We must address women’s inequality in order to address health concerns in sex trafficking

November 28, 2013
Sarah M Mah

In response to Kathleen Wirth's November 28th, 2013 article in the New York Times, "The Role of Sex Trafficking".

Sex trafficking is clearly both a violation of human rights and a public health issue that disproportionately impacts women and children. However, what is often ignored in the debate of how we reduce the spread of sexually transmitted infections is the root cause of such phenomena – namely, the global role of women’s inequality.

Kathleen Wirth’s article draws a frail distinction between forced prostitution or trafficking - that is devastating and poses the health risk, and so-called “sex work”, which has the same dangers, the same health risks, and is so highly coercive that consent is unfeasible. The vast majority of the women and children recruited into prostitution and sex trafficking are poor women of color that lack viable choices and opportunities. Wirth also goes on to imply that non-profit organizations rely on inaccurately inflated numbers of trafficking victims, while epidemiologists conduct the “methodologically rigorous studies that have examined sex trafficking." However, many of these organizations work on the frontlines assisting women and children in the trade, and collect these numbers first hand.

In fact, there is no debate in the literature that prostitution and sex trafficking, forced or not, is inherently dangerous. The real debate is whether we reduce, or eliminate the danger to women and girls, and the consensus among equality-seeking groups and activists has been that we must abolish the trade in order to eliminate this danger. Sex trafficking is intimately connected to prostitution, fueling the sex industry that exists in destination countries with more bodies, and this is particularly evident in the fact that countries which have legalized the sex industry experience increased sex trafficking, which has been observed by frontline women’s organizations1 and shown in the research2.

While any discussion of the sex trade’s public health implications is both worthwhile and necessary to improving the lives of women and children around the world, we need not ignore the overwhelming link between prostitution and trafficking, the sex trade’s particular devastation on the impoverished and racialized, nor alienate the many front-line women’s organizations from the discussion. Prostitution is a practice that is rooted in women's inequality, and we must consider all of the information we have about prostitution, as researchers and as global citizens, to substantively advance the rights, health, and wellbeing of women and girls.


1O'Connor, Monica, and Grainne Healy. "The links between prostitution and sex trafficking: a briefing handbook." (2006): 2008.

2Cho, Seo-Young, Axel Dreher, and Eric Neumayer. "Does legalized prostitution increase human trafficking?." World development (2012).