Beyond Trafficking?

09/12/2008 at 12:32 Leave a comment

This is the transcript of a presentation given by Jo Doezema (Visiting Fellow) at last week’s lunchtime seminar at the Institute of Development Studies.


The campaign against ‘trafficking in women’ has gained increasing momentum world-wide, but in particular among feminists in the last three decades. This current campaign is not the first time that the international community has become concerned with the fate of young women abroad. Modern concerns with prostitution and ‘trafficking in women’ have a historical precedent in the anti-white-slavery campaigns that occurred at the turn of the century. Feminist organisations played key roles in both past and present campaigns. Then as now, the paradigmatic image is that of a young and naive innocent lured or deceived by evil traffickers into a life of sordid horror from which escape is nearly impossible.

A quote from The Manila Times, from January 2002, shows how white slavery is updated for contemporary audiences: They are called ‘juicy girls’, a back-handed compliment to their youth and beauty. But the local slang for Filipino ‘entertainers’ in Songjan City barely masks the harsh fates of the young, hopeful women who end up captives of a white slavery syndicate. Their plight has sparked tensions among Korean bar owners in Songjan, and Filipino-American servicemen, who are suspected of having helped in the escape of some sex slaves . . .Maxi and colleagues dance naked for customers and provide sexual favours. For $200, they will perform all imaginable sex acts for clients. (The Manila Times, 3 January 2002)

The mythical nature of the paradigm of the ‘white slave’ has been demonstrated by historians. Similarly, recent research indicates that today’s stereotypical ‘trafficking victim’ bears as little resemblance to women migrating for work in the sex industry as did her historical counterpart, the ‘white slave’. A growing body of evidence suggests that there are many migrant sex workers who do not ‘appear’ in these types of trafficking stories. Research by the Foundation for Women in Thailand concluded that the largest group of Thai migrants working in the sex industry in Japan had previously worked in the sex industry in Bangkok (Skrobanek, 1997). Watenabe (1998), who worked as a bar girl herself in Japan in the course of her research into Thai women migrating to the Japanese sex industry, found that the majority of sex workers she interviewed were aware of the nature of the work on offer. Other research, such as that by Brockett and Murray (1994) in Australia, Anarfi (1998) in Ghana, Kempadoo (1998) in the Caribbean, COIN (1994) in the Dominican Republic, TAMPEP in Europe (Brussa, 1999), Gülçür and Iÿlkkaracan (2002) in Turkey, Blanchet (2002) in Saudi Arabia, India, Nepal and Bangladesh, and Pearson (2002) in England, Italy, Thailand and the USA, indicates that women seeking to migrate are not so easily ‘duped’ or ‘deceived’, and are often aware that most jobs on offer are in the sex industry.

The complex and varied experiences of migrant sex workers do not fit into the stereotypical portrayal of deceived innocents. Yet these images continue to dominate media perceptions, feminist activism, and policy making. Narratives of ‘white slavery’ and ‘trafficking in women’ function as cultural myths, constructing particular conceptions of the issue of migration for the sex industry. The myths around ‘white slavery’ were grounded in the perceived need to regulate female sexuality under the guise of protecting women. They were indicative of deeper fears and uncertainties concerning national identity, women’s increasing desire for autonomy, foreigners, immigrants and colonial peoples. To a certain extent, these fears and anxieties are mirrored in contemporary accounts of trafficking in women. In the myth of trafficking in women, structured around the figure of the passive and unknowing innocent, the active, aware ‘sex worker’ disappears. Contemporary discourses of trafficking have performed a macabre zombie magic, rousing the corpses of the Victorian imagination from their well-deserved rest. This is genealogy as necromancy – the myth of white slavery has been exhumed, worm-eaten and whiffy, to clumsily stalk the living.

Consent and Coercion in International Legislation on Trafficking

In December, 2000, over 80 countries signed the ‘Protocol to Suppress, Prevent and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children‘ (The Trafficking Protocol) in Palermo, Italy. This event was the culmination of over two years of negotiations at the UN Centre for International Crime Prevention in Vienna. The Trafficking Protocol was the target of heavy feminist lobbying. These lobby efforts were split into two ‘camps’ according to their views on prostitution. One group, the Human Rights Caucus, saw prostitution as legitimate labour. The other, represented by the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW), saw all prostitution as a violation of women’s human rights.

I and other sex worker rights activists were concerned about the impact of a new international trafficking instrument on the lives of sex workers. Historically, anti-trafficking measures have been used against sex workers, migrant sex workers, and immigrants. Several activists from the Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP) joined the Human Rights Caucus in their lobby efforts, in the hope of ensuring a result that would not damage sex workers’ human rights.  I will briefly review the arguments made by both lobby groups at the negotiations. I will focus in particular on how trafficking came to be defined, and the pivotal role played by the notion of ‘consent’.

In Vienna, the differences between the lobby groups became most apparent in the most controversial part of the Protocol negotiations: deciding just how ‘trafficking in persons’ should be defined. CATW’s lobby group argued that ‘trafficking’ should include all forms of recruitment and transportation for prostitution, regardless of whether any force or deception took place (CATW 1999). This is in line with their view of prostitution per se as a violation of women’s human rights. The Human Rights Caucus, who supported the view of prostitution as work, argued that force or deception was a necessary condition in the definition of trafficking for sex work and for other types of labour. They also maintained that trafficking for prostitution should not be treated as a different category to other types of labour. This was based on the recognition that men, women and children are trafficked for a large variety of services, including sweatshop labour and agriculture (Human Rights Caucus 1999), as well as fear of the potentially repressive consequences of attempts to turn the Protocol into an anti-prostitution document.

These two positions ended up revolving around the notion of ‘consent’. Several government delegations, backed by CATW’s lobby group, argued that the definition of trafficking had to specifically include situations in which a person both consented to travel and consented to do sex work, even if no force or deception was involved. This position has as its root the idea that a woman’s consent to sex work is meaningless. This definition of trafficking differed little from the proposed definition of trafficking in children: in this view, neither women or children can be said to ‘consent’ to travel for work in the sex industry.

Other governments opposed the collapse of women and children. Their position was endorsed by the Human Rights Caucus, who stated: ‘Obviously, by definition, no one consents to abduction or forced labour, but an adult woman is able to consent to engage in an illicit activity (such as prostitution, where this is illegal or illegal for migrants). If no one is forcing her to engage in such an activity, then trafficking does not exist… The Protocol should distinguish between adults, especially women, and children. It should also avoid adopting a patronizing stance that reduces women to the level of children, in the name of ‘protecting’ women. Such a stance historically has ‘protected’ women from the ability to exercise their rights’ (Human Rights Caucus 1999: 5).

The argument that sex work is inherently a human rights violation, and thus cannot be consented to, is one that I disagree with. But it is not my intention to repeat the arguments for treating sex work as a legitimate profession. Rather, I want to focus on the harmful political consequences of arguing that coercion (including deception) is not an essential part of any definition of trafficking. The argument that women cannot consent to commercial sexual interactions coincides all too easily with anti-feminist ideas about female sexually, particularly, with that of the threat of women’s sexual autonomy. It also can be used to give what are basically anti-immigrant prejudices and policies a more palatable gloss, borrowing terms from human rights and feminist argumentation.

Trafficking and terrorism

The campaign against trafficking has been given a boost by the ‘war on terror’. Anti-trafficking activist Donna Hughes’ comments on Bush’s Iraq speech to the UN (September 24th , 2003) shows support for the linking of trafficking to terrorism:

At the United Nations, before key world leaders and an international body that symbolizes human rights, President Bush put the fight against the global sex trade on par with the campaign for democracy in Iraq and the war on terrorism. And as he has done with terrorism, he challenged governments around the world on their complacency: If they tolerate the sex trade, they “are tolerating a form of slavery.” This is the kind of clarity of thinking and leadership the movement against trafficking and sexual exploitation has been waiting for… All the activists I’ve heard from were thrilled and inspired by President Bush’s speech…. The president’s stated commitment to opposing the global sex trade places the U.S. on the forefront of a new movement for human freedom, rights, and dignity. It was fitting that he made this statement alongside a call for democracy building in Iraq and opposition to terrorism (Hughes 2003b). 

In a series of ‘nimble juxtapositions’ (Haag 1999), organised crime is equated to terrorism; is equated to trafficking. This is a particularly good example of what Laclau (1998) calls ‘chains of equivalences’, a key part of how ideology works. As summarised by Zizek (1994) this is, ‘that meaning does not inhere in elements of an ideology as such – these elements, rather, function as ‘free-floating signifiers’ whose meaning is fixed by the mode of their hegemonic articulation (p. 12). In  ‘chains of equivalence’ concepts become interchangeable, so when one term is mentioned, the entire sequence is evoked.

The link to terrorism, particularly since 9-11, makes anti-trafficking an essential element of anti-terrorism. The links to terrorism make the problem seem even more terrifying and the need for immediate action all the more serious. It makes state intervention seem necessary and right, and justifies curtailment of civil liberties in the name of protection. In this sense, the justifications mesh so well with certain feminist desires to discipline through protection legislation, which is exactly what the following  quote from the Jerusalem Post illustrates:

Try telling any man who goes to prostitutes for sexual gratification that in so doing he contributes to global terror, organized crime, slavery, and drug  trafficking, and the reaction will be one of incredulity. But according to participants in a Mishkenot Sha’ananim sponsored conference  on Slavery 2003: Trafficking in Women, the links between trafficking in women, terror, and organized crime are a grim reality (07-17-2003).

Consequences of denying consent

If there is one lesson that we can learn from history, it is that increased state power to repress prostitution ends up being used against prostitutes themselves. Has what history has shown from white slavery in danger of repeating itself? Recent government actions seem to indicate that the repressive responses will prevail. In a number of countries, anti-trafficking measures have led to restrictions on movement and migration for women, increased surveillance of sex workers, and increased deportation of migrant sex workers. In the Netherlands, trafficking fears have led to a law which requires all sex workers to carry identification papers-the only occupational group for whom this is required. Deportations of sex workers are commonplace, one recent example is the UK, where the police raided London brothels and sent migrant sex workers packing. These repressive consequences in the UK are likely to increase under proposed new legislation which aims to curb ‘demand’ for prostitution. Perhaps the most damaging of recent anti-trafficking activities in terms of sex workers’ human rights are the ‘raid and rescue’ activities carried out by police and NGOs with government backing.

The lessons from history about the repressive consequences of anti-trafficking laws has led some activists to search for a new way to conceptualise migration and prostitution. The contours of a framework to replace that of trafficking have begun to emerge, sketched out in discussions, demands and demonstrations from Delhi to Detroit by sex workers and those who support their agenda. This new framework would reject both the position that would deny women the ability to consent to prostitution, and a perspective that condemns ‘forced’ prostitution but offers nothing in the way of rights for the ‘guilty’, ‘voluntary’ prostitutes. This new framework would incorporate elements of labour rights, insisting that sex workers be treated as legitimate workers, rather than as moral reprobates. It would challenge the mentality that demands the women bear the responsibility for the moral guardianship of society. It would recognise that gender relations in the sex industry are not a simple matter of oppressed women and oppressive men, but that men, women, and transgenders take up varying positions and have varying amounts of power as clients, sex workers, and associates. It would grant third-world women the same degree of self-awareness, autonomy and agency that is taken as self-evident for western women. Most importantly, this new framework may be able to move beyond the legacy of repression clinging to the trafficking framework because it will be developed by sex workers themselves.


Anarfi, John K. (1998) ‘Ghanaian Women and Prostitution in Côte d’Ivoire’, pp. 104–113 in K. Kempadoo and J. Doezema (eds) Global Sex Workers: Rights, Resistance and Redefinition. New York and London: Routledge.


Brockett, L. and Alison Murray (1994) ‘Thai Sex Workers in Sydney’, pp. 191–202 in R. Perkins and G. Prestage (eds) Sex Work and Sex Workers in Australia. Sydney: University of New South Wales Press.


Blanchet, Thérèse (2002) Beyond Boundaries: A Critical Look at Women Labour Migration and the Trafficking Within. Dhaka: USAID.


Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, (1999) ‘Prostitutes Work, But Do They Consent?’


COIN (1994) La industría del sexo por dentro. Santo Domingo: COIN.

Gülçür, Leyla and Pinar Iÿlkkaracan (2002) ‘The “Natasha” Experience: Migrant

Sex Workers from the Former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in Turkey’,

Women’s Studies International Forum 25(4): 411–21.


Haag, Pamela. 1999. Consent: Sexual Rights and the Transformation of American Liberalism. Ithica: Cornell University Press.

Hughes, Donna M. 2003. A special evil: Bush vs. Slavery. National Review Online,

Human Rights Caucus (1999) ‘Recommendations and commentary on the draft protocol to combat international trafficking in women and children supplementary to the draft convention on transnational organised crime’

Kempadoo, Kamala (1998) ‘The Migrant Tightrope: Experiences from the Caribbean’, pp. 1–28 in K. Kempadoo and J. Doezema (eds) Global Sex Workers: Rights, Resistance and Redefinition. New York: Routledge.

Pearson, Elaine (2002) Human Traffic Human Rights: Redefining Victim Protection. London: Anti-Slavery International.

Skrobanek, Siroporn (ed.) (1997) The Traffic in Women: Human Realities of the

International Sex Trade. London: Zed Books.

Watenabe, Satoko (1998) ‘From Thailand to Japan: Migrant Sex Workers as Autonomous Subjects’, pp. 114–23 in K. Kempadoo and J. Doezema (eds) Global Sex Workers: Rights, Resistance and Redefinition. New York: Routledge


Entry filed under: gender and sexuality, human rights and law, migration and mobility, research. Tags: , , , , , , , , , .

Law reform in South Africa Sex work research and the media

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