Recently, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights issued a new report titled Sex Trafficking: A Gender Based Violation of Civil Rights (also available here) which describes trafficking in persons as a modern or twenty-first century form of slavery. There are indeed genuine examples of women coerced into sex work– such as the horrific ordeal that Amanda Berry, Georgina DeJesus and Michelle Knight went through – for which the modern-day slavery label is appropriate.
But in the course of trying to root out such coercion, is genuine sex slavery being conflated with ordinary prostitution between consenting adults, and should policymakers respond to both in the same way? Though a majority of the Commission voted in favor of recommendations calling for an increased governmental response to sex trafficking, commissioner Gail Heriot* in dissent questioned whether the prevalence of sex trafficking has been overestimated and whether a more aggressive federal response truly is necessary.
Heriot notes that an important part of the problem here may be loose use of terminology: “Not all prostitution is slavery; indeed, it may be that only a small sliver of commercial sex can be usefully analogized to slavery. Given that large numbers of prostitutes operate independently without panderers, it would be difficult to characterize prostitution as inherently rooted in subjugation. The promiscuous use of the word ‘slavery’ will only water down our commitment to deal with actual slavery. And terms like ‘sex trafficking’ and ‘human trafficking’ tend to obscure more than they enlighten, because there is little agreement on what they mean.”