Trafficking for sexual exploitation -

I. Our work supporting the full decriminalization of sex work to prevent trafficking

Freedom United supports the full decriminalization of sex work as an approach to building resilience to trafficking for sexual exploitation.

Leading human rights organizations, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, advocate for full decriminalization of sex work and the need to establish clear legal distinctions between consensual sex work and crimes like human trafficking and sexual exploitation of children.

Negating that crucial difference risks undermining trafficking prevention strategies and identifying and protecting trafficking survivors. Read more about Freedom United’s work supporting decriminalization:

II. What is trafficking for sexual exploitation?

According to the main international anti-trafficking law, known as the Palermo Protocol, human trafficking is defined as:

“The recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation.”

United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) identifies three main elements present in human trafficking: act, means and purpose.

The Act (What is done): recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons. The Means (How it is done): threat or use of force, coercion, abduction, fraud, deception, abuse of power or vulnerability, or giving payments or benefits to a person in control of the victim. The Purpose (Why it is done): for the purpose of exploitation, which includes exploiting the prostitution of others, sexual exploitation, forced labour, slavery or similar practices and the removal of organs.”

Though illegal in every country, girls, boys, women, and men are trafficked for the purpose of sexual exploitation around the world. While largely excluded from official statistics, this includes LGBTQ people as well.

Trafficking for sexual exploitation remains a significant problem. UNODC Global Report on Trafficking in Persons report 2020 found that over 50% of the 49,032 detected victims reported had been trafficked for sexual exploitation.

Policy responses that prevent sex trafficking, rather than penalising perpetrators after the event, are necessary to build resilience to trafficking for sexual exploitation. We know that sex workers can be stigmatized, criminalized and suffer discrimination in large parts of the world, thus less likely to seek help or cooperate with authorities.

Furthermore, the conflation of trafficking for sexual exploitation and sex work serves to further obscure the crucial difference between informed, consensual sex acts between adults and trafficking. This only succeeds in undermining trafficking prevention strategies, preventing survivors from being identified and harming sex workers who are mistakenly identified as trafficking survivors.

Ben Chapman-Schmidt also considers how the term ‘sex trafficking’ is used in the U.S.:

“The legal reality in the United States is that ‘sex trafficking’  refers to the illegal buying and selling of sex. This means that ‘sex traffickers’ are not only the people running brothels or taking a cut of the profits for sex workers, but also the clients of sex workers. They are also, legally speaking, the sex workers themselves.”

By doing so, sex workers are either criminalized or labelled a victim of trafficking, automatically removing their agency to advocate for their rights while doing little to address exploitation in the industry.

Take a look at some recent news stories on sexual exploitation around the world and how it relates to trafficking:

III. Building resilience to trafficking for sexual exploitation

Freedom United stands firmly against trafficking for sexual exploitation and all forms of modern slavery.

Different policy approaches to sex work such as legalization, sex purchase ban models and decriminalization have been implemented around the world to address trafficking for sexual exploitation and better protect sex worker from abuse and exploitation.

Here, we break down how each of these approaches could impact trafficking.


The legalization, or regulationism, approach to sex work means that the sex industry “is controlled by the government and is legal only under certain state-specified conditions”, as well as the “introduction of laws and policies specific to sex work to formally regulate it.”

Esta Steyn from anti-trafficking organization, Be Slavery Free, shared her views on why the legalization approach in the context of the Netherlands has not been effective in curbing trafficking:

“Before 2000 buying and selling of sexual services was already legal in the Netherlands, brothels and pimping were prohibited. The reason the exploitation of prostitution was legalised, is because it was clear that condoning prostitution had not worked. It created routes for investing dirty money, to let illegal immigrants work, and to block supervision of the tax department, police and frontline professionals. It was thought that legalising the exploitation of the sex industry would solve this. It has been a complete failure.

It has made life so much easier for human traffickers. They simply have to choose people over 18 and the courts will have a hell of a time proving that this person was exploited. It is so extremely difficult to prove that a person was exploited. It’s usually not black and white at all. A victim will often feel that they are not a victim because they said yes to their trafficker and willingly worked for them. A good friend of mine who was exploited in the sex industry for 5 years, who never got a penny of the money she earned, still felt that she was not exploited. She loved her trafficker and willingly did this work for him. It took her 15 years, before she could admit to herself that she was exploited.”

Read more from Esta Steyn here.

Chi Adanna Mgbako, clinical professor of law and director of the Walter Leitner International Human Rights Clinic at Fordham Law School writes in her paper ‘The Mainstreaming of Sex Workers’ Rights as Human Rights’:


“Under legalization, the sale and purchase of sex and sex work-related activities are legal only in certain highly regulated circumstances that often include restrictive requirements like mandatory health tests or public registration of sex workers. Sex workers and third parties who refuse or cannot adhere to these requirements remain criminalized.”


The criminalization of sex workers under the legalization model, if they do not comply with state-mandated requirements, remains a cause for concern. A review of the Netherlands in 2016 by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women acknowledged this harm by recommending:

“Ensure that, upon the adoption of the bill on the regulation of prostitution and combating abuse in the sex industry, municipal authorities are closely monitored to ensure that they do not illegally enforce the registration of women in prostitution.”


Sex purchase ban model or Nordic model

Sex purchase ban models aim to decriminalize the person selling sexual services but criminalize the buyer of sexual services.

Research into the effects of the Nordic model on the erosion of protections from the risk of trafficking and exploitation, as well as data collected by national governments, human rights advocates and intergovernmental agencies, all point away from this as an effective solution.

Instead of protecting women engaging in sex work from violence, this model pushes sex workers underground where they are more likely to be vulnerable to violence, exploitation, abuse and trafficking and are less likely to report to the police and seek help.

Further reading on the impact of the Nordic Model on sex trafficking:



Decriminalization of sex work is the “removal of laws and policies criminalizing or penalizing sex work.”

Leading human rights organizations, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, advocate for full decriminalization of sex work and the need to establish clear legal distinctions between consensual sex work and crimes like human trafficking and sexual exploitation of children.

Furthermore, Amnesty International explains how the criminalization of sex work may not necessarily further women’s rights and dismantle gender inequality:

“Gender inequality can have a major influence on women’s entry into sex work; but criminalization does not address this—it just makes their lives less safe. The same is true for transgender and male sex workers – many of whom are gay or bisexual –  who experience discrimination and inequality. States must combat discrimination and harmful gender stereotypes, empower women and other marginalised groups, and ensure that no one lacks viable alternatives for making a living.”

In February 2021, we hosted an online event with an expert panel of speakers on this topic and published questions and answers that we didn’t have time to address during the event.

Watch our event, ‘Taking the trafficking out sex work’, below and click here to read responses to questions asked during the Q&A section.

In March 2021, 250 of the world’s leading researchers and scientists from around the world sent an open letter to the U.S. Biden administration urging decision-makers to support the decriminalization of sex work. We support this call and believe that evidence-based legislation will better prevent sex trafficking.

We are concerned with the degree of exploitation in the industry, and that’s why we firmly believe that the sex industry should have strong protections in place to prevent trafficking and exploitation.

IV. How Freedom United addresses trafficking for sexual exploitation

Freedom United works to tackle trafficking for sexual exploitation through campaigns calling for systemic change. Take a look at some of our most recent campaigns and sign the petition calling for better protections for runaway and homeless youth in the U.S.

Protect runaway and homeless youth

An estimated 700,000 children experience homelessness each year in the United States, and nearly 1 in 5 homeless youth have been a victim of human trafficking according to a report from an international network of homeless youth service providers.

Traffickers target marginalized runaway and homeless youth, especially those who are LGBTQ or youth of color, trafficking them for sexual exploitation or labor exploitation in exchange for food and shelter.

Our campaign focuses on urging Congress to reauthorize the Runaway and Homeless Youth Trafficking Prevention Act, which provides resources for helping identify and support trafficking survivors and critical funding for social services.

Sign the petition.

End the criminalization of child sex trafficking victims

Our campaign aimed to secure the passage of New Hampshire House Bill 189, which exempts child victims from facing criminal penalties for non-violent offenses committed as a result of human trafficking, and to build public support and bring attention to the bill to encourage other states to enact similar legislation.

New Hampshire House Bill 189 extended protections for survivors of child sex trafficking to prevent them from being charged for “any other misdemeanor or non-violent class B felony, where the conduct was committed as a direct result of being trafficked.”

These criminal records would follow children the rest of their lives, presenting barriers to obtaining safe and stable housing and employment. Freedom United partnered with Shared Hope International and Care2 on this campaign, and since the launch 79,725 people signed the petition— illustrating clear public support for ending the criminalization of child trafficking victims. We delivered our petition signatures to Governor Chris Sununu in June 2019, and on July 1, the Governor signed House Bill 189 into law, making New Hampshire a leader in supporting survivors of human trafficking.

Read field report.

Visa, Mastercard, Discover: reject Pornhub and trafficking

We launched our campaign targeting Visa, Mastercard, and Discover as they all processed payments on Pornhub’s site — thereby earning profits — despite evidence that videos of trafficked individuals had been uploaded, where they could be viewed and consumed by millions. Despite pleas from survivors, Pornhub had yet to take action to remove these videos or take strong action to prevent content depicting trafficked individuals from being shared on their site.

The Freedom United community sent 19,188 messages to Visa, Mastercard, and Discover urging them to cut ties with Pornhub and avoid being complicit in trafficking. By December 15, 2020, all three credit card companies had suspended processing payments on Pornhub’s site. Mastercard has severed ties with Pornhub and Visa has suspended the use of their cards on the site pending an internal investigation into content on Pornhub.

Discover issued a statement that it will terminate card acceptance from merchants that allow illegal or prohibited content. This move then prompted Pornhub to implement changes to their site, including only allowing verified users to post videos, banning downloads and increasing moderation of content. Through our analysis, we believe Pornhub’s new changes can help prevent the monetization of trafficking survivors’ experiences and recommend credit card companies resume accepting payments.

Read field report.

Check out other Freedom United campaigns on trafficking for sexual exploitation here. 

V. Trafficking for sexual exploitation myths

The perpetuation of common myths about trafficking for sexual exploitation can undermine trafficking prevention strategies and prevent trafficking survivors from being identified and supported.

Watch the International Organization for Migration’s video series breaking down some of these common myths.

Myth: Trafficking for sexual exploitation only happens to girls

Myth : Victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation are usually kidnapped

Myth : Raids to rescue of trafficking of sexual exploitation victims have positive consequences

VI. Learn more

Want to learn more? Take a look at these resources to explore the issue of trafficking for sexual exploitation in more depth.