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When Exploitation Fails Our Expectations

When we hear the term “sex trafficking,” something in our hearts ignites.

Visions of women drugged and smuggled across the border, awakening to the dingy smell of a back-end brothel flood our minds. We are immediately infuriated by the blatant injustice. We raise impassioned pleas for the violence to end. We organize fundraisers, start social media campaigns, and tell all our friends.

We muster all our sympathy against a crime that is so tragically, and clearly, wrong.

But what happens when the lines aren’t so clear?

When a woman is not deceived by a false job offer or “taken” in a Liam Neeson fashion, but knowingly enters the sex industry.

Does our compassion suddenly run cold? Do our kind-hearted sentiments transform into questioning judgments?

It’s time we change our discourse on the meaning of “sexual exploitation.”

We often cling to the clear-cut definitions we find in terms like “sex trafficking” because we take comfort in ideas that are black and white. Black and white is simple. It is something we can sell out to wholeheartedly without struggling through harder issues. It is easy to deem kidnapping a girl from her home evil and unjust. It is not so easy to ponder whether women commodified in prostitution, strip clubs, and pornography are “empowered” or exploited.

A host of social, political, and religious tension arises when we stop to consider these more subtle manifestations of exploitation. We become defensive. We begin to shift the blame. We throw around words like “choice” and assure ourselves ours would be better.

It is easier to assume that the sex industry is always voluntary. We try to force the situation to fit inside our black and white boxes. We simply deem the scenario “white” and move on with our lives. This outlook leaves us no room to consider that the woman in the strip club may be more than just a culmination of her own choices. It blinds us to the possibility that the prostituted woman down the street may have no support system or chance of getting out on her own.

When we tell ourselves that there is no exploitation, we absolve ourselves of any responsibility to act.

When we tell ourselves that there is no exploitation, we absolve ourselves of any responsibility to act. Then, we do not have to challenge our biases. We escape potential judgment from those who disagree.

But the reality of the sex industry is not painted in the bright hues of simple answers. Nor can it be cursorily divided into two categories: women who choose the sex industry and women who have been trafficked.

Believing that it can does a devastating disservice to women who have not been trafficked, but who have vulnerabilities and experiences deserving of the help and response provided to victims of sexual exploitation. To fail in recognizing their exploitation is to fail in identifying the root problems that contribute to so many women entering the sex industry. In doing so, we become unable to accurately assess the intervention that would be most meaningful.

RELATED: Prostitution Survivor Deconstructs a Pro “Sex Work” TED Talk

To “exploit” someone simply means to take advantage of his or her vulnerability. Vulnerability manifests in vastly different scenarios. A broken family life, disadvantaged socioeconomic class, history of abuse, and toxic social relationships all contribute to unique situations that can cause someone to be vulnerable.

Clearly, a woman is vulnerable when she has been taken against her will. But is she not also vulnerable if she has no resources or means of survival? This is the subclass of women whose situations are tragically overlooked when we search for the black and white.

The sex industry is replete with stories tying stripping, prostitution, and pornography to traditional forms of sex trafficking and sexual abuse1. However, barring such an anecdote, the dialogue reverts to one of moral decision and voluntariness.

An individual’s vulnerability is not nullified by a “willingness” to be exploited.

It is easy to dismiss the idea that participation in the sex industry can be a form of exploitation as the fearmongering of people who simply cannot imagine participation as a legitimate choice. But an individual’s vulnerability is not nullified by a “willingness” to be exploited. Indeed, this willingness, born out of desperation, is the very reason she is vulnerable to exploitation.

An honest, unflinching look at the sex industry unveils a web of syndicated effort to capitalize on vulnerability.

When examined holistically, even activities traditionally considered voluntary, such as stripping and exotic dancing, often exhibit elements of coercion. For instance, one woman who was involved in stripping has explained that at 16 years old, she began working as a dancer because her job as a waitress was threatened: “Management at the club illegally employed a minor and encouraged her to drink an inhibition-reducing intoxicant while threatening her livelihood in order to ‘encourage’ her to dance topless for men two to three times her age.”2 This form of manipulation deliberately preys on the vulnerabilities of its victims.

Prostitution is also an area of the industry that is ripe for women who have been influenced by circumstances that have made them uniquely vulnerable to exploitation: “Drug addiction has been largely associated with entry into prostitution, however, prostitution may also be considered a behavior derived from desperation and determination to achieve necessary resources to sustain life, such as food, clothing, or shelter, or to escape a current lifestyle of violence and abuse that a woman may face on a day-to-day basis.”[3]

…participation in the sex industry is not the source of the problem. Rather, it is a symptom of deeply-rooted vulnerabilities…

Simply put, utilizing a woman’s need for safety or shelter to lure her or keep her in the sex industry is exploitation. These women need a response that is tailored toward healing the effects of their exploitation and finding tangible solutions to their vulnerabilities. In these scenarios, participation in the sex industry is not the source of the problem. Rather, it is a symptom of deeply-rooted vulnerabilities that require a much more attenuated solution.

All victims of sexual exploitation deserve our attention. They deserve our willingness to face the hard questions and consider complex solutions.

There is no single, unblemished definition of what constitutes sexual exploitation. But when we begin to look at each situation individually and truthfully, we deepen our understanding of the issues. To do so, we must choose to face sexual exploitation honestly and with the full force of reality. We can no longer shy away from the difficult questions. We must decide that every victim is worth fighting for, even if her exploitation fails our expectations.

Give Freedom to Sexually Exploited Women

Photo Credit: unsplash-logoH A M A N N


  • 1. O’Bryant, Dan. (2017). Inextricably bound: Strip clubs, prostitution, and sex trafficking. Dignity: A Journal of Sexual Exploitation and Violence. Vol. 2, Issue 3, Article 9. DOI:10.23860/dignity.2017.02.03.09. Available at
  • 2. Barton, Bernadetter, 5 women reveal how they got into stripping, Insider (May 22, 2018). Available at
  • 3. Murphy, Lyn. (2010). Understanding the Social and Economic Contexts Surrounding Women Engaged In Street-Level Prostitution. Issues in mental health nursing. 31. 775-84. 10.3109/01612840.2010.524345.
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