January is Human Trafficking Awareness Month – a time to spread community awareness about this inhumane practice. Trafficking in human beings is an oppressive occurrence that affects people in all nations of the world. The International Labor Organization estimates that there are 40.3 million victims of human trafficking globally, with hundreds of thousands in the United States. The victims of this crime in the U.S. are men and women, adults and children, and foreign nationals and U.S. citizens.
The reality is that even though we have tools that can help determine how many people are affected by human trafficking, the actual proportion of victims of forced labor as a result of trafficking is unknown. This is because human trafficking is a crime that often takes place in plain sight.
While we know this is not easy information to take in, we at Team Verity would like you to know that there is hope, and that ending human trafficking is possible! Christine Castillo, Executive Director of Verity and survivor of sexual violence and human trafficking, sat down with Elizabeth Quiroz and Lisa Diaz, also survivors of sexual abuse and human trafficking. In this informative and inspiring video, they discussed their stories, their survival, and their healing.
There is hope for survivors of human trafficking. As Elizabeth Quiroz states in the video, “there is hope for all survivors, hope for a different life. A life where they too can apply for scholarships, they too can go to college, they too can have a healthy relationship, they too can be a mother, a grandmother, they too can do whatever it is they put their mind to.”
Sex work and human trafficking cannot and should not be conflated. Sex work can involve sex and physical touching, webcam or phone sex, dancing, and many other consensual, sexual activities. The line between sex work and sexual exploitation is that line we love to talk about: consent.
The differences between exploitation and consensual encounters may seem obvious to us, but they are often misunderstood or overlooked. In reality, the distinctions between them can sometimes be almost indistinguishable and you may not be able to recognize a trafficked victim. We often imagine trafficking victims as smuggled international refugees or kidnapped children, but the situations that sex trafficking survivors face vary dramatically and the act of exploitation is often subtler.
Human trafficking, sex work, survival sex. We may have heard these terms before, but what do they really refer to? Often these terms get lumped together, creating confusion. As discussions around human trafficking continue to expand, it has never been more important to know the difference – so we can make a difference.
Human trafficking is a global issue, and by global, we mean it can happen anywhere; including in our own communities. Trafficking is not only something that happens in major cities; it is happening here in Sonoma County. Human trafficking is the act of using forceful, fraudulent, or coercive tactics to obtain or exploit commercial sex or other types of labor. Simply put, trafficking is when someone benefits from another person’s labor, and has utilized force, fraud, or coercion to facilitate that labor taking place. Trafficking is a human rights violation, and victims of trafficking can be people from all walks of life– including adult men and women, as well as young girls and boys.
While it is extremely important to understand that sex work is not the same thing as human trafficking, there is one area that can become muddied in terms of the law. When minors “consent” to commercial sex, it is still considered to be human trafficking. With adult survivors, in order for a situation to be labeled human trafficking, at least one of three factors must be present; either force, fraud, or coercion used to exploit labor or sex. These factors need not be present, however, for a minor to be considered a trafficking victim. In the state of California, minors are unable to consent to sex; therefore, any minor who engages in any type of commercial sex act is viewed as a trafficking survivor in the eyes of the law. Force, fraud, or coercion does not need to be proven, and the minor does not need to have a “trafficker” involved in the situation. Any minors who have participated in commercial sex acts, whether or not they were forced to do so, are entitled to receive the same services as any other CSEC (commercial sexual exploitation of children) youth.
All forms of human trafficking are a gross violation of human rights.
Sex work is different than human trafficking. Human trafficking is not sex work, and sex work is not human trafficking. Sex work is an umbrella term, but we will use it in this post to refer to consensual sex acts between adults in exchange for money without the use of force, fraud, or coercion. A critical distinction between sex work and human trafficking is one thing; consent. To conflate the two is harmful to both human trafficking survivors, and adults working in the commercial sex industry. Trafficking survivors are being exploited in some capacity, either by a trafficker who is financially benefiting from their labor, or by a situation so coercive (such as extreme poverty, substance addiction, or chronic homelessness) that they are forced to engage in sex acts in order to survive. Sex workers, however, are adults who are freely consenting to engage in sex work.
To assume that all sex workers are being trafficked is patronizing and stigmatizing to sex workers. At the same time, criminalizing sex workers can be extremely harmful to both sex workers, and human trafficking victims. This is just one of the many reasons it is vitally important that we continue to educate ourselves on the differences between sex workers and trafficking survivors, especially if we work within the rape crisis field as service providers. The human rights of sex workers are routinely violated across the globe. Sex workers deserve to feel safe and be treated with respect, just like anyone else in a work environment. This often is not the case, and those who engage in consensual sex work are often stigmatized, criminalized, degraded, and subjected to acts of violence and discrimination. Protecting the rights of all sex workers and promoting their health and safety, are necessary and critical steps.
Survival sex is different from both human trafficking and sex work. People who engage in survival sex are trading sexual favors in order so that they can have their most basic needs met – needs such as food, safety, or place to sleep.
Those who are without shelter and disadvantaged are most likely to engage in survival sex. It is estimated that one out of three of those without shelter in North America has engaged in survival sex. Despite the distinct differences in human trafficking and survival sex, sometimes the lines between these two acts are fluid. Survival sex can potentially escalate to trafficking and victimization. This is because traffickers who exploit people in this way seek out individuals who are already engaging in survival sex. Alternatively, those who escape violent sex trafficking are at risk for reverting to survival sex again after they have managed to escape.
Though adults who engage in survival sex may not identify as survivors of human trafficking, they still deserve to receive services and support.
It is critical that we fight for the human rights of all people. We need to raise awareness about human trafficking so that we can end it forever. We need to erase the stigma placed on sex workers and fight for their human rights. We need to make services available to disadvantaged populations so that they do not need to feel the need to engage in survival sex.
At Verity, we do not criminalize sex workers or take part in “operation” that law enforcement may do. Law enforcement will call us after an “operation,” and we will go to ensure that everyone involved has access to our resources and knows to contact us should they ever need us. Sex workers can and do get sexually assaulted. When it happens, it is not the punchline of a joke; sexual violence is perpetuated across industries. We can end sexual violence by working together to promote consent and eliminating exploitation.
To learn more on how to spot the signs, follow us on Facebook or instagram where we are posting educational material all month! If your group, organization, or company would like a presentation about human trafficking, labor trafficking, and/or sex trafficking, give our Bilingual Human Trafficking Caseworker a call at (707) 545-7270 x 25.
If you think that you or someone you know has been exploited, call our hotline at (707) 545-7273 any time of day or night.