UT Sociologist Mark Regnerus, along with Ellyn Arevalo, write for Public Discourse on “Commercialized Sex and Human Bondage”. Their article argues that the American sex trade – strip clubs, prostitution, and the booming pornography business – feeds on and fuels modern-day slavery.
The article explores the themes of consent and coercion, which should be irrelevant in rescuing women from the sex trade:
“What if a woman wants to become a prostitute? In her book Prostitution, Power and Freedom, Nottingham University Sociology Professor Julia O’Connell explained that this phenomenon, known as “casual prostitution,” accounts for a mere one percent of women in the sex industry (University of Michigan Press, 1999). And in a recent study of trafficking and prostitution across nine countries, researchers found that out of 785 sex workers, “89 percent…wanted to escape prostitution but did not have other options for survival.”
Free choice here is largely a myth. Catherine MacKinnon, pioneer of the legal battle against sexual harassment in the workforce, argued that “If being a sex worker were truly a free choice, why is it that women with the fewest options are the ones most apt to “choose” it?” Closely related to the issue of choice is that of consent, or the idea that prostitution is innocuous if the prostituted woman gives her consent. But the condition of consent is an unfounded criterion. Melissa Farley, director of the organization Prostitution Research and Education, explains that “it is a clinical, as well as a statistical error, to assume that most women in prostitution consent to it. In prostitution, the conditions which make genuine consent possible are absent: physical safety, equal power with customers, and real alternatives.” While no doubt some women choose this line of work freely, they remain a very small minority.
When you operate within the framework of consent and choice-based rhetoric, there will still be women who meet the requirements for victim status but remain overlooked. This is one reason why the prevalence of sexual trafficking is underreported in the US. The TVPA law currently stipulates that in order to prosecute traffickers and receive aid themselves, victims must be either under 18 years of age, or prove that their entry into the commercial sex industry was the result of force, fraud, or coercion. But what happens to women who initially agreed to come to the United States to work in the commercial sex industry (migrant sex “workers”), but would never have given their consent had they known what slave-like and abusive conditions awaited them? These women technically qualify for benefits under the TVPA, but will have a very difficult time securing them since they can’t easily prove that coercion occurred as defined by the law.
If the United States wishes to combat modern slavery, it should make exploitation, rather than force, fraud, or coercion the main consideration in possible trafficking cases. The United Nations already does this, and considers “consent” to be irrelevant in determining trafficking victim status. If the United States were to shift its emphasis away from proving force, fraud, or coercion toward establishing whether persons were being exploited for commercial sexual services, then far fewer victims would fall through our legislative cracks and it would be easier for law enforcement to prosecute sexual trafficking.”