How Calling Sex Work “Human Trafficking” Hurts Women




In the debate on whether prostitution should be legal, the issue of its effect on human trafficking regularly comes up. MonkeyCage recently linked to a World Development article purporting to show empirically that “countries that legalized have larger reported inflows of human trafficking than similar countries where prostitution is illegal.”

My first thought was, prostitution isn’t really legal in those countries. Sweden, for instance, has terrible, ineffective End Demand laws. Throwing fewer ladies in prison and focusing more on the customers isn’t legalization; it’s changing who you victimize. And my second thought was, what are they calling human trafficking?

The Guardian recently quoted UK solicitor general Oliver Heald QC describing “victims” of trafficking as people who pay a lot of money to escape their home countries and then are forced to pay it back. “These may have paid as much as €70 000 [£60,000] for their passage to Europe, a debt which enforces their enslavement.” That’s not slavery, it’s indentured servitude, and it accounts for two-thirds of immigrants to America from the British Isles in the 17th century.

Anti-prostitution and anti-immigration campaigners have hijacked the term “human trafficking” to describe any instance of a person crossing a border to do sex work.

As Maggie McNeill explains:

The anti-sex crowd created a mythology in which the typical sex worker is a “trafficked child slave”, and thereby hijacked what was becoming a positive force for human rights [the anti-trafficking movement], turning it into a vehicle for repression; once governments realized they could use it as an excuse to restrict migration, the corruption of a noble cause into a base one was complete.

For example, the FBI claimed to have busted 31 human traffickers, even though there was no indication their employees were being held against their will. Special agent Andrew Arena’s words at a press conference after the arrest are telling: “The FBI is part of the apparatus in place to protect people, sometimes even from their own poor choices.”

Failing to distinguish workers from slaves obviously makes it harder to actually rescue people from slavery. It requires buying into the rather insulting idea that women aren’t capable of choosing to leave their homes and do sex work abroad. By mislabeling all sex work that requires a border crossing as human trafficking, you’re also using the state to strip women of their agency. This should matter to everyone because once you establish that women aren’t capable of making their own choices, you can justify taking all kinds of rights and liberties away from them.

Those interested in economic and personal freedom must work hard to ensure the movement to end human trafficking isn’t being used to deny women the right to live and work as they please. To do this, we need a better definition of human trafficking. Trafficking isn’t the willing exchange of money or services for help crossing a border. It’s not getting a job as a prostitute once you cross over. We must distinguish between work and slavery, which actually already has a pretty simple dividing line: consent. Human trafficking is forcing someone to work without their consent. Any other definition is confusing, hurts our ability to find real slaves and justifies stripping women of their agency.

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  1. Autarch

    arrogant (?ær???nt)

    — adj

    having or showing an exaggerated opinion of one’s own importance, merit, ability, etc; conceited; overbearingly proud: an arrogant teacher ; an arrogant assumption

    “The FBI is part of the apparatus in place to protect people, sometimes even from their own poor choices.” (Special agent Andrew Arena)

    Fits like a glove.

    Mark Read Pickens

  2. springaldjack

    Indentured Servitude is an at least theoretically objectionable practice. It becomes a definite wrong when the power relationships are extreme enough that the indentured may not receive honest accounting of their accumulating credit towards their release, which is often the case in “indentured” trafficking.

    Where the sex work=trafficking gets awful is that slavery or slavery with a pretense of not being slavery gets conflated with volunary sex work with or without a component of migration, and becomes a justification for maintenance of policy that increases the risks and harms to sex workers. INCLUDING trafficked ones, because in criminalized environments (even “end demand” ones) it isn’t safe for them to report crimes, even if they escape.

    Less counter-factual anti-sex work arguments about how economic precarity leaves sex work as the only option have the problem that either the argument is hypocritical or it applies to all waged work.

    • Norm_norman

      On what grounds do you claim that is it not safe for someone to report a crime, when the sale of sex is not criminalised but the purchasing of it is?

      “have the problem that either the argument is hypocritical or it applies to all waged work.”

      That is not a problem. It does apply to all wage slavery. The difference between the sale of labour and the sale of access to one’s body is due to proximity to self. To illustrate: generally speaking I would rather have my property damaged than my labour, my labour than my body, my body than my mind.

      Consequently, although both Property and Patriarchy are abusive institutions and wage labour is oppressive/requires oppression just as does prostitution, the atrocity committed is less of an emergency as the damage being done is on the whole more severe.

      Unless the person is a privileged hobbyist, who chose their industry, can leave their industry at will, can choose which tasks they perform, when they perform them, who they perform them with and for, as those are not the industrial proletariat nor the prostituted underclass. They are parasites, dependent upon the appropriation of the labour and bodies of the genuinely oppressed.

  3. Steen Schapiro

    Hello from Denmark. The “article
    purporting to show empirically that “countries that legalized have
    larger reported inflows of human trafficking than similar countries
    where prostitution is illegal.” is presenting absolute nonsense about Denmark and Sweden.

    ILO estimates the stock of human trafficking victims in Denmark in 2004
    at approximately 2,250, while the estimated number in Sweden is about
    500 (Global report data used in Danailova-Trainor and Belser, 2006).35
    This implies that the number of human trafficking victims in Denmark is
    more than four times that of Sweden, although the population size of
    Sweden (8.9 million) is about 40% larger than that of Denmark (5.3
    million). Importantly, the Global report also estimates the number of
    prostitutes in Denmark – about 6,000 – to be three to four times larger
    than the number in Sweden. ”

    No. Per year, Denmark identifies
    app. 50 – FIFTY – victims of human trafficking. This number has proven
    stable over nearly a decade. ILO’s guesstimate is in no way empirical or

    The number of sex workers in Demark is app. 3500, not 6000.

    Those figures of 6000 were falsely enhanced by abolitionist NGO’s, which were exposed four years ago.

    There is no evidence that the number of sex workers in Denmark has risen over the last decade.

    The number of sex workers in Sweden has NOT diminished over 12 years of their criminalisation of clients and thereby sex work.
    According to Swedish justice minister Anna Skarhed, july 2nd 2010

    The number of criminal cases about human trafficking in Sweden has doubled over the last five years.

    number of sex workers in Denmark has probably always been somewhat higher than
    in Sweden, per capita. These are two very different cultures, with
    different sexual traditions. The comparisons are thus not scientifically
    valid – they have no meaning.

    Please spread this information, as the myths are many about Denmark and Sweden.

    Steen Schapiro

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