Can You Tell the Difference Between Work and Slavery?

Crimes Against Humanity is an attempt to shine a light on the impact of human trafficking on our collective identity. I hope these posts start a thoughtful discussion about the way systemic slavery defines our political, social and economic realities. While I plan to explore this painful topic from different angles, the relationship between oppressive sexual negativity and human trafficking will be my main focus.

work not slaveryHuman trafficking takes many forms. It includes oppressed farm workers trapped in brutal conditions, child brides sold by their families, and sweatshop workers dying in smartphone factories. Any physical labor situation where people can be exploited is a breeding ground for the worst expression of human greed. Sexual slavery might be the most blatant and graphic type of abuse, but is every sex worker a sex slave?

Sex work encompasses a wide variety of jobs. It includes the obvious fields of prostitution and pornography, related positions like stripper and bikini barista, and the more isolated roles of phone and webcam sex. The conditions workers encounter in these jobs runs the gamut. There is also a wide disparity in pay scales. While all these jobs trade in sexual expression, it is difficult to lump them together as a single employment experience.

Unfortunately, many opponents of human trafficking believe that all sex work is sex slavery. They label every sex worker as a victim. They promote policies that define all sexual economics as malicious. In attempting to help sexual slaves, they hurt sex professionals.

When I was writing my novels on the subject, I made a clear distinction between sex slavery and sex work based on individual agency. Here’s the difference:

Sexual Slavery

  • Sex slavery is a system of brutality that destroys the lives of women, children and men.
  • It exploits people by forcing them to perform sexual acts for the benefit of others.
  • Sex slaves have no freedom to enter or leave the situation on their own terms
  • They cannot set the parameters for their labor
  • They are not paid for their work
  • They risk abuse and violence if they do not work

Sex Work

  • Sex work is an activity that can provide financial benefits for consenting adult men and women regardless of their background, education or race.
  • Empowers people by allowing them to perform sexual acts for their own financial benefit
  • Sex workers are free to enter or leave the job on their own terms
  • They can decide what acts they will or will not perform
  • They are paid for their work
  • They suffer no negative consequences for not working beyond not being paid

This breakdown isn’t necessary from a logical standpoint. We know a slave working on a plantation is not the same as a farmer working on a farm. We understand that a sweatshop worker isn’t in the same situation as a union factory worker. But for some reason, a sex slave and a sex worker are treated the same way by society and the legal system.

The reason for this double standard is not the difference between slavery and independent agency. It comes from the American discomfort with sexuality.
If we label all sex work as negative, then we don’t have to face the individual and collective impact of sexual desire on our daily lives. If we reject all sex work as abusive, then we can pretend that sexual expression is all about romance and procreation. If we push sex work underground, we can continue our perpetual denial of sexual reality.

This denial has a price. The rejection of sexual agency is a cancer in the workplace, where men in power feel they have the right to sexually abuse anyone who works for or with them. It promotes elements of rape culture from the persistent cat calling to slut shaming to pedophilia. It punishes people who choose to use their sexual expression as an economic resource and fails to protect the people who are forced into sexual situations against their will.

I promote a nuanced alternative. I support the rescue of sex slaves and advocate their protection from unjust legal punishment as well as from slave traders and their clients. At the same time, I support the sex positive independent agency of any consenting adult who chooses to work in the sex industry.

Economic independence takes many forms. It can be students doing odd jobs for cash, investing in promising ideas or starting your own business. Any good, service or idea has the potential for lucrative innovation. Not every sex worker is a sex slave. Recognizing this fact will help both people in the sex industry and society as a whole.

If you’d like to find out more about organizations dedicated to rescuing sex slaves, please visit Girls Educational and Mentoring Services (GEMS) at If you’d like to learn more about legal rights for sex workers, please visit COYOTE at

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Gamal HennesseyAbout the Author

Gamal Hennessy is an entertainment attorney and author from New York City. His legal work focused on helping independent artists in publishing, music, and film benefit from their creativity. His Crime and Passion novels explore the darker elements of personality and society against the backdrop of international sex slavery.

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