Shows a graphic of a women holding a red umbrella, a symbol for sex workers. Text reads "Sex Work and Sex Trafficking: Definitions, Differences, and the Need for Human Rights."

Sex Work and Sex Trafficking: Definitions, Differences, and the Need for Human Rights  

Alisha OstbergBlog, employment, human rights, sex work, stigma

Contributors: Alisha Ostberg, Hanako Rodgers, and Oluwaseun Ayodeji Osowobi

Sex work and sex trafficking are concepts that are often conflated despite being separate subjects. Due to this conflation, they can carry significant social, legal, and human rights implications. Understanding these topics requires a clear understanding of terms, an exploration of the differences between them, and a discussion of how current anti-trafficking laws impact both sex workers and survivors of trafficking. This blog post aims to provide a brief overview and distinction between both subjects to foster informed discussions and promote the rights and safety of sex workers.  


What is Sex Work?  

Sex work is defined as the “consensual exchange of sexual services between adults for money or goods” (UNAIDS, 2014). The term “sex worker(s)” is coined by and preferred within the community because it is:  

  • Gender-neutral: It applies to individuals of any gender.  
  • Respectful: It recognizes the dignity and agency of those involved.  
  • Diverse: It reflects the various forms of sex work.  
  • Labour-centred: It recognizes sex work as labour.  

What is Sex Trafficking?  

Sex trafficking is a form of human trafficking involving the recruitment, movement, or holding of victims for sexual exploitation. Traffickers use coercion, force, or threats, including mental and emotional abuse, to exploit victims. Human trafficking, including for sexual purposes, is a federal criminal offence in many countries, including Canada, where it was formally recognized in 2005. For a case to be categorized as human trafficking, three elements must be present: an ACT, MEANS and PURPOSE. 

Despite this definition, sexual exploitation is itself not defined clearly by many organizations, government agencies, and prohibitionist groups.  

When we hear “human trafficking”, the common images in our thoughts and on search engines is of sex trafficking. However, most trafficking cases in Alberta are other labour trafficking cases in workplaces such as farms, domestic support, and agriculture.

The Key Differences Between Sex Work and Sex Trafficking  

Understanding the distinction between sex work and sex trafficking is crucial. While sex work is a consensual act between adults, sex trafficking involves coercion and exploitation.  

It is also important to avoid reliance on sharp dichotomies. The sex industry is uniquely assumed to only fit into rigid categories. All work exists on a spectrum, and the lens used to decide whether someone in the sex industry is ‘independent’ or ‘victimized’ further perpetuates stigma.  

Human trafficking requires an action (e.g., recruitment), a means (e.g., force or fraud), and a purpose (e.g., exploitation). Meeting one condition in each category qualifies as trafficking.     

It is important to note that poor working conditions, while a violation of rights, is not trafficking. Skimming of wages, unkept work sites, and unpaid overtime are not isolated to the sex industry. Think of one of the jobs where you felt the most disempowered, disrespected, and unhappy. How would it affect you if that was considered trafficking? Sex workers do not have the recognition of their labour that most other industries do – and this leads to patronizing assumptions about their work.  

What is the Continuum of Sexual Exchange?  

To differentiate between sex work and sex trafficking, one must understand the Continuum of sexual exchange, adapted by SafeLink Alberta from the BC Coalition of Experiential Communities. This Continuum illustrates where choice falls concerning sexual activities, spanning from consensual sex to sexual slavery. This continuum can be used to conceptualize any sexual exchange and is not limited to sex work.  

Exploring the Continuum 

  • Consensual Sex: Engagement in sexual activities purely for pleasure, where the individual has complete choice and control. Examples include consensual sex within a marriage or casual hookups.  
  • Sex Work: Here, individuals engage in sexual activities for agreed-upon compensation. The sex worker controls the terms and can refuse exchanges without severe negative consequences. There is a risk of losing finances or work reputation.  
  • Sex for Status/Power: This includes situations where sex is exchanged for job security, immigration status, or other benefits. Consent may be compromised due to potential adverse outcomes for refusal.  
  • Obligated Sexual Exchange: Individuals may feel pressured to engage in sex to avoid adverse consequences, like blackmail or other threats. 
  • Forced Sexual Exchange & Rape: In these scenarios, there is no consensual element, and individuals are forced to provide sexual services. 
  • Sexual Slavery: Individuals lose all choice and control of all elements of their lives for sexual exploitation.  

Fluidity on the Continuum  

It’s important to recognize that individuals can move across this continuum. For example, a casual encounter intended as a hookup might begin at one end of the spectrum and end in assault. This continuum also applies to choice and labour in general. While some people work as volunteers for personal satisfaction, to give back to the community, or to gain new skills, others work to afford basic needs like food and shelter. Be careful to avoid thinking of sex work as an entirely different type of labour. Its uniqueness lies in its stigma – not in the definition of labour.  

The circumstances under which we live necessitate varying degrees of autonomy and obligation that we experience. Consider what choices you are obligated to make versus making for fun and reflect on whether this impacts your understanding of sex work as a choice vs trafficking.  

Blog: Celebrating International Sex Workers’ Day: A Conversation with Our Shift Program Peer Support Worker

“Although sex work itself isn’t criminal, many safety precautions are. This further endangers the lives of sex workers because they can’t work together, hire security, openly negotiate, or communicate with clients. The perception of sex work laws doesn’t allow sex workers to outsource business help, such as hiring receptionists or advertising. In my experience, I had to learn how to do everything myself—bookings, accounting, advertising, social media, booking spaces, arranging travel, and more. This is where exploitation comes in because seeking help from others is criminalized, creating a gray area that leads to more dangerous conditions.” 


Sex Work in Alberta: A Closer Look  

More About Sex Work  

At SafeLink Alberta, we recognize that “sex work is work.” This statement doesn’t imply that sex work is always positive or empowering but emphasizes that sex work is labour and sex workers deserve safety and fundamental labour rights like any other profession.  

Reasons for Entering Sex Work  

People enter sex work for various reasons (notice how you may have entered your job for similar reasons):  

  • Financial Necessity: We need money to live, and sex work is a way to make money. 
  • Flexibility: Offers A flexible schedule for some.  
  • Personal Appeal: Some enjoy the work, have a talent for it, or are interested in its potential.  
  • Critical Life Events: Our employment choices are related to our circumstances in life. A critical event can limit or expand these choices, and sex work may be a new or remaining option for some.  

Sex work includes various forms, from direct in-person services to online activities. Laws complicate safe practices, especially for street-based workers who are surveilled, profiled, charged for loitering, and face challenges in screening clients due to the danger of law enforcement.  

Image of an older woman wearing red lipstick, large gold starfish earrings, and yellow jacket.

About the Shift Program

Shift is a Calgary-based program that provides support to adults currently or previously engaged in sex work. Shift uses a rights-based approach to sex work, recognizing that sex work is a choice for many and respecting the rights of adults to make this choice. Shift also recognizes that for some, factors such as poverty or exploitation can put people into situations where they don’t have control. The program meets people where they are at, whether they want to continue sex work, safely transition, or anything in between. 

Intersectionality in Sex Work  

Sex work communities are diverse, with individuals from various backgrounds facing unique challenges and strengths. Overrepresented groups include women, immigrants, transgender individuals, and Indigenous people. These intersections create compounded barriers such as violence, discrimination, and limited access to services. The violence experienced due to racism, transphobia, and colonialism will often be used as ‘evidence’ that they are experiencing sex trafficking. This reduction perpetuates violence.  

Black Sex Workers  

The conflation of trafficking and sex work impacts the policing of Black communities. The term “trafficking” saw a sharp uptick when interracial relationships were no longer illegal. Black sex workers have been charged with trafficking themselves and are often charged with trafficking their colleagues when offering assistance illegally. Black sex workers have been charged with trafficking themselves and are often charged with trafficking their colleagues when offering assistance. Over-policing is especially felt by Black sex workers in sanctioned environments. 

Im/migrant Sex Workers  

Im/migrant sex workers are diverse, often citizens or permanent residents, and choose sex work for economic security or flexibility. However, restrictive immigration policies can force them into non-status positions, increasing their vulnerability.  

Immigrant/migrant sex workers are sanctioned uniquely based on their status in Canada. Certain efforts aimed at protecting individuals from exploitation can conflict with the rights of im/migrant sex workers to engage in sex work if the concepts of sex work and sex trafficking are not well differentiated. This often leads to detention and deportation, causing additional harm rather than providing assistance. There is an assumption that im/migrant sex workers cannot have agency in their work or movement. This assumption is rooted in racist, anti-Asian stereotypes of Asian women as meek or docile.    

Transgender Sex Workers  

Trans sex workers face multiple layers of stigma, including transphobia and discrimination. They may experience high rates of violence and barriers to services. Some find competitive advantages and gender validation in sex work. There are increased considerations for disclosure or ‘coming out’ to clients if the person has or has not received gender-affirming surgeries.  

Male Sex Workers  

Male sex workers are an often-overlooked demographic facing unique challenges such as toxic masculinity, homophobia, and limited research and representation on their experiences.  

Indigenous Sex Workers  

Indigenous sex workers face heightened violence due to historical trauma and systemic racism. The specific marginalization of Indigenous women in sex work is tied colonialist structures, such as a history of displacement, violence and forced poverty. Indigenous sex workers have extremely high rates of going missing or being murdered and are also faced with racist assumptions about their work.  

How Sex Workers’ Rights Combat Human Trafficking  

The Role of Sex Workers in Identifying Trafficking  

Sex workers are crucial allies in identifying and preventing trafficking. Programs can reduce vulnerabilities and help those at risk of trafficking. Traffickers target vulnerable individuals, often exploiting their need for protection or financial stability. By reducing vulnerability, less people are at risk.  

Conflating sex work and sex trafficking does not support victims of sex trafficking, is ineffective in addressing exploitation and encroaches on the rights of people to engage in work. 

Supporting trafficked individuals requires more than “rescue” operations. Many have complex histories involving mental health issues, trauma, and substance abuse. Risk reduction approaches are essential for providing adequate support.  

As an organization, SafeLink Alberta recognizes that sex work is work and advocates for the removal of all sanctions against sex workers. This would ensure safety, uphold human rights, and allow sex workers to access labour rights and protections while also aiding the fight to eradicate sex trafficking. Existing laws against human trafficking can be used without imposing additional restrictions that harm sex workers. Read our position statement here.  

Ready to Learn More? 

Take Our Sex Work Series. 

Need Support?  

Shift is a Calgary-based program under SafeLink Alberta that provides support to adults currently or previously engaged in sex work. If you or someone you know needs support, resources, or just someone to talk to, the Shift Program is here to help. For more information, visit SafeLink Alberta or contact the Shift Program directly here:

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