The told, and told again, tale of sex trafficking

20/09/2012 at 07:56 2 comments


I just read an article in the UK newspaper, the Guardian promoting a forthcoming book by Mexican journalist Lydia Cacho  

The book makes an all too familiar claim to be breaking the silence over the ‘untold tale’ of sex trafficking. Can it have escaped anybody’s notice that far from being an untold tale, sex trafficking is the global cause de jour? Governments, charities, the UN, multilateral development agencies all kinds of authorities and private enterprise spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year on research and anti-trafficking initiatives.  Who could have missed the enormous campaigns against sex trafficking backed by giants like Google, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and MTV. Dozens of documentaries, books, journal articles and films have been released including an HBO series that was seen by millions. Even Eastenders has had a sex trafficking storyline. Sex trafficking is a high priority of the US government which publishes the  detailed Trafficking in Persons report each year and penalises countries that it sees as not taking strong enough actions  against trafficking.  A glance at the internet shows that thousands of anti-trafficking NGOs have been established in the last decade. Churches, clubs and student bodies in dozens of countries address sex trafficking either by funding rescues and rehabilitation of sex trafficking victims  or ‘raising awareness’ about it.   (if you doubt any of this set up a Google Alert for ‘sex trafficking’)   Several ‘campaigning journalists’ have made sex slavery  their schtick, most notably Nikolas Kristof of the  New York Times whose methods have included  buying ‘sex slaves’ and raiding brothels in Cambodia.  It has become the favorite cause of globally famous artists and local amateur dramatic societies alike and attracted a constellation of celebrities from Meg Ryan and Emma Thompson to Demi Moore and Ashton Krutchner. (pictured in India with rescued girls) Like Cacho, they invariably posit themselves as ‘brave’ and declare themselves ‘not easily scared’ the moment they step out of their hotels with their media minders or security staff to ‘confront the traffickers’.  ( Cacho takes this one step further by giving herself this award within the hotel.)

The publisher could not have missed this. Presumably they assessed the appetite for sex slave stories and saw a market not yet satiated.  But readers really should know two things before they consider buying the book.

First there is a huge and growing body of credible evidence that much of the information and data about trafficking are inaccurate to wildly exaggerated. Even the US  Governments’  own Office of Accountability noticed that the actual number of trafficking victims located by US funded programs was far fewer than projected and insufficient to justify the expenditure. (see  2007 HUMAN TRAFFICKING : Monitoring and Evaluation of International Projects Are Limited, but Experts Suggest Improvements. All around the world it is routine for costly police operations to fail to locate any trafficking victims among the sex workers they arrest.  (The UK’s Operation Pentameter was a case in point.  see Mai, N   Migrant Workers in the UK Sex Industry (2009) ESRC End of Award Report, RES-062-23-0137. Swindon)

Second,  the discourse advanced  by Cacho and many, many others before her,  leads to laws that conflate trafficking with sex work and seek to eradicate it by criminalising clients and subjecting sex workers to raids, arrests, forced rehabilitation and detention, and in the case of migrants, deportation. 

Many rescue organisations set up in the sex trafficking boom have been found to be unethical and the centres in which sex workers are detained after alleged rescues are often hotbeds of abuse  from which they escape as soon as possible.  And of course the so called rescues are conducted by the same corrupt police that sex workers in much of the world identify as the main perpetrators of violence against them.   

Happily in contrast there is a genuinely untold story that’s worth listening to. It is sex workers global mobilisation against the about sex trafficking and abuse it creates.

There is a large and sophisticated sex workers rights movement made up of sex workers of all genders, ages and backgrounds V from dozens of countries both rich and poor. Hundreds of them met recently at the Sex Workers Freedom Festival in Kolkata India where they talked with an authority possessed only by those who have lived the experience about the real nature of human trafficking, people smuggling and exploitation of migrant sex workers. “Save us from saviours’ has become a catch cry of sex workers who tell a more nuanced and complex story than the simple discourse of sex trafficking by gangs of violent male criminals serving up duped innocents for other men to rape. They talk about the damage caused by the blunt tool of anti-sex work laws that claim to address trafficking but which fail the real victims, miss the perpetrators and violate the dignity and rights of all sex workers. They insist that the sex workers rights movement offers far better analysis as well as practical solutions to these issues.  They reject the suggestion made by Cacho and other feminists that sex work is slavery since no woman with perfect choices would ever do it.  On that logic stacking shelves in a supermarket in London is slavery, let alone working in an electronics factory in China or a quarry in the Congo.     

Although the account of Cacho’s investigative method in the Guardian article is not complete it struck me what  an impoverished  and unethical vantage point  sneaking about hotel lobbies taking secret photos of sex workers and their clients is compared to the lived, considered and articulated positions expressed by sex workers  in Kolkata last month.  So is conducting interviews that the author constructs and interprets.  Who would buy a book about, say, Native Americans, based on secret photos taken around a reservation and having asked a few of the indigenous people how awful their lives are?

It’s particularly disappointing that Cacho did just that in Bangkok of all places. One of the most well established and respected sex worker organisations in the world,  Empower, and the regional federation of sex workers’ organisations the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers  were both just a couple of train stops away.  Those sex worker led organisations provide insights that are as complex as the issue and as rich as the collective experience of those who have lived it. They do this not only through publications but also through films, pictures and performance.  Empower, which includes many women from Burma and other Asian countries in Thailand to work in the sex industry, recently produced an excellent report and beautiful and informative tapestry about trafficking and anti-trafficking. ( See Empower  Foundation ‘Hit and Run’  Cacho would have been much better off spending her time talking with the women who told their genuinely untold tales in that work of art than sitting in her hotel imagining the traffickers coming to get her. Likewise readers would be better to listen to what sex workers have to say about trafficking and how to fix it than reading yet another contribution to the ‘sex slave’ literature genre.

Any potential readers interested in actually benefitting people abused within sex industries, of which there are plenty, would be better off sending their money to an organisation like Empower to use to give practical support to real women and  supporting them to push their case for real solutions in the real world.  

Cheryl Overs August 2012

                                              Empower Foundation

Entry filed under: research.

My Take on AIDS 2012 Part 3 Cheryl Overs Someone is Wrong on the Internet: sex workers’ access to accurate information

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. bebopper76  |  17/11/2012 at 05:39

    There is a lot of controversy over the numbers of adult woman who are forced sex slaves. The real factual answer is that no one knows. There is hard evidence that the sex slavery/sex trafficking issue continues to report false information and is greatly exaggerated by politicians, the media, and aid groups, feminist and religious organizations that receive funds from the government, The estimate of adult women who become new sex slaves ranges anywhere from 40 million a year to 5,000 per year all of which appear to be much too high. They have no evidence to back up these numbers, and no one questions them about it. Their sources have no sources, and are made up numbers. In fact if some of these numbers are to believed which have either not changed or have been increased each year for the past twenty years, all woman on earth would currently be sex slaves. Yet, very few real forced against their will sex slaves have been found.

    It is not easy for criminals to engage in this activity:

    Sex trafficking is illegal and the penalties are very severe. It is very difficult to force someone to be a sex slave, they would have to have 24 hour guards posted and be watched 365 days a year, 24 hours per day. Have the threat of violence if they refused, and have no one notice and complain to the authorities or police. They would need to hide from the general public yet still manage to see customers from the general public and not have the customers turn the traffickers in to the police. They would need to provide them with medical care, food, shelter, and have all their basic needs met. They would need to have the sex slaves put on a fake front that they enjoyed what they were doing, act flirtatious and do their job well. They would have to deal with the authorities looking for the missing women, and hide any money they may make, since it comes from illegal activity. They must do all of this while constantly trying to prevent the sex slaves from escaping and reporting them to the police. They would need to prevent the general public from reporting them into the police. This is extremely difficult to do, which makes this activity rare. These criminals would be breaking dozens of major laws not just one. Kidnapping itself is a serious crime. There are many laws against sex trafficking, sex slavery, kidnapping, sex abuse, rape, sexual harassment etc. If someone is behind it, they will be breaking many serious laws, be in big trouble, and will go to jail for many long years.

  • 2. bebopper76  |  17/11/2012 at 05:39


    Human Trafficking, Sex Trafficking, Sex Slavery is used by many groups as a attempt to outlaw all consensual adult prostitution around the world by saying that all women are victims even if they do it willing. This hurts any real victims because it labels all sex workers as victims. This is done by the media, aid groups, NGO’s, feminists, politicians, Government officials and religious organizations that receive funds from the government. There are very strong groups who promote that all adult women who have sex are victims even if they are willing, enjoy it and go out of there way to get it. These groups try to get the public to believe that no adult women in their right mind would ever go into the sex business unless she was forced to do so, weather she knew it or not. They say that 100% of all sex workers are trafficking victims.

    They do this in order to label all men as sex offenders and wipe out all consensual prostitution. Which is what their real goal is. There is almost no one who challenges or questions them about their false beliefs. Therefore, the only voices you hear are of these extreme groups. These groups want to label all men as terrible sex offenders for seeing a willing adult sex worker. No one stands up to say this is foolish, the passive public says nothing.

    These groups even say that all men who marry foreign women are terrible sex predators who take advantage of these “helpless foreign women wives”.

    These groups believe that two adults having consensual sex in private should be outlawed. Since they believe that it is impossible for a man to have sex with a woman without abusing the woman in the process.

    This is an example of feminists and other groups exploiting the suffering of a small minority of vulnerable and abused women in order to further their own collective interests. For example, getting money from the government and Charity into their organizations. Rather than wanting to find the truth.

    While this may happen in very rare limited situations, the media will say that millions of people are sex slaves without doing any real research on the topic. Only taking the word of special interest anti-prostitution groups which need to generate money in the form of huge government grants from taxpayers, and charities. These “non profit” group’s employees make huge salaries, therefore they need to lobby the government, and inflate and invent victims in order to get more money into their organizations. If you look into how many real kidnapped forced against their will sex slaves there are, and not just take the anti-prostitution groups word for it. You will be very surprised.
    Where are all the forced sex slaves? I would like to meet the millions of slaves and see for myself if they were kidnapped and forced against their will. How come
    These groups lobby the government in a big way, getting Politicians to truly believe their lies.

    A key point is that on the sidelines the adult prostitutes themselves are not being listened to. They oppose laws against prostitution. But no one wants to listen to the prostitutes themselves. Only to the self appointed experts that make up numbers and stories many of which have never met a real forced sex slave or if they did it was only a few. The media and government never ask the prostitutes themselves what would help them in terms of laws.

    Many women in the sex business are independent workers. They don’t have a pimp.
    They work for themselves, advertise themselves, and keep all the money for themselves. No one forces them, because there isn’t anyone to force them. They go out and find their own customers, set their own prices, and arrange everything by themselves. Sometimes they may employ others to help them, but these are not pimps. If for example, she hires an internet web design company to make a website for her, does that make the web design company a pimp? If she pays a phone company for a phone to do business, does this make the phone company a pimp? If she puts an ad in the paper, does this make the editor a pimp? If she puts the money she makes into a bank account does this make the bank a pimp?
    A lot of anti prostitution groups would say yes. Everyone and everybody is a pimp.
    These groups make up lies, and false statistics that no one bothers to check. A big reason they do this is because it provides high paying jobs for them. They get big donations, and grants from the government, charity, churches, etc. to have these groups, and pay these high salaries of the anti prostitution workers.

    Child forced sex trafficking is extremely rare. So the police find and arrest ADULT consensual prostitutes instead. While not finding any Children, or very few. They use the excuse of Children – But, children are not involved in this adult activity. There may be a small few who are homeless or runaways, and need cash and do sex work of their own free will. Not victims of a epidemic of terrible crime gangs.

    Mostly, the police found and arrested adult prostitutes and pimps. When the police go after underage prostitutes they mostly find and arrest adult prostitutes and johns. Why are the police wasting their time on adult prostitutes? Instead of spending that time going after underage prostitutes?

    Why aren’t the police finding millions of children forced against their will to have sex for money? Because their aren’t millions of them. And what proof do they have that they were forced against their will?

    Why are the police just finding, and arresting consensual adults? Because the child victims either don’t exist or are very few in number. They use the excuse of children to arrest consenting adults. If they are just after children, they why don’t they leave the consenting adults alone? The police arrest the consenting adults that they find Why?

    If there is no children involved – why arrest the consenting adult prostitutes, johns, and pimps? They are no children involved? Why are the police wasting their time on adult prostitutes? Instead of spending that time going after underage prostitutes? Because the police are mostly after adult prostitutes, not children.

    Were all the underage prostitutes forced and raped? crying, kicking and screaming while being forced, against their will to have sex for money?

    If a prostitute is 17 and under the age of 18, she can not give legal consent. So, she could have wanted to be a prostitute, and given consent for sex, but since she is underage, she can not give legal consent, so legally she was “forced” even if she gives total consent to sex and it was consensual – she was “forced” according to the court and justice system. There is a BIG difference between being legally “forced” and truly being physically forced against someone’s will.

    This gives the impression that all prostitutes under the age of 18 are “forced” when they may in fact, not have been. If fact, if two people who are both 17 years old have sex, they both are legally considered to be victims and sex predators at the same time. It is strange how the justice system works.

    When the police arrest customers of prostitutes and the prostitutes themselves:
    They try to get the adult women prostitutes to say that they were forced and victims of sex trafficking even though they weren’t.
    These adult women just flat out say, ‘Nope, that’s not what’s happening.’ No one is forcing me”
    Then the U.S. Attorney general, senators, the police and government officials say:
    “We have to help them realize they are victims,”
    They must be brainwashed by their pimps, and johns.
    They say that adult women do not have the ability to make decisions for themselves about sex, therefore
    The government must make all their decisions about sex and who they have sex with for them.
    So… the police are trying to invent victims? Where no victim exist?
    The adult women say that no one is forcing them to work in prostitution and the police don’t believe them?
    So the police want these adult women to lie? and the police are forcing the women to lie about being forced?
    I thought lying was wrong? And isn’t it against the law to lie? -Not for the police, attorney general and other government officials.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

Subscribe to the comments via RSS Feed


Tweet! Tweet! What are we up to?

RSS New on the PLRI website

  • An error has occurred; the feed is probably down. Try again later.