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Is there such a thing as voluntary sex work? That’s a question that’s being hotly debated right now in the race for San Diego County district attorney.

After working with human trafficking survivors for the past five years, first as a mentor and now as their attorney, I have yet to meet a former sex worker who freely chose that work without anyone exploiting a vulnerability to get them into it.

I reached out to a number of survivors to get their input on this debate. The responses I received were consistent with my own views on this topic, which is that regardless of whether someone sees him or herself as a victim or voluntary sex worker, we must look at the factors that lead someone to become a sex-worker and/or to be sexually exploited.

One such survivor, Marjorie Saylor, who is a leader in the anti-trafficking movement and works with other survivors as president of the Survivor Leader Network of San Diego, drove this point home when she said,  “The general consensus from survivors like myself is that no one would do this voluntarily if other options were made available. No one grows up dreaming about selling their body for money. In fact, the large majority end up in the lifestyle due to early childhood sexual abuse.”

It’s true that some women and men identify as independent sex workers – meaning that they are not working under the control of a pimp or trafficker.

Some of my clients worked independently at different points, “renegading” as some of them call it. But none of them entered that industry voluntarily – there was always someone who recruited them. In order to get them to do this, that person often exploited a vulnerability.

This is a complex societal issue that is being oversimplified by this debate.

Many of the survivors I work with first started when they were minors. According to a 2016 research study by researchers at the University of San Diego and Point Loma Nazarene University, the average age of entry into San Diego’s underground sex economy is 16 years old. Some of them were first recruited into sex work when they were far younger than 16.

Under state and federal law, a commercial sex act involving a minor is human trafficking. That’s because a minor cannot consent to be sold for sex. An adult is sex trafficked when she or he is compelled to engage in a commercial sex act by force, fraud or coercion.

Many minors currently being sex trafficked do not see themselves as victims. They believe this is something they are choosing. But the reality is that many forces outside of their control placed them on this path.

Some were foster youth, homeless and/or runaways. Many experienced complex childhood trauma, including molestation, rape, domestic violence. And for others, their only vulnerability was being a 15-year-old girl looking for love when an older guy convinced her that he loved her. He told her that this is something she is doing to support their relationship. He used drugs to get her to do it. She gave him all of the money that was made using her body.Even in the face of this reality, she may not identify as a victim. We ask each of our clients, “Did you give the money you made to someone else?” The vast majority answer “yes.” If they were “lucky,” they were allowed to keep a little money for condoms and food. Others did not get a penny and had to steal to satisfy their most basic needs.

To make matters worse, many of them develop criminal records that impede their ability to get out. They decide to leave, only to be rejected by employer after employer because of their criminal records. Their criminal records may also disqualify them from low-income housing and federal college loans.  Landlords also run criminal background checks and often will not rent to individuals with criminal records. All of these barriers make it harder for survivors to obtain stable housing and gain financial independence.

Whether voluntary or not, these barriers make it all but impossible for those looking to leave this industry to pursue other career paths.

Rather than debate whether or not there is such a thing as voluntary sex work, we should be asking, “What can we do to address the underlying risk factors that contribute to sex trafficking?”

That is a much more challenging question. That would involve prevention education in every classroom, at every school in the county. It would mean fixing our broken foster system and supporting successful futures for former foster youth. We would need to get rid of the 110 gangs in San Diego involved in sex trafficking. It would mean eliminating homelessness and ending domestic violence. It would require businesses to hire former sex workers and landlords to rent to them, even if they have criminal records. It would mean creating a society where people do not buy or sell other people for sex.

Let’s have that discussion instead.

Jamie Quient is president and managing attorney of Free to Thrive, a nonprofit that provides legal assistance and other support to human trafficking survivors.

Disclosure: Free to Thrive has received grant funding from San Diego County that is administered by the district attorney’s office. 

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