Prostitution: Conscious Choice or Wage Slavery?

The issue of human trafficking is one that has garnered increased attention recently in national headlines and human rights discussions. With the U.N. approximating more than 2.5 million victims worldwide, and leaders like President Obama bringing trafficking issues to the forefront of domestic and international policy, little debate has arisen to dispute the consensus that global action be taken to correct this great injustice. Photo ©

When it comes to categorizing prostitution as human trafficking, less consensus exists. In fact, a persistent reluctance to include prostitution, or sex labor in general, under the umbrella of trafficking seems to permeate discussion in many circles. Those unwilling to label prostitution as trafficking operate under preconceived notions of the realities of prostitution, and rely heavily upon the definitional parameters of the word “trafficking.” More specifically, the argument for excluding prostitution as a form of trafficking is hinged on the premise that prostitution does not always involve coercion, a necessary condition for being defined as trafficking.

The U.S. Department of State defines trafficking in persons as “the act of recruiting, harboring, transporting, providing, or obtaining a person for compelled labor or commercial sex acts through the use of force, fraud, or coercion.” This definition serves as the basis for arguments to exclude sex work. Because prostitutes are often portrayed as participants in an economic exchange, their situation is interpreted as one of conscious choice rather than coercion or force. Under this premise, discussions of trafficking simply don’t apply to the average sex worker. Discussions might include instances of forced prostitution, and prostitutes who have been deceived or kidnapped, but the sex worker who makes a conscious choice to enter into the sex-provision industry is entirely another story.

What often seem to be left out of these discussions, perhaps intentionally, are arguments of wage slavery and Karl Marx’s writings on subsistence wages. According to Marxian theory free laborers who survive on subsistence wages, the lowest wage upon which one can survive, are slaves to their trade. Their labor is a means that enables them to exist—a “sacrifice of [their] life,” and nothing more. While an occupation for some provides purpose and meaning to their existence, life for the subsistence worker begins only once his/her labor ceases. The wages they earn enable them to survive, and labor is the price they must pay in order to have a seat at the table.

The question of “choice” for the subsistence worker, then, is one of continued debate. And one, consequently, that pertains greatly to discussions of human trafficking and prostitution. In particular, Marxian theory creates a unique lens with which to examine our current definition of “choice” for a participant in the prostitution industry, and perhaps a means to re-evaluate the scope of what we typically view as coercion.

A 1998 study conducted by the FBI found that 88 percent of prostituted women voiced a desire to leave the industry and revealed that majority of prostituted women believed that prostitution was their only option for survival. Moreover, statistics gathered on prostitution repeatedly identify undocumented immigrants, runaway/homeless youth, refugees fleeing conflict, and extremely impoverished individuals as the most vulnerable demographics for induction into prostitution. Considering these situations under the lens of Marxian theory, the parallels between the circumstances of prostitutes from the groups mentioned above and the subsistence worker become clearer.

The argument then becomes one of economic freedom, and how much economic freedom the individual in question truly possesses in order to find other means of existence. Opponents to inclusion will argue that the situation of the prostitute is ultimately one of economic gain rather than life or death. This may be a seemingly logical argument, but given the reality of these circumstances it is one that should be cautioned.

Take for example the runaway/homeless youth, whose situation is likely the most fitting in which to discuss this argument. Unlike the illegal immigrant who is precluded from engaging in the legal market, and the refugee who is destitute in an unknown country, the claim of “no choice” for the runaway is much less accepted. Now consider that the path of most prostitutes into the industry occurs when their supposed “caregiver” transforms into their pimp. Homeless, starving, and penniless, the desperate youth is approached by someone who offers to buy them food, clothing, and provide them with safe shelter. All for the simple price of selling their body.

Was it not coercion when the pimp who approached this individual knowingly took advantage of the fact that they need nutrition, coverage, and lodging to survive? Is it not logical that the desperate youth in this scenario, and those in the other situations above, will do what is necessary to survive? And most importantly, is it possible that by ignoring Marxian arguments of wage slavery in discussions of human trafficking, and discounting the harsh realities of prostitution, that we as a society may have unknowingly excluded an entire population of victims from receiving just protection?

Perhaps it’s time we let this unnerving reality serve as motivation for more inclusive discussions about trafficking, prostitution, and free choice.

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