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.
Photo via http://thelionproject.org/