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Written by Emily.

While listening to some civilian discussions about the portrayal of sex work and sex trafficking in the movie Zola, I became frustrated. One critique was that it was too hard to differentiate between the sex trafficking and consensual sex work that occurred. What I want to discuss today is the reality that many consensual sex workers become sex trafficking survivors, and vice versa. Not all sex workers will have firsthand experience with this, but most are fully aware that this type of recruitment exists in the industry. Many different factors can make someone susceptible to being recruited into sex trafficking, whether they’re a pre-existing sex worker or civilian. Many survivors are not simply snatched up off the street, but are coerced through psychological and financial means to cooperate. 

As a person who has been sex trafficked, it was obvious to me at multiple points throughout the film that Stephanie was being trafficked by her pimp, and Zola was being recruited through another girl he was already trafficking.

Limited definitions of sex trafficking make it seem like we should be able to see very clear evidence of gross abuse and physical control. Maybe we just need to look a little deeper. Emotional manipulation, capitalism, pimps, and policing and all work hand in hand to control sex trafficking victims without even needing to provide a single threat of physical violence.

The primary mechanisms used to maintain control over sex trafficking victims by pimps are financial and psychological. Consensual sex workers are coerced into sex trafficking by the promise of greater financial stability and safety. This is made easier given that financial exploitation is rampant in the industry, and sex workers are constantly faced with violence and abuse at the hands of customers, strip club managers, and police. 

You don’t leave sex trafficking with money in your savings account.

Because sex work has not yet been decriminalized in the United States and because many people who are in the industry are reliant on their income to survive, it’s extremely difficult to make changes and fight back against the (mostly) men who rely upon our labor for the success of their clubs and websites. Yet, they force us to pay them an inordinate percentage of our income if we want to continue working.

Once your financial resources are under the control of your pimp, it feels like your options to leave are sparse. If you don’t have anyone in your family or community who is able to support you during your transition out of sex trafficking, you might not ever leave. You don’t leave sex trafficking with money in your savings account. Even if you’re not being held by the threat of physical violence, the reality of the situation is that you are potentially putting yourself in greater danger just by leaving.

It’s likely that your pimp has concealed the avenues through which you are marketed and how they screen clients prior to meeting.

If you don’t have any support system willing to help you, you might turn to independent sex work to try and earn money, but a lot of information about how to do full-service work independently and safely is guarded by gatekeeping pimps. Pimps rarely provide physical security by functioning as bodyguards, the only thing they consistently bring to the table is knowledge of how to conduct business online.

Without the knowledge about how to screen potential customers and the financial privilege of being able to take your time to learn, you run the very real risk of facing violence at the hands of customers. Maybe they’ll rape and beat you, maybe they’ll steal what money you’ve made and leave you, once again, desolate. Your pimp will never pay you even a fraction of what you deserve, but they will always make sure you have food and a roof over your head so that you can continue working for them.

They make sure you know that you’re dependent on them for safety and a false sense of security.

I would also argue that many sex trafficking survivors would not self-define as such because the overwhelming narrative is that if you made a choice to get involved with an abuser (whether or not that choice was based on false claims about the nature of the arrangement), it’s your fault. Now it’s on you to figure out how to remove yourself from the situation, despite having been cut off from financial resources, alienated from friends and family, and put in a position where your options to find work and housing are very limited.

Most consensual sex workers experience exploitation and abuse that is not inherent to the trade, but definitely serves to muddy our definitions of what sex trafficking actually is. The black and white definitions of consent and exploitation often don’t make room for the messy in between.

About the Author

Emily is a sex worker and sex trafficking survivor. She enjoys astrology, pole dancing, spending time in nature, and cuddling with her dog. She manages chronic illness and is currently pursuing studies in somatic psychotherapy.