Human Trafficking vs. Prostitution {Why It Matters What We Call It}

by Laura on June 23, 2012

Responsible semantics should not be underrated.

The words we use when we communicate, especially when talking about Christian ministries when we’re raising funds to support them, are extremely important.

Take, for example, the overuse {and misuse} of the term “human trafficking.”  Honestly, two years ago, I was fairly confused about it, too. I painted most of the global sex industry with general “trafficking/slavery” terminology, especially, I’m afraid, in those first support-raising newsletters we hammered our unsuspecting friends with. But, two years and a couple months into life and work in SouthEast Asia, I am beginning to understand a little more.

Human Trafficking. The social injustice of modern day slavery is quickly becoming a buzzword–  an issue stars like Lucy Lu are tackling and a leading focus of politicians like Hillary Clinton.  MTV and CNN {The Freedom Project} have campaigns committed to keeping the issue on a global stage, and there are new movies, like Nefarious and the MTVExit videos, that highlight the realities of the 20-some million people who are forcibly held against their will, either in labor camps or in sexual slavery today. {You can read here some recent words Clinton shared with the international community on the issue.}

It is true that as I type this, there are young girls and women {and some boys} who are physically locked behind closed doors, who are threatened with their family’s safety, and who are paying off debts by servicing men in brothels. Estimates are, in fact, that there are about 4.5 million women and children forced, by coercion or abuse, into the sex industry today.


Prostitution. Another heartbreaking reality for many women globally is that of prostitution, involving around 40 million women in this, the “oldest profession in the world.” In this part of SouthEast Asia, as is the case in much of the world, many women turn to prostitution because there are very little economic opportunities elsewhere, particularly for those born in impoverished areas. Couple the fast money even an uneducated woman can make with the pressure to provide for her family, and add that to the widespread cultural acceptance of the sex industry, and prostitution quickly becomes a viable option— sometimes seemingly the only one.

But, here’s the thing we are learning in our {very meager} two years working in the counter-trafficking community of NGO’s here in Asia– fighting human trafficking and reaching out to prostitutes is not the same thing.

And while obviously there is a fuzzy margin of gray between the two, we often see “ministry to bar girls” pegged under the “fighting human trafficking” banner– an example of unintentionally irresponsible communication, in my opinion. Because there are 40 million prostitutes, working mostly by choice, compared to the {much smaller} 4.5 million trafficked victims, trapped in the sex industry by force. And while you could make valid arguments that poor women don’t have much of a choice to begin with, economically-speaking, most prostitutes come to bars, and then stay in bars, not by outright force or coercion {as is the case with trafficked victims}.

Both situations for women {and some men} are heartbreaking, nonetheless. Heartbreaking.


And, so, who really cares what we call what?  Why do the semantics really matter anyway? It’s all ministry helping women who are poor, undervalued and often abused, right? What does it matter what we call it in our newsletters and ministry-pitches?

Well, it does matter. Greatly. Because we have seen firsthand the subtle damage that can be done by Westerners who barge into red light districts assuming they are fighting modern day slavery and who raise funds under that belief, but then teach English to prostitutes who are working in the industry by choice. And while it is good that awareness is being raised for the issue of slavery, and while it is absolutely a loving thing to reach out to those working in the sex industry {especially by providing them with other work opportunities}, it is not the same thing as rescuing victims of trafficking or slowing down the economic machine that makes the sale of flesh so lucrative.

And I wonder if the funds, efforts and organizations that do effectively fight modern day slavery become diluted by the myriad of well-inentioned people that jump on the bandwagon under its name.

And as we write blogs and post Facebook pictures, as we give talks in churches and raise money for trips under the tagline of “fighting human trafficking,” we can unintentionally promote false assumptions about the issue– that lots of people are working on the problem and that it’s generally an easy one to fight. Both of which, we are finding, are grossly inaccurate.

And while we do need to paint with grace-strokes any kind of ministry begun with pure hearts, we also need to hold each other to a standard of honest, responsible communication in the Christian missionary / humanitarian arena. We need to be sure that we are not ourselves becoming salespeople with a thirst for the Hollywood-dramatic. We need to do better about researching our statistics before we include them as facts in our newsletters, and we need to be more committed to honestly assessing the purpose and scope of the ministries we are involved with {and give financially to}.

And just because we’re Christians in ministry with hearts to do good like Jesus doesn’t mean we have some kind of Get Out of Jail Free card for false advertising or sloppy communication.


Disclaimer One. We have only worked in this specific arena for nearly two years. We will be the first to admit there are many amazing people who have sacrificed more and who know so. much. more than we do about the issues of sexual slavery and prostitution. Absolutely.

Disclaimer Two. I am not a perfect communicator. My facts oftentimes could be more researched– Google only goes so far, I know. I have no doubt at times I’ve written in ways that someone else smarter, or purer, than me would say is irresponsible.  I’ll accept this, too.

Disclaimer Three. Reaching out in love to those working in the sex industry– prostitutes, pimps, bar owners – is a beautifully loving thing. Some of the most inspirational people we met last year are doing just that in Bangkok. You can see a video interview of them here. And, not to speak out of both sides of my mouth, but it is true that there are freedom and exploitation issues surrounding the vast majority of prostitutes. In the words of Daniel Walker, an undercover investigator into the sex industry,

“I would be doing them {prostitutes} a gross disservice to pretend that there are not degrees of freedom and more subtle forms of exploitation involved in every case. What broke my heart on many occasions was hearing the stories of women who were equally enslaved by poverty, sexism, gender inequality or addiction. While they fell outside the narrow legal definition of  “forced” or “trafficked” and were therefore beyond our ability to assist, they longed for an alternative means of survival and for the opportunity to escape the invisible chains that held them.” – God in a Brothel

and a Teaser: Later this week, I’ll hopefully {as I have time– my sister is visiting!} talk about if this same principle of reserving certain terms for certain things applies to the using the label of  “missionary” or not.


Thoughts? Do semantics matter? Am I being too cynical? Other examples of the misuse of drama to raise money for a cause or people’s opinions of ourselves? Lemme have it.

  • @ngie

    I love seeing your passion poured out through your finger tips, onto the world wide web, to my eyeballs, and straight to my heart. Go for it! God did good when he picked you to do what you are doing.  

  • Tbuttery

    Well.  I can feel the passion – sometimes an overused word – and the force that seems to push these word-thoughts onto this page!  
    To answer one of the questions:  Yes.  Semantics often matter.  In this and most cases, semantics matter as a point of clarification and education.  This particular issue is one that most of us don’t know that we don’t know the difference between ‘sex traffic’ and prostitution.  So it is good to know what we’re discussing AND good to know so that we can ask better questions when we hear others discuss.
    No.  Not too cynical.  I, too, believe we must hold each other accountable whether it’s clarifying how our missions dollars are used or  the behaviors we encounter in each other.  Let’s look deep.  The possibilities are that we find surprising depth and satisfying, enriching truths OR we uncover a false truth to be righted by the Holy Spirit.  Win-win?
    Ugh.  I’m shocked at what I don’t know. 
    Drama to raise funds or people’s opinions of ourselves?  Can’t say that I’ve encountered it of late but I was a part of the non-profit sector long enough to learn to look a little longer and harder at those yelling the LOUDEST for funding.  The loud yelling and any intended drama tend to run off the backs of people who have their giving priorities well thought-out.
    Late night hugs from here!

    • lauraparkerblog

      Thanks for your comments, friend. As always, love your BALANCE and HONESTY.
      Lots of prayers for you guys and the current fires . . . . so so awful . . .


  • matthewsnyder

    I’m convicted, inspired, and provoked all at once. I absolutely loved this post, Laura! Gonna share it with my friends…

    • lauraparkerblog

      Thanks. :)

  • MichenzieMotl

    Definitely thought provoking! You are totally right, the lines between the two are pretty blurred. I will be partnering with a ministry in Bangkok called The Well and have struggled to find the words to describe what they do and what I will be doing because, you’re right, they aren’t rescuing girls out of brothels, but are intentionally building relationships with women working as prostitutes in the bars and helping them find an alternative job source. They are in a way “forced” into it because of economic reasons, but is that “trafficking”? I’m not completely sure… It does pull at the heart strings a little more to describe to donors and supporters that we are fighting against human trafficking because it is so trendy right now, but I believe that is exploiting the situation. Great questions and food for thought.

    • lauraparkerblog

      You really are asking great questions that need to be asked. You are right in that “trafficking” is a buzzword, but choosing prostitution and being trafficked {tricked, threatened, abused, beaten, debt-bondage, etc} is NOT the same thing. Love that you are thoughtfully engaging in this as you are doing ministry in Bangkok! Awesome!! Let us know about your experiences . . . Light is needed, everywhere.

  • Ericka J.

    Very interesting and very thought provoking! (I love it when people ask hard questions like this!) You really made me dig for answers. I will throw out my thoughts in response…

    From what I have always understood, prostitution is a FORM of human trafficking (whether by choice, or by force). Maybe I am misunderstanding, but I looked up the definition of human trafficking on wikipedia and this was included ::

    “…OR of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the
    consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose
    of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the
    exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation…”

    Having been in the Red Light District in both Thailand and India, I believe you’d be hard pressed to find a woman working as a prostitute (even those working by “choice”) who does NOT report to a pimp or a landlord or a bar owner of some type. So that would be “the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person.”

    Also, from what I understand, “sexual exploitation” is defined as sex for money (or food, shelter, clothing, etc). So with these definitions, prostitution would be a form of human trafficking (though not necessarily a form of slavery). If people are being sold as a commodity (whether by choice or force) I have always understood that to be a form of human trafficking. The issue, rather, would be people advertising that they are fighting “modern day slavery” or “sexual slavery” – not necessarily “human trafficking”.

    Just my 2 cents – I could definitely be wrong! The more I read about it the more it seems the lines are blurred between the two, and everyone (even major organizations) have different definitions and opinions.

    • Laura Parker

      You are so right that so often the definitions and even statistics in this area get skewed. Even the “major players” don’t know how to define one from the other or have conflicts about which is one and which is the other! This field is so so very grey on so many levels. It amazes me that we are oftentimes MILLIONS OF PEOPLE off in our stats about the same thing. That seems a pretty large margin of error.

      Thanks for your comments about “what is what”. We did meet lots of young women who were on the street in prostitution on their own and did have freedom to sell or not sell. Many times in karaoke bars, the girls would host the client at the bar– sit and sing with them– but then would have rights to actually go home with them or not. In many ways, a pimp can be like a “business partner” who actually lets the girls make more money, and sometimes the relationship is more a partnership. I can’t speak for how things are in India, but perhaps that part is different there.

      The definition of trafficking we use is from the UN:

      Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons defines
      Trafficking in Persons as the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs. *******

      I totally understand your point about prostitution being a form of human trafficking. I do think that there is a distinction, at least legally with what cases you can prosecute (which is what we are working in) , between the transfer of women, especially across borders, for sex and slavery and the 25 year old who is working for a pimp. Both are definitely sexual exploitation, but the first is what we could get evidence for and try to do a raid for. There is a huge difference between the girls that are kidnapped or sold and held against their will in a brothel and the girls that are socially pressured to make money via prostitution. It’s this first group of girls that our investigators at The Exodus Roadare trying to find and rescue, and its cases against traffickers in this
      arena that can be pushed through the legal system.

      Erica, thanks for your comments. I really appreciate the conversation, and I think it’s one that is a confusing one on many levels. At the end of the day, all sexual exploitation is a terrible thing, whatever form it takes.

      • Ericka J.

        “It amazes me that we are oftentimes MILLIONS OF PEOPLE off in our stats about the same thing. That seems a pretty large margin of error.”

        Oh… preach sister! This has been one of our BIGGEST headaches in the non-profit world. This is especially true in Swaziland (one of the countries we work in). When I first started, I spent weeks researching Swazi statistics and every single stat I read was totally different! It’s tough to know who is right (or if anyone is right!)

        Anyway – love what you guys are doing. Sad we never got to connect when you were in Thailand! (We’re planning on heading back around Feb/March). If you’re ever in Alabama I’d love to grab coffee and hear more about your work!

  • anon

    i would like to use this article for a debate, I just need the publisher and author, as my teacher will not allow me to just put laura. It would be great to get this ASAP! Thank you.

  • Kelly Smith-Master

    Thank you for your blog. I absolutely agree and find myself explaining the same thing often. We have an organization that reaches out into the sex industry in America and we have an organization that engages the illegal side of the sex industry – human trafficking. Two different arms and two different ministries. It’s very important on all levels to have people be aware of the difference because the sex industry is not the illegal sex trade. Keep up the good work.

    Kelly Master

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