The Difference Between Sex Trafficking And Sexual Exploitation

Sex trafficking, properly defined, is the repeated rape of an individual. This is monstrous and we should – and do – fight it wherever we can. Sexual exploitation is a phrase with a less certain meaning. For what is to exploit? A Marxist would say that any worker not gaining the full value of their labour is being exploited. A feminist – at least some of them – would say that any woman – they tend to forget the existence of male prostitution – selling sex is being exploited.

If we keep those different definitions in mind then we can begin to make sense of this piece about sex trafficking and exploitation in Spain.

‘Prostitution is seen as a leisure activity here’

That part is most certainly true. But then sex has long – if not everywhere and at all times – been seen as a leisure activity. That money changes hands for it might turn one side of it into a job but then that’s to say that there’s something fundamentally different between being a bartender and pouring a drink for a mate. Not really a distinction that stands up to a great deal of examination.

Recent estimates put revenue from Spain’s domestic sex trade at $26.5bn a year, with hundreds of licensed brothels and an estimated workforce of 300,000.

That estimate of the workforce could be true although we’d think it a bit to a lot on the high side. The usual estimate for the UK is 80,000 and that’s in a population near 150% the size. A price of €30 a pop is quoted in the article, giving us 900 million happy endings per year. Say the male population of Spain is 20 million – an overestimate but right number of digits at least – that gives us perhaps 45 episodes per adult per year. Another number in the piece is that 40% of men have more than one lifetime experience of buying sex. So, we’re up at 100 incidents per year among the active customer base at our wildest and most excessive possible estimate.

We think that 40% of the male Spanish population is buying sex twice a week do we? Well, no, we don’t. There’s a certain amount of overcooking going on here. Or an awful lot of tourism.

Supporters of decriminalisation claim it has brought benefits to those working in the trade, including making life safer for women. Yet this vastly profitable and largely unregulated market has also become infested with criminality, turning Spain into a global hub for human trafficking and sexual slavery.

That could be true, certainly. The thing is this newspaper actually knows someone who runs a brothel in Spain. No, thanks for asking, not on a customer/provider basis. We also know the results of Operation Pentameter in the UK. All police forces in the country investigated every sex selling place they could find – and yes, Plod does know where these are – for 6 months and found not one single individual in the country that could be prosecuted for sex trafficking. This does not mean that it doesn’t happen. It does mean that it’s not common amongst those 80,000 in the trade. As our contact in Spain points out to us sex slavery isn’t a profitable business and unprofitable businesses tend not to continue. Prostitution is obviously profitable but given the number willing to do it voluntarily there’s no profit in violent coercion.

Prostitution becomes sex trafficking when one person moves, detains or transports someone else for the purpose of profiting from their prostitution using fraud, force or coercion.

That’s an entirely reasonable definition even if it’s not the correct one. Trafficking, in the official definition, has to include the transport across national boundaries along with the rest.

Just to emphasise again. Yes, sexual slavery is repeated rape, no it shouldn’t happen, it’s horrendous and we should stop it. But we do need to be sure of what it is that we’re talking about.

Now the Spanish government estimates that up to 90% of women working in prostitution could be victims of trafficking or under the control of a third party – such as a pimp – who is profiting from them.

Control there is a weasel word. What they actually mean is has a pimp. Again, this newspaper knows someone who served time in the UK for that offence – again, thanks for asking, no not in a consumer/producer relationship. The actual activity being running websites and an escort service which took a commission. Which isn’t control. And as Freakonomics pointed out, a pimp can usefully be compared – without that control – to the use of an agent.

Which is how they get up to that 90% number, even as it’s entirely overblown itself. Victims of trafficking or using an agent? The division and specialisation of labour would argue that at least at times the use of an agent is sensible, no?

Tall and immaculately groomed, Mora is one of Spain’s best-known anti-trafficking advocates; her rage at what she sees happening on the streets is raw and visceral. What Spain is facing, she says, is a huge violation of the fundamental rights of women and girls; anyone labouring under the impression that the majority of women working in prostitution in Spain are doing so by choice is deluding themselves.

Hmm, well.

“The sex industry profits from the sale of women who are being controlled and exploited through debt, violence or psychological manipulation,” she says. “Our mobile unit has contact with 280 women a day and almost 100% are victims of exploitation and trafficking.”

The UK police found no one at all to charge with that crime. Spain is so different that there’re 100,00 a year? We’re obviously using different definitions here.

There are many reasons why Spain has become a hotspot, but for Mora, the biggest single factor is cultural. Spain’s sex trafficking epidemic is, she says, just the most extreme manifestation of the country’s problematic attitudes to women and sex. “There is huge demand for prostitution here. It’s become so normalised that it’s just seen like any other leisure activity.”

That could well be true. And we think it fairly normal that demand will bring forth voluntary supply.

One survey in 2008 found that 78% of Spanish people consider prostitution an inevitability in modern society.

That definitely is true. We know of no human society ever where it hasn’t been true.

Now, she says, most women in prostitution in Spain are foreigners: Apramp works with women of 53 different nationalities.

This isn’t unusual in the slightest. As Gary Becker pointed out prostitution is consumption of human capital. The marriage prospects of ex-tarts are a little lower, even today, than those who haven’t done the work. That’s why prices for the work are rather high compared to similar jobs requiring no qualifications or training and some grunt work. And one way to reduce that consumption of human capital is not to be doing the work at home. The other side of town, the next town over, another country – as travel becomes cheaper so does the geographic divorce become larger.

Does sex trafficking, in that proper definition, exist? We’re sure it does, that it’s horrendous and also that it’s rare. What we’ve got here is a conflation of that dreadful crime with what a certain number of people heartily disapprove of – the exchange of sex for cash. The two simply are not the same thing, not in the slightest.

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Leo Savantt
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Leo Savantt

Prostituting ones self can be more than a little different from being prostituted. The act is rather less important than the means by which the act is carried out, particularly willingly verses unwillingly or sober verses befuddled.

Definitions matter, they should elucidate rather than obscure, which is why whenever the word sexploitation is used in respect of the Rotherham type phenomena, it is always better to counter “do you not mean child rape?”.

Pat
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Pat

Like any other job prostitution is carried out by people with no better available options. What we get is people with much better options signalling their status, plus people without the option pretending to status.

Jonathan Harston
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Jonathan Harston

The IT industry exploits people burdened by debts. If I didn’t have a mortgage, I’d be turning two fingers up to the IT work I take on.

Edit: Dammit, *the* *economy* exploits people burdened by debts. If I didn’t have a mortgage I’d turn two fingers up to all and every type of paid employment, and get on with *my* life.

JdL
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JdL

There’s that E-word (exploitation) again. If paying someone for sex “exploits” them, how is any job for pay not “exploitation” as well? After all, if by some magic everyone in the world had everything they needed without working, who would work? So employers cynically make use of people’s need for money to eat, have shelter, etc., and thus are clearly exploiting them. The fact that the word “exploitation” is not used to describe normal jobs illustrates that its use is selectively applied to activities some people find disquieting. It never seems to occur to such people that their sense of… Read more »