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COMPLEX RIGHTS AND WRONGS: THE STORIES WE DENY IN MAINSTREAM UNDERSTANDINGS OF PROSTITUTION AND TRAFFICKING IN THE SEX INDUSTRY

Dr. Jill McCracken, Professor of English and Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of South Florida, is currently involved in a study that explores how U.S. legislative and carceral approaches to trafficking in the sex industry (‘sex trafficking’) impact victims of trafficking and adult consensual sex workers. Specifically, the study team will be working with people who have been convicted of prostitution/trafficking (or prostitution/trafficking-related charges), traded erotic or sexual services consensually as an adult, and/or been a victim of sex trafficking.

“Ultimately, we hope to determine if and how prostitution and sex trafficking are conflated in the arrests and convictions of adult consensual sex workers, victims of trafficking, and people convicted of trafficking,” says Dr. McCracken. “There is extensive research that documents the conflation of consensual prostitution and trafficking in the sex industry, but much less research examines the unique intersections of our target population—self-identified victims of sex trafficking and/or sellers of consensual sex that have been convicted of a prostitution-related charge.”

Current domestic policy surrounding sex trafficking and prostitution does not reflect the complex nature of the intersections of identities and in fact purports a conflation with consensual sex work to victimhood, thereby limiting the interventions and resources available to the workers themselves. This inaccurate conflation informs policy such that victims of trafficking are convicted of crimes, consensual sex workers are labeled victims, and there is no room for those identities to intersect even though it is common for victims of trafficking to later in life return to consensual sex work (and vice versa).

There are national and international debates about prostitution and sex trafficking legislation, and these conversations must be informed by the lived experience of people who have chosen to engage in sex work and have also been exploited through trafficking.

A research team in 2017 conducted 316 interviews1 with adults involved in New York City’s multifaceted sex trade and found a “murky and mutable continuum between involvement due to force and choice.”

To her knowledge, the proposed study is the only one of its kind, and it will include participants that navigate a variety of identities, including “victim”, “criminal”, and “independent consensual sex worker.”

“This research will allow us to gain knowledge from the individuals most affected and knowledgeable about the overlaps between choice and exploitation and to use that information to inform policy recommendations and legislation,” explains Dr. McCracken.

This study uses a mixed methods approach and includes survey analysis, in-depth interviews, focus groups, and qualitative data analysis. Based on a broad recruitment of individuals from throughout the US who represent a range of demographics, experiences, criminal arrests and convictions, and locations, we will analyze how 50-60 participants understand the differences between adult consensual sex work, exploitation, and trafficking in the sex industry and how their experiences in the criminal legal system reflect their understanding of their involvement in the sex industry.

“We will then compare their experiences to their documented charges and convictions and analyze how their charges and convictions reflect their lived experiences in the sex industry (whether by choice, exploitation, or force). Finally, we will document how the criminal legislative approaches (including charges and convictions) have impacted people in the sex industry (by choice, coercion, and force).”


1Reference White, E., Swaner, R., Genetta, E., Hynynen Lambson, S., Johnson Dash, J., Sederbaum, I., & Wolf, A. (2017). Navigating force and choice: Experiences in the New York City sex trade and the criminal justice system's response. New York: Center for Court Innovation.

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The College of Arts and Sciences is the intellectual heart of the University of South Florida. We are a community of teachers and scholars united in the belief that broadly educated people are the basis of a just, free, and prosperous society. By focusing on the big questions facing all of humanity, we prepare students for successful, socially responsible personal and professional lives. By conducting innovative, interdisciplinary research and scholarship, we advance knowledge in ways that prepare us to address complex social and scientific problems and enhance the quality of life for people and communities.