Biljana Meshkovska


The discussion as to whether or not sex work can be a choice a woman makes, or whether it should always be considered as violence against women is still ongoing, and has its continuing influence on the issue of human trafficking. In this short article I outline some of the positions on this topic, and the latest literature that attempts to link the legalisation of sex work with a rise of human trafficking. By discussing some of my own experiences from doing research in the area of (re)integration of trafficking survivors, I raise the (as of yet) unanswered question: how is sex work approached within the context of human trafficking in practice, and what of those survivors that go back to sex work, following a trafficking experience?

My research for the last five years has focused on (re)integration processes of women that have been trafficked, from and within Europe, for the purpose of sexual exploitation. Throughout my work, in addition to speaking to trafficked persons, I have also interviewed persons that have been in direct contact with survivors. My very first conversation was with a police official, who stated the following:

I was once interviewing two prostitutes, who had been trafficked. And we arrested the trafficker, and after the statement, I asked them, where do you want to go? Do you want to go to the shelter, or where should we drop you off? Well, you can drop me off at the red light district, she said. … That’s strange, because you just made a statement, that you didn’t like your job, it was horrible, etc, etc. Yes, but now I can keep the money for myself [she answered].
-Interview, Police Official, Netherlands, 4 November 2013

I must admit that it was a surprise to me as well, to hear that a woman that was just identified as a victim of human trafficking would go back to the environment that seemed to be the source of her exploitation. However, further fieldwork made me realise that this was in no way a rare occurrence. This raised two questions I saw as having great relevance for (re)integration processes of trafficking survivors: how is sex work approached within the context of human trafficking; and what of those survivors who go back to sex work, following a trafficking experience? There have been some attempts to answer the first question, but unfortunately, none to address the second.

There are two distinct approaches by advocates, to the issue of sex work overall. The abolitionist approach sees all sex work as forced and as a form of violence against women, and as such campaigns for its abolition. On the other hand, the pro ‘sex work’ camp sees sex work as any other type of labor, pushing for equal rights of sex workers to those of other labourers, free of the stigma surrounding the term ‘prostitution’. For this group, sex work is seen as the selling of sex for a fee, which is to be clearly distinguished from trafficking that involves fraud, coercion and/or force (Farrell and Cronin, 2015).

Recently, there has been a flurry of large scale, multiple country, quantitative studies, trying to link the legalisation of sex work with the prevalence of human trafficking. For example, one paper emphasises two possible effects of the legalisation of sex work on human trafficking, (1) that the overall increase of the sex workers market, would produce an increase of human trafficking, and (2) the demand for legal sex workers replaces the demand for trafficked persons, thus leading to a decrease of human trafficking (Cho et al., 2013). The study finds that the first effect dominates the second, meaning the legalisation of sex work leads to an increase in human trafficking. Another study tries to disprove the claim of the pro sex work camp that legalisation of sex work leads to greater protection policies for sex workers, and in turn also for trafficking survivors (Cho, 2016). The paper, finds that not only does legalisation not lead to greater protection, but in some cases it may be ‘detrimental’ to trafficked persons.

However, results of quantitative studies based on data from ‘hidden populations’ such as those of trafficked persons should be approached with great caution, as it is impossible to determine if the figures used are accurate. What I have found from my own experience is that qualitative work can yield of a wealth of information of this particular subject, in particular by engaging with not only the affected population (trafficked persons), but also those who are directly in touch with them, such as service providers.

In my talks with trafficked persons and service providers working directly with trafficking survivors, such as social workers, case workers, psychologists and shelter staff, I have found that sex work is still highly stigmatised. Some service providers see sex workers – and by extension trafficking survivors – as flirtatious, thrill-seekers, lazy, manipulative and promiscuous. Some trafficked persons who admitted to knowingly entering sex work prior to their trafficking experience tried to justify their decision, which they usually said was due to severe financial strain. Persons from both groups often did not consider sex work as a ‘normal’ job, or as a job for anybody that is ‘normal’. Service providers stated that they often attempted through their (re)integration efforts to set women on the ‘right’ path after their trafficking experience, by which they meant away from sex work.

There is certainly one strong argument that can be made in favour of not re-entering sex work following a trafficking experience: doing so may put women at risk of re-traumatisation and re-exploitation. Sex workers are subject to more potential (and real) dangers than those working in other jobs, which can endanger the physical and psychological health of a trafficking survivor. When asking my respondents whether they would consider returning to sex work, all of them answered negatively. However, due to the stigmatisation that seems to follow sex work, it is often difficult to assess whether they feel they can openly discuss this issue. This proves the need for more research on what happens to women that re-enter sex work. What are their needs? And what does this mean for their (re)integration? My own research focuses on female trafficking survivors, however, the same questions could be raised in regard to male trafficking survivors.

Ultimately, the question whether sex work is a choice or not is in many ways largely irrelevant, if one departs from the perspective that it is necessary to focus on the immediate needs of women recovering from trafficking. For the women that I have interviewed in the course of my research who have stated that they chose to become sex workers out of necessity or personal circumstances, it is clear that sex work is certainly not their preferred occupation. Nonetheless, removing the possibility for these women to re-engage in sex work following an experience of being trafficked without providing substantial alternate options will not improve their position.

Although survivors are often offered skills courses or the possibility of returning to school by various assistance organisations, this does not guarantee that they will find a job. Such opportunities may also not address more immediate and diverse needs, such as accommodation, financial assistance, childbearing services or school supplies. Service providers may thus face a difficult dilemma: if a woman sees sex work as the only road that will provide a sense of stability for herself and any dependents that she might have, does one help her and ensure that she is safe, regardless of her decision? Or does one let her become doubly stigmatised for returning to her ‘chosen’ profession, even though no credible alternative exists for her at that moment?

The next item on the agenda should thus not be a rehash of the debate whether women can truly ‘choose’ to become sex workers, but rather an end to the stigmatisation of sex workers as well as survivors of trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation. This is something to which we can all contribute, regardless of our personal background or beliefs – even by making such small changes such as using the term ‘sex worker’ rather than ‘prostitute’. More effort needs to be made to understand the lives of those women that have returned to sex work after a trafficking experience, to ensure that society can truly meet their needs. Regardless of whether or not we believe that sex work was a choice, or always a path that a women is forced down – if an individual in living that particular life, non-judgmental support should always be offered and available.

Biljana Meshkovska

Biljana Meshkovska

Ph.D.  Candidate at Maastricht Graduate School of Governance  UNU-MERIT,

Maastricht University

research in the field of human trafficking at Maastricht University (recovery and (re)integration of women trafficked for the purpose of sexual exploitation)



Cho, Seo-Young, Axel Dreher, Eric Neumayer, ‘Does Legalised Prostitution increase Human Trafficking?’, World Development, (2013) 41: 67-82.

Cho, Seo-Young, ‘Liberal Coercion? Prostitution, human trafficking and policy’, European Journal of Law and Economics, (2016) 41: 321-348. DOI 10.1007/s10657-015-9519-7

Farrell, Amy and Shea Cronin, ‘Policing Prostitution in an era of human trafficking enforcement’, Crime Law and Social Change, (2015) 64: 211-228. DOI 10.1007/s10611-015-9588-0