work & Human Trafficking Differ
Sex work is a transaction between consenting adults, and many people believe it should be decriminalized. Prostitution would not be a “dangerous criminal enterprise” if it were made legal. House Bill 3088 being considered by the Oregon State Legislature will decriminalize sex work. Currently, prostitutes who could be helpful in identifying sex traffic victims, drug pushers, and violent clients do not willingly come forward as they are treated like criminals.
Sex trafficking involves coercion. In a trafficking environment, vulnerable people are exploited in exchange for the basics of safety, food, shelter, and sometimes romance. According to the Polaris Project, vulnerable populations for trafficking include people of color, domestic violence survivors, undocumented immigrants, LGBTQ+ individuals, low-income individuals, those who are houseless or have unstable housing, and those with a history of sexual abuse.
A common myth is that human trafficking victims are physically forced into sex work – however, only 16% are forced physically, with the rest controlled through psychological, sexual, or pharmaclogical methods. Another common trafficking myth is that the victims have been kidnapped; according to the Counter Data Trafficking Collaborative (CTDC), 66% are trafficked by someone known to them or by a family member.
Survivors of sex trafficking often have issues self-identifying as victims, especially if it is a romantic partner doing the trafficking. The social worker we spoke to emphasized that prostitutes, who may be in the same neighborhood as people being sex trafficked, are not the façade for this but rather could be the ones identifying as victims.
They noted that within Benton County, the highest prevalence of human trafficking is in Albany likely due to its proximity to Interstate 5. From Portland to California, the I-5 corridor offers many opportunities for this to happen. While there are government outreach programs created to help victims, there are steps concerned citizens may take to help this situation:
What Can You Do?
Begin by educating yourself about the difference between sex work and sex trafficking. Avoid anything about “large underground operations”, Satanic rituals, kids getting kidnapped from backyards, outrageous numbers like millions of kids being trafficked a year. Those all indicate conspiracy theories rather than reality. A good resource for information is the Polaris Project, mentioned and linked to above. There are also virtual panels to learn what Oregon’s efforts are on addressing human trafficking through the at: project.