Sex Work Is Not Sex Trafficking

I’m Alexander Cheves, a writer, author, and sex educator. My nickname is Beastly. I give adult advice on this blog — no question is off-limits. To ask me something, email AskBeastly@gmail.com or send a message via the Ask Beastly contact form.

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Hello Alexander. My name is Michael and I’m wanting to get into the adult industry and escorting. The biggest thing on my mind is how to avoid the sex trafficking, as it’s something I hear a lot and used as an example of why I shouldn’t do it by my mother. I’d greatly appreciate your response. 

Hi Michael,

Sex work is not without risks, but sex trafficking is not a risk that is exclusively associated with sex work. Anti-trafficking campaigns present the sex trade as being filled with vulnerable, drug-addled people who are victims of traffickers, and while this can happen, the reality is that most trafficking and worker exploitation happens in non-sexual industries.

The obfuscation of sex trafficking with sex work — many Americans believe they’re the same thing — has been what I and many other sex workers believe is an intentional misinformation campaign by crusading lawmakers to attack sex work and “protect children.” Vice President Kamala Harris (who, earlier in her career, co-wrote the legislation SESTA/FOSTA, which has done incalculable damage to sex workers — more on that later) does this under the guise of feminism, as she and many others seem to think women (or, presumably, anyone) cannot consent to the commercialization of their own bodies — they must be coerced or acting against their will. This is just not true.

I think the employers who run legal businesses and pay abusively low wages with no benefits are more exploitative and harmful than sex work — in fact, I think sex work can often be very empowering and liberating. It has been so for me. My job allows me to set my own hours, set my rate, define my boundaries, take time off when I need it, and make enough money to live in New York City. But sex work comes with stigmas and future work limitations — there are companies that will not hire me because I’ve been public about my experiences in sex work — so you should think on these realities as greater issues with sex work than the risk of trafficking. If you ever want to be a teacher or work for a large global corporation, you cannot have sex videos online or have a sex work history.

I needed an expert voice to help me answer this question, so I reached out to my friend Maggie Mayhem. Maggie is a sex worker rights activists and speaks internationally about human rights and harm reduction, drawing from her experiences in the sex trade and as a public health worker. She has spoken at the UN Internet Governance Forum, SxSW, DefCon, Center For Democracy and Technology, and served on the Sex Worker Outreach Project-USA Board of Directors. You can visit her website or follow her on Twitter: @MsMaggieMayhem.

Here’s what she told me:

Given the prominence of sex trafficking awareness campaigns, it’s no surprise to hear someone contemplating entry into the adult industry worrying about sex trafficking. Forced and coerced labor exploitation is a serious human rights violation that must be taken seriously in all industries, including commercial sex. Unfortunately, many sex trafficking awareness campaigns have hidden agendas and rely on myths and misinformation that not only inaccurately represent the reality of commercial sex work, but also actively interfere with the strategies and legislation that best protect sex worker rights and safety. 

These narratives also serve to obscure and confuse our understanding of the violence sex workers face as well and other forms of exploitation, and redirect funding and resources away from many of their solutions. The fact is, most human trafficking occurs in non-sexual industries, such as agriculture, domestic care, food processing. Very often, sex trafficking is perpetrated by someone known to the victim, such as a family member, a known friend of the family, or an intimate partner. Bad managers can also be responsible for wage theft and other forms of exploitation and abuse without worker rights. 

Fighting sex trafficking in most cases means fighting for worker rights, unionization, support and resources for vulnerable communities, and so on. Human rights are upheld when we have strong tools to prevent the abuse and violence of vulnerable people more so than when we appeal to and expand police infrastructure by criminalizing commercial sex. Expanding protections, rights, and resources for vulnerable groups limits the leverage of any would-be trafficker. Decriminalization and destigmatization of sex work facilitate greater safety for people in the sex trade by shielding workers from criminal prosecution for their work, especially when they reach out for help.

It is also important that we fight for protections for undocumented people. All too often, sex trafficking is used as justification for immigration raids or a reason to surveil and harass BIPOC. Housing and healthcare create resilience against all forms of trafficking by reducing need and preventing vulnerability.

That said, novice sex workers are often more vulnerable to bad management. It can be hard to know how and where to best break into the industry without someone there to help show you the (sometimes literal) ropes, but when sex work is criminalized and stigmatized, knowledge and information sharing can be a liability. Peer-run sex worker spaces that meet online and in-person offer a tremendous amount of support and resources about how to stay safe while working and engaging with clients as well as field the stigma and setbacks that can come from working in the adult trade. It is possible there is a group meeting near this person, and there are many branches of the Sex Workers Outreach Project (commonly referred to as SWOP). Adult entertainment workers can also benefit from connecting with the Free Speech Coalition (FSC), the Adult Performer Advocacy Committee (APAC), and the Adult Performers Actors Guild (APAG) for information and resources. 

Unfortunately, many online networking spaces utilized by sex workers have been shut down as part of SESTA/FOSTA. This legislation ostensibly written to fight sex trafficking has actually made it more difficult for victims to be identified and rescued. One study found that online message boards decreased violence against sex workers by increasing work options and security for people in the sex trade. SESTA/FOSTA is just one example of a sex-trafficking campaign ultimately serving to greater imperil those who exchange sex for money.

It is also important to consider how working in the sex trade may impact employment options later. The stigma associated with sex work can heavily influence employers, and some sex workers report feeling forced to engage in sex work when they would prefer to exit due to lack of options. Being associated with commercial sex can result in feeling like one’s choices and options are limited. Some forms of sex work are more public than others, but all have the potential to be discovered. 

Decriminalized (legal) sex work may offer some protection from criminal penalty, but all forms of sex work are subject to a stigma with material consequences. I would suggest to this person to spend time really considering what comes to mind when they imagine sex trafficking and which aspects are the most frightening to them. Many of these things they fear may actually be consequences of criminalization and stigmatization more so than predatory individuals looking to force or compel sex labor from someone who is not consenting. Until sex workers have full rights, protections, and access to safe working conditions, there will be a risk of violence, and it may very well be that sex work is not an ideal working environment for them. 

Thanks, Maggie!

The decriminalization movement is picking up steam, but in the few victories we’ve had, lawmakers have adopted the Nordic model as an alternative to prostitution criminalization, which is not much better and does not amount to full decriminalization of the sex trade. So we’ve still a long way to go before we have legal protections that would make this work much safer.

Sex work can be great. You can make a lot of money. You can also find that it’s not for you and decide to do something else. I believe that only certain kinds of people are cut out for this work. In the same way that some clients can’t compartmentalize their emotions or view the exchange as a business transaction, many beginner escorts can’t either, and I’ve known many guys “just trying this out” who get attached to clients — I’ve known a few clients who’ve struggled with escorts who can’t get comfortable with being paid because it makes them feel icky. You have to get past all that, get good at refusing people, take the money, communicate effectively, and deliver a good performance — an “impression of intimacy,” as gay writer John Preston writes in the book Hustling: A Gentleman’s Guide to the Fine Art of Homosexual Prostitution, a book every aspiring gay escort should read. (The book came out in 1994, so it’s a teensy bit dated, but I still agree with 98% of everything Preston writes in it.)

The fact that you are a gay man working in a gay market will limit your work. For starters, many gay men are escorts, so there’s more competition, and gay image standards in general are more extreme, so you’re competing with the most beautiful male specimens on this planet. If you don’t have the biggest cock or the most chiseled body, you’ll have to find your niche and focus on delivering an experience no one else can. You’ll need to live in a city where there are lots of buyers, and if you can, try to befriend as many fellow hookers as you can. This is one of the few industries where women automatically make more money (and a lot more money) but they also have the best advice.

And: DO NOT LOWER YOUR RATES FOR ANY REASON. EVER. Do not fool with guys who try to barter or negotiate the rate because they “only have X amount of money.” Products for sale have price tags. If someone can’t afford them, they can’t buy them. You don’t walk into a clothing store and ask the salesperson to drop the price of a pair of jeans because you only have X amount in your pocket. The same is true here.

My final advice: don’t start with video work. See some in-person clients and see how you like it. If you don’t, you can get out with no record you were ever there. You can clear and delete a profile on RentMen (the site I and most male escorts use) but you can’t ever, ever delete a porn video once it’s on the internet.

Love, Beastly

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