In recent years, you may have heard the term “sex workers” and wondered how it’s different from “sex trafficking.” We often hear “sex workers” referenced these days as a disenfranchised group deserving respect and protections, as in, “The pandemic has been hard on sex workers.” “Sex trafficking” is a term less often bandied about, although it occasionally receives attention in law enforcement reports on sting operations, as in, “Two were arrested for sex trafficking in a police raid this weekend.” But rarer still is it that the two terms—“sex work” and “sex trafficking”—are ever conflated or linked together.

When referring to “sex work,” most people are referring to work in commercial sexualized content, along the lines of pornography production or stripping. “Sex trafficking,” in the United States, is defined as to any commercial sex act with a minor, or any commercial sex act involving force, fraud, or coercion.

So how do we differentiate between what is often billed as so-called reputable “sex work” and disreputable “sex trafficking”? There isn’t much difference, it turns out, because the two largely overlap. The phrase “sex work” was largely developed out of a desire to put a positive spin on an industry rife with exploitation, including rampant trafficking.

Rape by any other name

One tip-off that sex work is trying to put a positive spin on a negative industry is that among the “services” it includes is prostitution, a commercial sex act that is illegal in most of the United States and much of the world. Because the sex wouldn’t be consensual if it didn’t involve an exchange of money, many women who leave the life of trafficking call prostitution “paid rape.” Melissa Farley, head of Prostitution Research and Education, told me in 2014 that the term “sex worker” turns “a violation against women . . . into employment.”

“People think [the term] lends dignity to women who do it,” Farley explained. But, she says, “what lends them real dignity is to call them a woman. . . . You don’t have to identify a person by what is done to her.”

By lending a sense of legitimacy to prostitution, stripping, and porn production, the term “sex work” helps cover up the ugly and dangerous realities women in the sex industry experience. In fact, the illusion of dignified “sex work” makes possible the existence and perpetuation of trafficking.

According to the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE), “prostitution significantly contributes to the phenomenon of sex trafficking by providing societal structure and sanction for the buying and selling of persons for sex. Any payment for sex constitutes a form of sexual coercion, ergo prostitution is inherently a form of sexual exploitation.”

NCOSE notes that sex trafficking takes place within all ranges of commercial sex activity, including in “pornography production studios, strip clubs (e.g. table and lap dancing), live-sex shows, peep shows, Internet, ‘virtual,’ or cyber-based prostitution, escort or outcall services, ‘sex tour’ operators, International marriage brokers, brothels (frequently operating behind fronts such as massage parlors, saunas, bathhouses, bars, cabarets, clubs, cinemas, beauty salons, barber shops, and restaurants), as well as pimp-facilitated, street-level prostitution.”

Even for those who weren’t trafficked into the sex trade as minors, the fact is that most people don’t get into the sex trade as a completely free choice from an abundance of good options. In a 2003 comprehensive study of 854 prostituted people across nine countries including the United States, researchers found that “from 55 to 90 percent of prostitutes report a childhood sexual abuse history.” The study also found that 89 percent of prostituted people interviewed say “they want to get out now.” They just can’t seem to find a path out.

Stubborn realities of a fantasy world

A big part of the difficulty with stopping sex trafficking is the duplicity in labeling. After getting heat for connections with trafficking, Pornhub recently dropped 10 million videos posted from unverified viewers from its website, but even still, there remain untold amounts of minors and trafficked people in porn online.

“There is no way to make Pornhub safer or to prevent the abuse and trauma inherent in pornography by eliminating unverified accounts. Case in point: GirlsDoPorn.com was a verified user on Pornhub, but many of those videos were of sex-trafficked women,” said Dawn Hawkins, senior vice president and executive director of NCOSE.

Connections between pornography and sex trafficking aren’t exactly new. America’s first pornstar, known on marquees in the 1970s as Linda Lovelace, was in fact a trafficked woman named Linda Marciano who was controlled by a man named Chuck Traynor. And to this day, much of what might first appear as stories of women consensually entering the industry actually reveal exploitative trends that, whether prosecuted or not, appear eerily similar to trafficking.

Traffickers often lure minors under the auspices of a relationship or glamorous lifestyle, before cornering them into inescapable situations of abuse. As Brenda Myers-Powell, a trafficking survivor and executive director of the Dreamcatcher Foundation, once described her experience being trafficked, “this was no Pretty Woman fairy tale. . . . What I thought was a trusting relationship was actually enslavement by a manipulative predator.”

Along the pathway to prostitution and “sex work,” traumatic bonding can occur, creating a Stockholm’s Syndrome-type confusion in trafficking victims. Often young people who have been trafficked into prostitution by skilled manipulators will, in their process of being groomed, come to believe they are responsible for their involvement in prostitution. When caught by law enforcement, many trafficking victims are misidentified or unidentified, because it’s not uncommon for victims to lie about their age and avoid incriminating their trafficker. According to the State Department’s 2016 Trafficking in Persons report, “In all forms of human trafficking, there are likely elements of grooming a victim prior to the individual becoming a victim and brainwashing and coercion to keep them from leaving. Outside of the actual act of forcing someone to stay in such situations, these factors greatly affect a person’s propensity to report a crime or try to leave.”

The sad truth is that people who are trafficked rarely self-identify as victims as it is happening, which is why some of states and counties putting up the greatest fight against trafficking in their communities are working together with trafficking survivor-led groups to patiently peel back the layers of denial and trauma many minors in sex trafficking experience. They’re working to decrease criminal prosecution of those sold in the sex industry, since many don’t enter willingly, and greater efforts to criminalize sex-buyers and traffickers is helping to curb demand.

Still, there are defenders of the sex industry who fiercely fight for “rights of sex workers” to make their money. Reason magazine, for instance, published two cover stories over the past several years, one in 2013 titled “The War on Sex Workers,” and another in 2017 on “American Sex Police,” each offering a sensationalist view of people denied the liberty to make a living in “sex work,” while portraying efforts to stop the trafficking of minors as mean, old-fashioned attempts to control people.

“I was raped more times than I could count or care to think about, Myers-Powell shared with me. “That’s the life that most prostituted women live—even the escorts. It’s not glamorous. There’s no escape, despite pimps telling you, ‘You can leave anytime you’re ready.’ In reality, sometimes you’re physically locked in, but even when you’re not, you’re mentally and emotionally locked in.”

It’s hard to defend a “right” to participate in the sex industry, especially since much of the fare it’s selling is illegal or impossible to distinguish from illegal activity. But that’s exactly what “sex worker unions” in places like California are attempting to do. Still, even if we’re stretching to envision a person only participating in exotic dancing and nothing else, even if we accepted that there is a right to be able to make money that way, such a right to participate in the sex industry is never as important as the right not to.

Sex worker unions and advocates of the sex industry ignore trafficking not because it isn’t in their midst, but because it would hurt their profits. One former trafficked woman named Stella Marr even found connections between sex worker unions and active traffickers, profiting from the exploitation of coerced individuals.

When an industry is as full of exploitation, coercion, and human rights abuses as the sex industry is, it takes willful blindness to overlook the harms in an attempt to defend it.

Life after trafficking

Women, girls, and all people caught in the sex industry deserve to be treated with respect and dignity, no matter where they are on their journey. You can tell which organizations are helping to combat trafficking based on whether they are helping people exit the industry. That’s exactly what numerous survivor-led organizations are doing all across the country—reaching out to help others get out and find safe work they actually want to do.

Annie Lobert was a trafficking victim for ten years before she escaped and founded the Las Vegas-based group called Hookers for Jesus in 2005. “We help women who have been negatively affected by the sex industry find hope, healing and full restoration,” the organization’s website reads. Among its programs and offerings is Destiny House, “a 9-24 month, no charge, transitional estate for sex trafficking victims and commercially exploited women. Our unique residential facilities and programming are designed to address the whole person with trauma informed care: spiritual, physical, mental and emotional,” and includes “life-skills training and educational opportunities” alongside therapeutic interventions.

Despite the group’s controversial name, Lobert holds onto it. She wants those caught up in prostitution to know they are loved by the God she credits with saving her from being killed by a former trafficker. But in line with her beliefs is a deep respect and patience for those in the industry, as she ministers to those actively in it.

“You’ve educated them on abuse, gaslighting & trafficking,” the group posted in a recent tweet. “You can’t help someone that is willfully choosing a toxic relationship. You planted seeds. Keep checking on them, encourage them & pray. Let them know you are there for support when they are ready to get out.”

You could call Lobert an author, an executive director, a motivational speaker, and I even saw her described as a social worker (whether she is officially or not), for all the services she helps to minister. She calls herself an “overcomer of sex trafficking.” But she and most of the sex-trafficking survivors I’ve spoken with would never describe themselves as former “sex workers.” Such a term would suggest their exploitation was freely chosen, and—more than that—that it was acceptable as long as money was exchanged. It would suggest the same for those active in the industry, as well. And, no matter how much some wish it were so, that will never be true.

Mary Rose Somarriba completed a 2012 Robert Novak Journalism Fellowship exploring the connections between sex trafficking and pornography.