Circumstantial sex workers often do sex work for a period of time to get by. During their time in the industry, people can move back and forth along a continuum of consent known within the sex workers’ rights movement as “Choice, Circumstance and Coercion,” or the “3 Cs” model.
There are countless ways this might happen. Someone who is doing sex work circumstantially could get connected with friends in the industry who support their professional development, thereby increasing their profit, safety and contentment with their work and moving them closer to “Choice” on the continuum.
Alternatively, sex work can help someone survive until they get a job that is a better fit for them, moving them off the continuum altogether. The lack of resources and access to resources inherent in circumstantial sex work mean that a person in this situation has increased exposure to infectious disease, violence, exploitation and arrest.
For example, while unprotected sex is nearly unheard of among higher-paid escorts, someone engaging in circumstantial sex work who has greater unmet needs, and therefore a necessity to take more clients and do more per session, may choose to take the risk.
This dynamic could also play out when negotiating sexual services with someone who isn’t willing to provide screening information—someone with fewer financial options might be willing to take this risk as well because of the pressing need for immediate income, putting them at infinitely higher risk of sexual assault, most often without recourse.
As laws pass across the United States that limit people’s ability to work anonymously online, many formerly choice-based sex workers are left with few options but to hit the streets, increasing their chances of getting arrested or assaulted. These policies, often masked as anti-trafficking measures, actually increase these workers’ vulnerability to sex trafficking by making them targets.
In 2018, one study of 260 sex workers following the seizure of Backpage.com, a global adult advertising site, showed that 60 percent of sex workers reported an increase in advances and threats by someone looking to manage and potentially exploit or hurt them. By limiting the autonomy of sex workers, these laws create an environment ripe for exploitation and coercion.
Coercion and Trafficking
In the 3 Cs model, coercion refers to points and periods of time where someone has little to no autonomy over the work they do, and a third party is controlling their movements and resources. The presence of coercion does not automatically mean that trafficking is occurring, as coercion is much broader.
Trafficking is a legal definition for an experience of exploitation through force, fraud or coercion by a third party, which has multiple elements required for its proof. Similar to other issues of harm and injustice, trafficking is a legal limit that exists within a broader sphere, like the legal definition of rape exists within the broader scope of sexual assault or harm.
It is also important to note that coercion does not necessarily mean that the person being coerced does not have access to resources, as evidenced by Jasmine, a self-described sex trafficking survivor and advocate I spoke to who publicly shares her story of being pimped out from a mansion and driving a Mercedes that her pimp bought her. In many cases, despite being exploitative, a coercive situation meets a worker’s resource needs, and might be the best option out of a range of terrible options.
Original content by Kate D’Adamo, 2017; now part of Reframe Health and Justice’s trainings on sex work and harm reduction, 2018.
Choice, Circumstance and Coercion
The graphic above is a tool to help ascertain what constitutes coercion. The upper right quadrant represents a circumstance where someone can find, screen and see clients in the way they choose. They are in control of their circumstances, even if they have a manager or coworker.
Exploitation includes everything below the horizontal line. Exploitation does not, however, automatically mean coercion. In her article, “Five Faces of Oppression,” Iris Young states:
Exploitation uses capitalism to oppress. The economic theory of capitalism states that people are free to exchange goods freely. Yet, whenever this has happened throughout history, it has created different classes of people: wealthy and poor … Therefore, exploitation creates a system that perpetuates class differences, keeping the rich richer and the poor poorer.
The lower right quadrant represents a circumstance where another person is in full control of the worker’s situation, circumstances and how much money they make from trading sex. This might be a manager, partner or friend. This quadrant helps explain that not all third-party management is exploitative.
Most forms of sex work that are currently legal in the United States put power in the hand of third-party management, as well as faith in these companies and managers to honor and protect workers’ bodies (though it’s worth noting that sometimes this doesn’t happen). Once legality is removed, there is an almost automatic assumption that underground third-party management is coercive or violent, but both these things can be true or not.
The upper left quadrant of the graphic represents those workers with high autonomy, but low resources. An example of someone in this situation might include a single mom and exotic dancer struggling to make ends meet. She is worried that she might not make rent this month but has control over her schedule and a good club to work at.
The lower left quadrant represents trafficking. Lack of resources is the primary trafficking vulnerability factor. Someone who doesn’t desperately need money is harder to trick or threaten into doing what you want.
After leaving an exploitative situation, someone might come back to the sex trade to work independently.
During my time working for an anti-trafficking agency between 2011-2014, I worked with many young adults who went in and out of homelessness. At some point, handfuls of them met someone who provided them housing (often this was a family member).
For example, instead of paying rent, one of my participants, Nick, provided sex acts to clients that the person he was living with found for him. The person offering housing did all the negotiation, so Nick didn’t have much control over those interactions. After Nick made rent, he could keep everything else he made, but it wasn’t much. Nick had the option to leave, but then he would be living on the street again.
Sometimes, someone’s entry into the sex trade is through coercive means, but after leaving the exploitative situation, that person comes back to the sex trade to work independently. Returning to the idea of the continuum of sex work as “set” in sex work, set, setting: The 3 Cs can be applied to someone’s entry into the sex trade, where they are at economically on the continuum generally, and where they are economically during a specific day or interaction within the sex trade.
When considered as “set,” and combined with type of work and setting, it is easier to understand an individual or type of person’s needs—knowledge that is particularly helpful for professionals who are working directly with people in the sex trade or creating policies that impact people in the sex trade.
This article is an adapted excerpt from the anthology Body Autonomy: Decolonizing Sex Work and Drug Use, which will be released by Synergetic Press on May 14, 2024.
Image courtesy of Synergetic Press