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A response to the “economic coercion” argument that equates all prostitution with trafficking and then with slavery

Date: April 21, 2011

An “economic coercion” argument often invoked by anti-trafficking/prostitution activists holds that, even though many prostitutes and other sex workers appear to be making a free choice to engage in their work without “force, fraud or coercion,” they are nonetheless victimized by the sex industry and should not be viewed as freely choosing to do what they do because they have little or no other means for self-sufficiency and are therefore “economically coerced.”

I do not disagree that freedom to choose one’s occupation is severely restricted for many sex workers as well as for others who occupy low-end of the American workforce. Under capitalism, we all have to make choices under economic constraints (unless one is super-rich), although some of us have more and better options to choose from than others do. The “choice” to engage in sex work is often (but not always) made by people who do not have very good pool of options to begin with.

But it is not useful to talk about “choice” and “free will” in abstract or absolute terms, or to equate one’s difficult decision to choose the “least bad” option available to her in a pool of bad options with “coercion” in a more traditional sense.

Instead, I suggest that we start from this simple question: “If a better opportunity or option comes up, is she free to take it?” Below is a chart demonstrating why this is a more useful approach.

If a better opportunity or option comes up, is she free to take it?

  “Yes” “No”
Why is this person in prostitution? because it is the best option among what is available to her because she is not allowed to choose something else
What will benefit the individual? more and better options within and outside of the sex industry freedom so that she can make decisions for herself
How will “rescue” action impact her? possible criminal record; forced to choose among inferior options freedom, provided that appropriate support and services are provided
What should society do for this person? no persecution; make more resources and options available intervention to restore her freedom; resources to rebuild her life

I made a PDF version of the above chart available for download so that you can share it with others.

What this chart demonstrates is that we must reject the equation of so-called “economic coercion” with “force, fraud or coercion” that involve another actor (i.e. the trafficker) because there are very significant differences between the two, and conflating them leads to wrong policies and interventions that harm sex workers.

That of course does not mean that we should not address the fact that many people “choose” sex work under dire economic constraints. It just means that we need to understand the problem correctly and intervene in ways that are actually helpful rather than harmful. We must work toward reducing economic desperation among women, homeless youth, immigrants, queer people, and others by enhancing programs that ensure that everyone’s basic needs are met, and creating better and wider range of educational and employment opportunities for all.

Yes, “economic coercion” exists. But the problem is not selling and buying sex; it is the lack of options. Let’s actually address the problem, rather than depriving the “least bad options” from the already disadvantaged population.


  1. my focus as a researcher and activist has always been on undocumented migrants who end up in informal-sector jobs – those now blanket-described as trafficked simply because their countries of origin are economically disadvantaged. the argument thrown at me (when i give talks) is always that these migrants ‘have no choice’ because they are so poor. in fact i haven’t used the word ‘choice’ but the audience have heard it in their heads and are ready to spring upon its nasty neoliberal back. what i talk about are options, the fact that so many people who end up migrating have few: for a lot of women, those are to be a maid, to sell sex or to sell low-price goods in the street, like food. i say that given those few options, people prefer one to the other. they prefer to do domestic work because they feel safer, or they prefer to sell oranges in the street because they feel more independent or they prefer to sell sex because they get more money. i resist using the loaded keywords choice and will. here’s a video where you can hear how me describing how it goes:

    Comment by laura agustin — April 22, 2011 @ 7:04 am

  2. Under capitalism, we all have to make choices under economic duress. How much do we want to eat today, how much labor to we want to exchange for a shelter..and other basic human needs let alone be able to consider things like where to shop for clothes, thrift stores or high end department stores.

    Some might have more and better options to choose from than others do but this all relative in the spectrum of capitalism.

    The degree of “choice” about how to participate in capitalism is all any of us really have given the pervasive state of capitalism, so given this state of existence, the question really becomes to what degree are erotic service providers engage in sex work a part of capitalism. One of the reasons we want decrim is because we, prostitutes, want to stay as far away of capitalism as possible because we see how destructive of a force it is as it dominates other industries in exploiting labor.

    The issue has never been ‘options’ and ‘choice’ but if you want to go down that road then I’d suggest sticking to holding those you rail against with the fact that they aren’t involved in ending forced labor in other industries. Only organized labor is dealing directly with that by organizing and empowering those work forces as in inside entity, not an outside finger pointer.

    And so it must be for us prostitutes. We must gain equality through gaining organizing with organized labor style and stop spending our time contorting these bullshit responses to these fake arguments brought by these disingenuous prostitution haters.

    Comment by Maxine Doogan — April 22, 2011 @ 3:22 pm

  3. The box table is not that easy. In general: more choices is not per se better value (99 catch-up brands at the supermarket vs. one kind of fresh tomato at the bio farmer.). The problem of decision making or finding norms exists independently from the structure and constraints of a situation (ethics vs. science). A judgement always depends on perspective inside/outside, person/family/community/society, moment/job/career/life-span, religious/sceptic, push/pull… Check out migration matrix Eichenbaum 1975. Some aspects of the normative decision problem ‘victim or person with agency’ is also related to the fact that the ‘transitivity axiom of preference structure’ is not generally valid e.g. Condorcet’s paradox 1785. Anyway, with pre-decided fundamentalists or religious abolitionists rational arguments seem to be quite limited. Motivations, emotions, conditioning or belief systems have to be discussed.

    Immanuel Kant: “Ich kann, weil ich will, was ich muss // I can, since I like, what I have to do”.

    Comment by Marc of Frankfurt — April 22, 2011 @ 4:19 pm

  4. independent entrepreneurship still exists within capitalism and everyone doesn’t want to be completely independent. lots of people like to go to a job that’s organised by someone else, do the work, go home and forget about it. people who sell sex included.

    Comment by laura agustin — April 23, 2011 @ 10:24 am

  5. I agree with much of what is said here, as a sex worker myself, and as an activist. My one qualm is that often, in so many other publications written on the topic, male sex work is often over looked. Using ‘them’ or ‘they’ would be more inclusive than saying ‘she’ or ‘here’


    Comment by Jacob — April 24, 2011 @ 2:34 pm

  6. […] Chapter 3 Examining Economic Arguments 3.0: “End Demand” approach harms women working in the sex trade 3.1: Does “economic coercion” equal human trafficking? […]

    Pingback by » War on Terror & War on Trafficking – A New Zine Released! — May 22, 2011 @ 10:12 am

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