The Malta Independent 22 September 2021, Wednesday

Sex workers – prostitutes or victims of human trafficking?

Thursday, 22 July 2021, 07:10 Last update: about 3 months ago

Mark Said

Rita* is 24. Born into a poor family, she is married off at 17 and had three children. After her husband left their family, it is up to her to provide for herself and her children. Without an education or job opportunities, Rita reluctantly goes to Ta’ Xbiex and starts to prostitute at a bar. She puts aside the small amount she receives to provide for her children. It is not the life she would choose for herself, but she does not see another way.


Galina* is 15 and a Ukrainian citizen. Also poor and uneducated, she wants to help her family survive after a bad crop leaves them in terrible debt. A man from her village says he can get her a job as a chambermaid in the Maltese Islands. She gets in a taxi, is transported across borders until she arrives in Malta where she does not speak the language and is then sold into a brothel where she is forced to have sex with a number of men every night. Her virginity is sold for a few hundred Euros. She has no money and no passport to get back home.

Rita and Galina are both affected by poverty and social exploitation. Both have been given few choices and opportunities in life. But Rita is a willing participant in the sex industry and Galina is a victim of human trafficking. They both need help finding their way out, and they both need compassion. But their situation is not the same.

Whether through direct exploitation, because of poverty or abuse, or by choice, they use prostitution as a means for income. On the other end of the spectrum are human trafficking victims — those forced into the sex industry against their will by some measure of force, fraud, or coercion. And then, there is a broad expanse of grey-listing (excuse the pun!) where the line between choice and force, between the sex industry and human trafficking, is indistinguishable.

The issue becomes complicated when, on the one hand, you have, on an international and national level, a greater emphasis put on the fight against human trafficking and, on the other hand, on a national level, countries like Malta having a vociferous chorus pleading for the decriminalisation of prostitution. We had the Coalition on Human Trafficking and Prostitution Reform calling on Minister Owen Bonnici to ‘reflect’ on the government’s position on the full decriminalisation of prostitution. It urged him to change the government’s position which failed to acknowledge, much less address, the many perverse and damaging consequences that this course inevitably will steer us towards. Perhaps there is a great lack of knowledge on how prostitution and human trafficking are intricately intertwined.

Human traffickers use force, fraud or coercion to exploit trafficking victims across the country. The victims may be Maltese citizens plunging freely into the world of prostitution or immigrants attracted by the promise of a job or better life. Traffickers make them work in the commercial sex trade or in restaurants, the hospitality industry or households, or as migrant or seasonal workers, for little or no pay. With traffickers using various methods to control them, from confiscating documents to threatening violence, these victims may see no way out.

Prostitution as a free and lawful choice by women in no way extricates them from the dangerous and criminal clutches of human traffickers. No woman freely choosing to prostitute herself as a sex worker can go it alone. This should be an undeniable fact, and no matter how much legislative instruments aim to close or eliminate the gap between lawlessness and legality of the industry, the dangers remain lurking in society.

The formula for human trafficking includes a victim's vulnerability being exploited by an often-sophisticated strategy of recruitment, manipulation, intimidation and abuse. Although victims may not wear shackles on their hands or feet, human trafficking is modern-day slavery. It is a crime hidden in plain sight, because victims may look "normal" and even interact with the community. But their trauma and fear keeps them from seeking help, and few of us are equipped to detect the warning signs.

Prostitution, even for willing participants, is a difficult reality. Many women, particularly those living in impoverished areas, easily turn to prostitution because there may be very little economic opportunities elsewhere. An uneducated woman can make fast money, more so if she is under pressure to provide for her family, or is living within the widespread cultural acceptance of the sex industry. Prostitution quickly becomes a viable option — sometimes seemingly the only one. Even if individuals choose this profession, it still remains a dangerous one full of exploitive and demeaning circumstances.

Along the continuum of sexual exploitation, there will be individuals who choose prostitution as a means of income, but end up subtly controlled and threatened by a pimp. There will be minors who will sell themselves by choice but are technically classified as human trafficking victims because of their age. And there will be others who on the outside appear to be “willing prostitutes”, but who will actually be paying off a debt to the brothel — sometimes understanding and even agreeing to the debt repayment structure.

There is a fine connection between prostitution and sex trafficking. Most people recognise sex trafficking as a serious human rights violation, but what about prostitution? There is sometimes a perception of sex trafficking and prostitution as two separate and unrelated issues, with trafficking being viewed as forced, and prostitution as freely chosen. However, the two are intrinsically connected - the demand for prostitution fuels sex trafficking.

Legalised prostitution may lead to an expansion of the prostitution market, increasing human trafficking. Prostitution and trafficking are a joint phenomenon. There can never be such a thing as clean, good and lawful prostitution. Prostitution and sex trafficking are intrinsically linked: you have one because of the other.


*Characters in this article are not real.


Dr Mark Said is an advocate

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