05/08/2015 11:52 EDT | Updated 05/08/2016 05:59 EDT

Most Sex Workers and Smuggled Migrants Aren't Being "Trafficked"

What's going on in Libya is not trafficking, but a large-scale effort to smuggle migrants into Europe by men who are often greedy and unscrupulous. In the vast majority of cases, they are smuggling these migrants at their own request. A similar confusion with nomenclature applies to the debate over sex trafficking. There's a problem with calling something by the wrong name.

A prostitute stands along a street in Fortaleza, Ceara State, northeastern Brazil, on April 16, 2013. AFP PHOTO/Yasuyoshi CHIBA (Photo credit should read YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP/Getty Images)

Even some of the most respected news outlets in the United States are getting it wrong. In a recent Talk of the Town article in the New Yorker, Philip Gourevitch referred to the men who are smuggling migrants from Africa to Europe as traffickers instead of what they really are: smugglers.

And the headline of a New York Times article this week on the same crisis blared, "African Children Caught in Trafficking Machine." The print article itself referred to such children as "being innocent victims of the human trafficking machine that is now sucking so many African migrants into the Libyan maelstrom and out onto the Mediterranean waters."

The problem is that the men who are charging exorbitant rates to ferry migrants into Europe are not by and large traffickers; they are smugglers being paid to transport people who are desperate to escape to Europe for economic or political reasons.

The United States government defines trafficking as "the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision or obtaining of a person for labor or services through the use of force, fraud or coercion." What's going on in Libya is not trafficking, but a large-scale effort to smuggle migrants into Europe by men who are often greedy and unscrupulous. But these smugglers are not harbouring or transporting the vast majority of people for labour by force, fraud or coercion. In the vast majority of cases, they are smuggling these migrants at their own request. (In recognition of this, an editor at the Times changed the reference in the online text of the article mentioned above from trafficking to smuggling, but the headline and caption remain inaccurate.)

A similar confusion with nomenclature applies to the debate over sex trafficking, particularly in the United States. While there is no question that trafficking for the purposes of commercial sex exists here and abroad, some anti-trafficking groups have deliberately conflated trafficking with prostitution by women and men who do sex work by choice.

As I found in researching my forthcoming book, Getting Screwed: Sex Workers and the Law (Fall 2015), anti-trafficking groups like the Coalition Against Trafficking of Women (CATW) not only spew wildly inflated statistics about the number of women and children being trafficked in the United States; they also argue that the vast majority of sex workers in this country are trafficking victims. And that's simply not true. Studies show that most sex workers in the developed world are in the profession by choice, not because they are trafficked.

Yet even federal and state agencies do not distinguish between consensual prostitution and actual trafficking cases, according to experts on human trafficking. As Jay Albanese, a professor of criminology in the Wilder School of Government and Public Policy at Virginia Commonwealth University, told me when I was researching my book, "There is an underlying conceptual problem distinguishing between consensual prostitution and human trafficking. These terms are mixed together on the State Department website."

Indeed, anti-trafficking groups acknowledge that they now use the term, trafficking, for what used to be called pimping. "The traffickers used to be called abusive pimps," says Andrea Powell, the executive director of FAIR Girls, a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C. that provides services to girls and women who have been sexually exploited. "We're talking about American girls who are being exploited in their own communities."

Powell says the new nomenclature is more effective in arousing public concern. "When you say pimp, it doesn't have the magnitude of saying sex trafficking," she says.

But there's a problem with calling something by the wrong name, say those who study the issue: it obscures the real reasons why youngsters and adults sell sex. And that, in turn, impedes efforts to truly help people who are being exploited. For example, when you insist that everyone who sells sex is being trafficked, the natural tendency is to put money and resources into rescuing trafficking victims (often by arresting them) and penalizing people who may or may not be traffickers, rather than putting the resources into addressing the root causes of why young men and women sell sex: dysfunctional families, drug abuse, empowerment and economic need.

"Putting a focus on the prostitution end of things makes people think that the solution is getting them out of prostitution," says David Finkelhor, a professor of sociology and director of the Crimes against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. "My sense is this is not the way these kids see themselves or their problems either. If you're defining a problem differently from the target population you're trying to help, that's often a recipe for failure."

And that, of course, is the primary problem with the human trafficking bill that was stalled for weeks in the Senate and finally passed last month. Much of the money in that bill and similar state initiatives go into the coffers of law enforcement rather than funding desperately needed social services for teenage runaways who are the main targets of pimps or, as Powell prefers to say, traffickers. If we want to tackle the age-old problem of sexual exploitation (or smuggling), first we need to call it by its correct name.


Photo gallery 21 Worst Countries For Human Trafficking See Gallery
America Votes
The latest polls, breaking news and analysis on the U.S. election from HuffPost’s Washington, D.C. bureau