May 212013

Sex Trafficking: The Abolitionist Fallacy

By Ann Jordan. Edited by John Feffer
March 18, 2009

Economic hardship, discrimination, and violence have driven millions of  women to work in the sex sector around the world, and their numbers will  increase as a result of the current global economic crisis. Unless the  underlying factors pushing women to opt for selling sex to support themselves  and their families are remedied, many women will continue to have few other  options. 

Yet the Bush administration, supported by the evangelical right-wing and  some radical feminists, spent eight years promoting laws to criminalize  prostitution and clients as the means to abolish prostitution and stop  human trafficking into the sex sector. The ideology-driven approach is notable  for the absence of any concrete evidence that it works. Proponents of such an  approach have also failed to demonstrate that it avoids harming women or  provides other livelihoods for those it aspires to help. It reduces all  adults in the sex sector (even highly paid “call girls” and those  working legally) to victim status and considers all prostitution to be a form  of trafficking.

Unfortunately for many of the women who are objects of this policy, the  ensuing crackdowns have meant prison, violence, forced “rehabilitation”  and no means to earn an adequate livelihood. At the same time, the policy has  not achieved its goal of reducing the incidence of trafficking, prostitution,  commercial sexual exploitation of children or HIV/AIDs. The only  responses to date from the new administration are President Barack Obama’s affirmation at the Saddleback Presidential Forum that human trafficking “has to be a  top priority” and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s statement at her  confirmation hearing that she takes “very seriously the function of the State  Department to lead our government through the Office on Human Trafficking to do  all that we can to end this modern form of slavery.”

The Abolitionists

The most politically active abolitionists in the United States are Michael  Horowitz (Hudson Institute), Janet Crouse (Concerned Women for America), Donna  Hughes (University of Rhode Island), Equality Now, and the Coalition Against  Trafficking in Women. They have worked successfully over the last eight years  to bring about many of the anti-prostitution legal and policy changes regarding  human trafficking and HIV/AIDs.

The latest entrant to this crowded field of abolitionists is Siddharth Kara,  a former investment banker and business executive who has written the book Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of  Modern Slavery (2008). Kara  traveled to India,  Nepal,  Albania,  Moldova,  and elsewhere to research his book. But like his fellow abolitionists, he too  falls short of producing evidence that criminalizing demand will stop  trafficking or abolish prostitution. He supports criminalizing clients, in  part, based on a visit to The Netherlands where prostitution is legal (but not  to Sweden, where it is illegal and clients are criminalized).  He quotes Suzanne Hoff of La Strada, an  anti-trafficking organization, as reporting that the majority of the women  selling sex in Amsterdam are trafficked. But, as Hoff told me, she did not and  could not make such a statement “for the simple reason that there are not —  and have never been — reliable figures on the number or percent of women being  exploited or forced into the sex industry.”

“If I had to choose a policy today,” he writes, “I would  choose the stance of the U.S. and Swedish governments: the criminalization  of prostitution, including the purchase of sex acts and the owning, operating,  or financing of sex establishments” because this approach “has a  better chance of curtailing demand for sex slaves.” Wishing won’t  make it so; neither is it a basis for sound policymaking.

Like similar travelers, Kara is deeply touched by the victims’ stories and  wants to mount a campaign to bring justice, assistance, and hope to the women  and girls. The centerpiece of his campaign is the destruction of the  economic basis of the trafficking business. The economic model he erects is  built on several unexamined assumptions and unattributed statements of fact and  data. The most seriously flawed assumption he makes is to equate human beings —  trafficked persons and sex workers — with commodities. His economic model  treats women as passive objects that are pushed and pulled by exploiters using  forced labor to lower costs to meet demand, and ignores the poverty,  discrimination, and violence that compel women to make risky decisions. Adults  who make rational choices from among limited options are actors who don’t fit a  neat supply/demand economic model, and so they are factored out of the equation  in order to situate trafficking as a commodity business.

Some of Kara’s proposed solutions are dangerous, unworkable or unrealistic.  For example, he advocates for private citizen community vigilance committees to  go into brothels undercover to locate trafficked women and girls. But he was  unsuccessful in going undercover and even chased away from one brothel  area. He recognizes, on the one hand, that up to a third of victims are  rescued by clients, and opines on the other that clients are looking “for  a way to act out violent, racist, pedophiliac, or other antisocial traits.”6  Yet, by opting to prosecute all clients, he ignores the fact that women and  youth like those he met will continue to migrate and sell sex, no matter how  many men are imprisoned. At the personal level, Kara also  equivocates: While he advocates for raids to rescue trafficked women and  girls, he nonetheless leaves a woman he believes has been trafficked in the United  States to her fate because she “needed the money for her family and there  was a threat of violence against her parents.”

All of his proposed solutions suffer from a lack of input from the people  who will be primarily affected: trafficked persons and adult sex workers.  To develop effective, evidence-based, do-no-harm policies, advocates and policy  makers must work collaboratively with persons who may be helped or harmed by  the proposed laws and policies.

What Works

Effective change comes from the bottom up, within the affected community  where the persons who are the most knowledgeable and motivated live and  work. The only way to build sustainable movements for change is to empower  and support a vibrant civil society. This is particularly important when the  issues have social, cultural, and economic bases that are highly resistant to  any attempt at regulation by criminal law. Sex worker organizations in the  United States, India, Thailand, Cambodia, Mali, Brazil, South Africa, and  elsewhere are the front-line actors, who have first-hand knowledge about how  raids, anti-prostitution campaigns, “vigilance” committees, and law  enforcement approaches impact their lives and undermine efforts to combat  trafficking, child prostitution, and the spread of HIV/AIDs.

Instead of harassing and stigmatizing women in the sex sector, governments  and civil society should recognize and value their accomplishments — such as  removing children and trafficked women from brothels, creating adult literacy  programs, organizing micro-enterprise programs so women can find other sources  of income, setting up schools for their children, and raising awareness about  HIV/AIDs and health issues.

The Obama administration should reject the ideology-driven policies,  practices, and programs of the past eight years. Specifically, it should base  all programs and policies on proven results and sound ideas derived from  objective evidence. It should take into consideration the concerns and ideas of  sex worker groups when developing new programs and policies. The administration  should stop applying the anti-prostitution pledge in a way that prevents the  funding of U.S. and foreign organizations that work with sex workers. Civil  servants who have been trained to carry out the anti-prostitution agenda over  the last eight years must abandon that agenda and operate under a new, more  open and inclusive policy based on rights and evidence. And the government  should remove all of its materials related to human trafficking, sex work,  and/or HIV/AIDs that are inconsistent with the above recommendations from  websites and distribution.

In this way, the new administration can create progressive, non-judgmental,  rights- and evidence-based strategies in partnership with sex worker  organizations and other experts to ensure that U.S. goals to stop human  trafficking and the spread of HIV/AIDs are accomplished without causing further  collateral harm.

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