In early 2020 Dr. Jill McCracken, Professor of English and Women and Gender Studies at the University of South Florida, received a $50,000 grant from the Proteus Fund to explore prostitution and trafficking legislation and policies in the United States and document their impact on those who are most affected by existing legislation: consensual sex workers, victims of trafficking, and those whose experiences intersect with both categories. Extensive research documents the conflation of adult consensual sex work and trafficking in the sex industry. Victims of trafficking are convicted of crimes and adult consensual sex workers are often labeled victims. This conflation contributes to current domestic policies that fail both victims and adult consensual sex workers. There is, however, significantly less research focused on the actual individuals whose lives have been most affected by this complex intersection of identities, specifically self-identified victims of sex trafficking and/or sellers of consensual sex that have been arrested and/or convicted of a prostitution-related charge.
This one-of-kind study aims to fill that lacuna regarding the overlaps between choice and coercion by talking to individuals who have lived experience as consensual sex workers and trafficking victims.
Using a mixed methods approach, including survey analysis, in-depth interviews, focus groups, and qualitative data analysis, this grant-funded study, “The Stories We Deny in Mainstream Understandings of Prostitution and Trafficking in the Sex Industry” began gathering data in late 2020. The original grant study plan was to recruit 50 to 60 individuals from throughout the U.S. who represent a range of demographics, experiences, criminal arrests and convictions, and locations and to use that information to educate the public and inform policy recommendations and legislation.
In the year since the project launched, however, the political and societal conversations surrounding these topics have expanded and become more complicated. Sex workers and victims of trafficking also have become more vocal as advocates for themselves and support for decriminalization efforts have expanded. Dr. McCracken realized, if the ongoing grant study was to accurately reflect the realities of both sex work and trafficking and offer credible evidence-based recommendations in this rapidly shifting contextual reality, it needed to expand as well. The Proteus Fund agreed with the need to expand the study and in the summer of 2021, it extended the grant and provided an additional $100,000 in grant funds. The project’s original foundation remains essentially the same: create a space where individuals working in, and/or victimized by, the sex industry can tell their stories in order to analyze how these stories may confront and contradict the legal, political, and media representations of trafficking and prostitution.
The extended study continues to recruit people who have engaged in all areas of illegal sex work, including street-based sex work, escorting, and massage parlors, but it is also seeks to widen the pool of participants to include underserved, possibly undocumented, and less accessible populations including those whose primary language is not English.
As Dr. McCracken notes, “This research will allow us to gain knowledge from the individuals most affected and knowledgeable about the overlaps between choice and exploitation. 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).”
Ultimately, the goal is to use that information to educate the public and inform policy recommendations and legislation so that existing prostitution and trafficking legislation and policy can be improved.