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The differences between prostitution and sex trafficking

On Behalf of | Mar 13, 2024 | Criminal Defense, Federal Criminal Defense, Human Trafficking

Criminal defense attorneys encounter cases involving prostitution and sex trafficking regularly. While people may sometimes use these terms interchangeably, they refer to different things.

It is crucial to know the differences between these two crimes, especially as it relates to the safety of individuals, women, foreign individuals brought in for human trafficking purposes and, even worse, minors who are exploited.


This involves the exchange of sexual services for money or goods. It is when someone engages in sexual activities for compensation of some kind.

Prostitution includes activities like escorting, street solicitation and working in brothels. The most important components of this crime that differentiate it from sex trafficking are:

  1. Consent
  2. Legal status
  3. Autonomy

In prostitution, people engage in sexual activities willingly and voluntarily. At least at first. This does not mean that a crime of prostitution could turn into a crime of sex trafficking.

The legality of prostitution varies around the world and even within the United States. Some places have decriminalized prostitution, although most places criminalize it.

Sex trafficking

Sex trafficking is the exploitation and coercion of people into engaging in commercial sexual activities.

Exploitation can take various forms, including the use of force, coercion or fraudulent activities. Traffickers often manipulate and deceive victims into participating in these activities of sex trafficking.

Elements of sex trafficking

  1. Lack of consent
  2. Exploitation
  3. Legal status

Key differences

The most significant differences between these two crimes, in the eyes of the law, are:

  • Consent vs. coercion
  • Autonomy vs. control
  • The legal status of prostitution varies, but sex trafficking is almost universally condemned.

Walking on thin ice

One of the significant problems with prostitution is that, sometimes, it can turn into sex trafficking. For example, a person who initially engaged in sexual activities willingly and voluntarily for money may change their mind but be prohibited from leaving.

This can happen often because people who engage in these acts are part of a community of individuals who work in the same business, and there is often someone who manages that business.

If the individual managing the business, for example, refuses to allow the person to leave voluntarily and without harm, the crime does not turn into sex trafficking.

If someone forces an individual to remain in that business against their will, without their consent and through exploitation such as force or coercion, authorities can easily classify the crime as sex trafficking.

While people often think of prostitution and sex trafficking as the same thing, they are different crimes. However, it is critical to understand that one crime can easily lead to another. For more information, be sure to contact an attorney who understands these crimes, the subtle differences between the two and who can advocate for you if you need it.