The Myth of “Choice”

There’s an old saying  that “prostitution is the oldest profession” and that everyone involved in sex work are doing so happily and willingly. While this may be true for a small percentage of privileged sex workers that find empowerment in their work, it does not apply for youth and adults who are being forced into the sex trade. There is a difference between an empowered sex worker and a person being forced or coerced into sexual exploitation.

The myth that everyone involved in the sex trade is doing so by their own free will can be dangerous. Some people are experiencing sexual exploitation because of an abusive partner, poverty, addiction, etc. Some people do not have a choice. So when does sex work become sexual exploitation?

Any person under the age of 18 involved in sex work is being sexually exploited. Regardless if “consent” is given, (in Washington State, the age of consent is 16 years old), if there is anything traded for a sex act with a minor, (such as money, a place to stay, drugs, etc.),  it automatically fits the Washington state definition of sex trafficking.

Someone trading sex for things they need to survive (survival sex) is a form of sexual exploitation. For example, a mother trading sex for food to feed her children or a teenager experiencing homelessness trading sex for a couch to sleep on. Anytime that someone is trading sex for basic needs, sexual exploitation is occurring, even if there is no third party trafficker involved. On the outside, it might look like the person is choosing to engage in sex work. However, if you looked more closely, you see that the person is only doing what they “need” to do to survive. They may not feel that they have much of a choice.

Anytime force, fraud or coercion is involved, it’s sexual exploitation. When you hear the term “force” it sounds like someone is being held against their will. And sometimes that’s the case - other times, someone is psychologically held, as a trafficker threatens to hurt them or their family if they leave. Fraud can look different for different situations, but it involve a trafficker allowing a person to stay with them and then forcing them to engage in sexual exploitation in order to pay off the “debt owed” for them staying. Coercion is a bit more complicated to define. Coercion could include a trafficker manipulating a person to fall in love with them, gaining their trust and building rapport, and then tricking the person to “work” for them out of love or protection.


While it’s easier to think that all those who are involved in sex work are doing so by choice, it’s important to acknowledge that not everyone is doing so of their own free will. The more that we can understand and educate others about sexual exploitation, the more can be done to end it. When survivors of sexual exploitation feel heard, supported and validated, it makes it easier for them to ask for help.

Advocates welcome individuals of all ages and genders. Our services are free & confidential*. An advocate can help you with staying safe, finding resources, and can provide a safe and judgement free environment to talk about what you’re going through. We can also provide free safe sex kits, (condoms, the morning after pill, pregnancy tests, etc.). Contact Stacey at 360.703.3762 ext. 20 or or Caleb at ext. 16 or


*We follow all mandatory reporting laws.


Advocates are available to provide information about how to recognize common signs of sex trafficking and education to schools, businesses, organizations, churches, etc. to help you learn how to safely respond and report to police and/or the National Human Trafficking Hotline.

To request a free presentation, contact Stacey at or 360.703.3762 ext. 20.

To report suspected trafficking or to get assistance, you can call the National Human Trafficking Hotline anytime of day at 1-888-373-7888 or text HELP to 233733.  

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