Trafficking, prostitution and pornography: the inherent connections

10 November 2020

Naomi Miles, of CEASE UK (Centre to End All Sexual Exploitation) explains why the fight against sex trafficking must address the underlying cultural and commercial forces that are driving it.

Everybody stands against human trafficking, rightly identifying it as one of the greatest injustices of today.

But far fewer recognise the links between sex trafficking, prostitution and pornography.

The anti-trafficking movement (rightly) prioritises finding and helping victims. To most of us, the unimaginable living nightmare of women and children trafficked into prostitution is entirely separate from the experience of other ‘sex workers’ for whom prostitution is a ‘choice’. We tend to regard this as at best empowering or at worst, a legitimate way to make a living. Speaking out against prostitution feels political, and we don’t want to appear judgemental, moralistic or indifferent to ‘sex worker rights’.

And prostitution is generally considered as quite separate and distinct from pornography. Most obviously, whereas only a minority of men pay for sex, the majority of men wouldn’t hesitate to watch porn, which has become ubiquitous, normalised and a powerful cultural influence. We tend to regard watching porn as a matter of personal ‘choice’ and conscience; something we don’t have the right to challenge – particularly as it doesn’t seem to do much harm.

Perhaps in summary, we could say that we recognise sex trafficking as an injustice because it involves the suppression of a person’s liberty, choice and autonomy. We don’t recognise the injustices within the sex industry because we imagine that they involve the very opposite, the expression of a person’s liberty, choice and autonomy.

But this understanding is deeply flawed. The reality is that sex trafficking, pornography and prostitution are inherently interconnected. Human trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation is the fruit born of the commercial sex industry, which is deeply rooted within the fertile soil of sexual objectification. We cannot hope to end sex trafficking without uprooting the entire structure.

Sex trafficking and prostitution both deny human rights, freedom and autonomy

Trafficking simply means dealing or trading in something illegal – in the case of human trafficking, the ‘something’ is a person. This is why human trafficking is sometimes known as modern day slavery: it has at its heart the commodification of human beings. It’s exactly the same with prostitution, where (mostly) women and children are literally traded as sex objects. Throughout the history of the world, the fact that prostitution has been closely associated with slavery, colonialisation and destitution is no accident.

Most of us acknowledge the trauma of being trafficked for sex, but far fewer of us stop to recognise the fact that being in prostitution is incompatible with physical or mental health and well-being. Prostitution violates a person’s sexual autonomy and agency. The modern myth of the ‘happy hooker’ grossly misrepresents the experience of the overwhelming majority of women in prostitution. It’s well documented that women in prostitution suffer endemic levels of violence, abuse and exploitation.[1]

Being in prostitution also has an invisible but nonetheless profound negative psychological impact, leading to sky-high levels of problems like post-traumatic stress disorder, dissociative disorders (where the woman separates her mind from her bodily experience), anxiety, depression and substance abuse.

This is true however a woman enters prostitution – whether she ‘chose’ it or was forced, whether she was a consenting adult or a child, and whether she’s involved in ‘high-class’ escorting or street-based prostitution.[2] As survivor Autumn Burris comments: “As a survivor of indoor and outdoor, legal and illegal exploitation, I can assure you that all are equally harmful to the soul. Prostitution is routinely violent, psychologically and physically.”[3]

Prostitution is often defended (or at least tolerated) on the premise that unlike modern slavery, it involves a degree of choice or autonomy on the part of those involved. However, we must recognise that choices are never made in a vacuum, and that the overwhelming majority of those who ‘choose’ prostitution are highly vulnerable: they’re often young (below the age of consent), poor, socially marginalised and disadvantaged, and shaped by previous experiences of trauma and sexual abuse.

Within prostitution, a woman is also disempowered by the fact that she becomes a mere object whose entire purpose is to gratify the sexual urges of the sex buyer. As one interviewed sex buyer commented, it’s just “like renting an organ for 10 minutes.”[4] Without the dignity of her humanity, her choices, feelings and preferences are irrelevant. In this context, the exchange of payment or other material benefit becomes a form of coercion since without them, there would be no consent. Research shows that the vast majority of men who buy sex have a fundamental contempt for prostituted women and enjoy being able to play out any kind of sexual fantasy without the constraint of relating to her as a person.[5] Most tend not to let the knowledge or suspicion of a prostituted woman being the victim of trafficking, coercion or abuse influence his decision to use her for sex.[6]

It’s also notable that although women may initially have consented to work in the sex industry, many are subsequently held in service (i.e. trafficked) through the violence and/or the psychological manipulation of pimps, abusive partners or brothel owners. Most want to exit, but this is notoriously difficult due to their vulnerability and trauma.[7]

Look closely, and the dividing lines between sex trafficking and prostitution are blurry – or even non-existent. According to article 3 of the Palmero Protocol, human trafficking is “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.”[8]

In other words, whatever they say about choosing or consenting, women are trafficked:

  • when they enter the sex trade as minors
  • when they are recruited into prostitution through fraud or deception
  • when they are manipulated into selling sex by a pimp or abusive partner.

The UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights aspects of the victims of trafficking in persons observed that,for the most part prostitution as it is actually practised in the world does satisfy the elements of trafficking. It is rare that one finds a case in which the path to prostitution and/or a person’s experience does not involve, at the very least, an abuse of power and/or an abuse of vulnerability”[9]

Sex trafficking and prostitution are interdependent industries

On a macro level, it’s also clear that sex trafficking and prostitution are interdependent. Although it only constitutes around a third of all human trafficking, sexual exploitation accounts for over 80% of its profit – an estimated $99 billion per year.[10] This is purely because of the size of the global commercial sex industry:

In the last 30 years, the rapidly growing sex trade has been massively ‘industrialized’ worldwide. This process of industrialization, in both its legal and its illegal forms, generates profits amounting to billions of dollars. It has created a market of sexual exchanges in which millions of women and children have been converted into sexual commodities.”[11]

As with the legitimate market, there’s a strong correlation between the demand for commercial sexual services (in more economically prosperous countries) and the supply of women and children, which is partly met through trafficking and human slavery.[12]

What’s more, legislative efforts to ‘clean up’ the commercial sex trade from the taint of sex trafficking and criminality have proven unworkable and ineffective. Research has shown that governments’ best attempts at regulation do little to improve conditions for those within the systems of prostitution; violence, abuse and exploitation remain endemic. Countries that adopt a legalised or decriminalised model of prostitution (such as Germany and Holland) have high human trafficking “inflows” to meet the sky-high demand created by its thriving commercial sex market. On the other hand, sex trafficking decreases where sex buying is criminalised.[13]

There is no difference between prostitution and pornography

In material reality, pornography is one way women and children are trafficked for sex. To make visual pornography, the bulk of the industry’s products, real women and children, and some men, are rented out for use in commercial sex acts.” Catherine A. MacKinnon[14]

Pornography is just prostitution with a camera rolling. The dawn of the internet has led to an explosion in online pornography, thus bringing prostitution to the masses. In prostitution and sex trafficking, those selling sex are objectified, dehumanised and vulnerable. It’s no different in pornography, where women are exposed, stark naked for the sexual arousal and gratification of a potential global audience of millions on anonymous, voyeuristic onlookers who care nothing for their dignity, humanity or well-being.

As with prostitution, pornography is justified by the assumption that watching porn doesn’t hurt anyone and those who feature in porn videos are acting out of free choice. But these assumptions are ill-founded; there’s mounting evidence that in the vast and largely unregulated world of online pornography, sex trafficking, coercion, violence and abuse are rampant.

It’s time to hang up the stereotypes and misconceptions

The links between prostitution and pornography are manifold:

  • Pornography directly fuels the demand for the sex trade and thus for sex trafficking, as more and more viewers want to act out in person what they see on screen.[15]
  • Pornography is integral to prostitution, with pornography images and videos often made as fringe “products” from victims being sold for sex.[16] A recent report with interviews of 854 women in prostitution in 9 countries found that 49% were forced to make pornography whilst enslaved in sex trafficking.”[17]
  • The same factors of vulnerability apply to women in the porn industry as to women in prostitution.[18] And as with prostitution, the act of performing in pornography causes serious physical and psychological damage[19].
  • Many (particularly young) women are trafficked into the pornography industry through manifold tactics of deception, coercion and manipulation; once in, many report how they are forced into performing sex acts on their ‘no’ list through the use of “[d]rugs, alcohol, physical abuse, blackmail, threats, fake legal documents, deceitful enticing, promises of fame and money and so much more…”[20]
  • Online porn platform Pornhub hosts literally millions of videos of user-generated content, uploaded without any verification of the age or consent of those featured in the videos. There is also increasing demand for the depiction of extreme or even illegal themes such as very young-looking girls, gang rape, sexual torture and violence. Both of these facts has led to online pornography being riddled with videos featuring the real trafficking, child sexual abuse, sexual assault and rape, alongside so-called ‘revenge porn’, hidden-cam porn and all kinds of other non-consensual material.

It is vital then that we hang up our stereotypes and misconceptions of what sex trafficking looks like and recognise that it operates in every part of the commercial sex industry, whether legal or illegal. Why? Because ultimately, it is driven by the notion that people can be reduced to sex objects, to be exploited for pleasure and profit.

Find out more about CEASE UK.


[1] M. Farley, 2016, Very inconvenient truths: sex buyers, sexual coercion, and prostitution-harm-denial; APPG Report 2014

[2] Farley, 2003: Prostitution and the Invisibility of Harm

[3] Prostittion Narratives, Prostitution Narratives: Stories of Survival in the Sex Trade (2016 Spinifex Press)

[4] M. Farley. (2007) ‘Renting an Organ for Ten Minutes:’ What Tricks Tell us about Prostitution, Pornography, and Trafficking. In D.E. Guinn and J. DiCaro (eds) Pornography: Driving the Demand in International Sex Trafficking. Pp 144-152. Los Angeles: Captive Daughters Media.

[5]  M. Farley, J. Golding, E. Schuckman Matthews, N. Malamuth, L.Jarrett (2015) Comparing Sex Buyers With Men Who Do Not Buy Sex: New Data on Prostitution and Trafficking, Journal of Interpersonal Violence

[6] M. Farley, J. Golding, E. Schuckman Matthews, N. Malamuth, L.Jarrett (2015) Comparing Sex Buyers With Men Who Do Not Buy Sex: New Data on Prostitution and Trafficking, Journal of Interpersonal Violence / B.Anderson & J. O’Connell Davidson (2003). Is trafficking in human beings demand driven? A multi-country pilot study. Geneva: International Organization for Migration.

[7] Home Office (2004) : Paying the Price: a consultation paper on prostitution/ J. Bindel, L. Brown, H. Easton, R. Matthews and L Breaking down the barriers: A study of how women exit prostitution Eaves and London South Bank University (LSBU)

[8] UN Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner: Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons Especially Women and Children, supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime

[9] European Parliament Briefing, January 2016: The Gender Dimension of Human Trafficking.

[10] Social Europe: H. Bondi (20.9.2018) Europe Must Target Demand To Fight Sex Trafficking

[11] R. Poulin (2004) Globalization and the Sex Trade: Trafficking and the Commodification of Women and Children Canadian Women’s Studies Vol.22, No.3-4 (2003)


[13] E-Y CHO, A. DREHER and E. NEUMAYER (2012) *Does Legalized Prostitution Increase Human Trafficking? Elsevier


[15] Fight the New Drug (08.2017): How Pornography Fuels Sex Trafficking

[16] Fight the New Drug (01.2020): Survivor Story Why I Became Obsessed With Porn After I Was Sex Trafficked.

[17] Farley, M. (2007) ‘Renting an Organ for Ten Minutes:’ What Tricks Tell Us About Prostitution, Pornography and Trafficking

[18] M. Farley: Pornography is Infinite Prostitution, p.15, M. Tankard Reist and A. Bray (eds): Big Porn Inc: Exposing the Harms of the Global Pornography Industry (North Melbourne, Victoria Spinifex Press, 2011)Tankard-Reist and Bray (2011)

[19] G.Corita, G.Ryan, W.Margold, J. Torres & L.Gelberg (2008). Pathways To Health Risk Exposure In Adult Film Performers. Journal Of Urban Health 86 (1): 67-78. Springer Nature. doi:10.1007/s11524-008-9309-4.

[20] 11.2017 Her Campus: You Can’t Be a True Feminist and Support the Porn Industry

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