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The dimensions of trafficking for purposes of prostitution

27 août 2006

par Richard Poulin, sociologist

In the feminist networks, debate over the extent of the trade in women and children for purposes of prostitution surfaces from time to time. Advocates of prostitution as "sex work" cast doubt on the figures quoted by international organizations. Nicole Nepton, director of Cybersolidaires, and spokespeople for Stella, recently challenged data on the problem. Richard Poulin, who in his work frequently cites the figures being challenged, responds to the arguments of the challengers, and broadens the perspective.

Unlike the conservatives, the advocates of “sex work” rightly reject the criminalization of prostitutes. In this they are aligned with the abolitionists. However, opposition to the trade in human beings for purposes of prostitution by the abolitionists is regarded as a violation of the right to mobility of “sex workers” who have chosen to engage in this “work” abroad. This has produced a vigorous challenge to the international data that estimate the extent of the trade at several millions annually. Like the states where it is regulated, the advocates of reducing prostitution to a “job” like any other believe that human being are being trafficked only when the trade is “criminal” in nature- that is, illegal. Legal trade, in their view, is not trafficking. In other words, a person who knows they will be prostituted in the destination country is not a victim of trafficking, even if heavily “indebted” to the traffickers and pimps, and thus obliged to turn more and more tricks without receiving any income at all therefrom.

In her recent contributions within the feminist networks, Nicole Nepton questions one of the figures that has been circulating for a few years : the estimate of four million victims annually of the trade in human beings, claiming that the source at UNFPA (the United Nations Population Fund) is not valid because it does not define “trade” adequately. Such a charge is automatic for anyone arguing that prostitution is work since in their minds, only trade for the purposes of “forced” prostitution is really trafficking.

The International Organization for Migration (IMO) declared in 2001 that about four million people were victims of trafficking worldwide. The IMO is particularly active in this area. It is in fact working in the front lines in many regions of the world. It is the organization mandated to set up return services for people who are victims of international trafficking, and alert the public in the various “source” countries to the risks involved. The United Nations Economic and Social Council has endorsed the same estimate in a report by its Special Rapporteur, Gabriela Rodríguez Pizarro (E/CN.4/2001/83). The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimates that in the decade of the 1990s, 33 million people in Southeast Asia were victims of human trafficking, or an average of 3.3 million a year for that region of the world alone.
Today, the various governmental and international sources assess the annual number of victims of human trafficking worldwide at between 700,000 and four million. The most cautious and conservative estimate is that of the US State Department, which makes it clear that it does not count domestic trafficking, which is assessed at millions of people a year. We know that in Thailand, for example, there is significant domestic trafficking of women and young girls from the north to the south.

A 2005 report by the International Labour Organization (ILO) - an organization favourable to recognition of prostitution as sex work-on the profits generated by prostitution, trafficking and forced labour assessed at over a million annually the number of people who are victims of forced trafficking. Even without considering in its entirety the traffic that it limits to what is “forced”, the ILO survey indicated that trafficking is a large-scale phenomenon that affects over a million people a year.

The discrepancies between the various estimates are related to the assessment system used, and the inclusion of domestic and international trafficking, or a limited definition of trafficking as “forced” or a broader definition of it as including both “forced” and “unforced”. While the complexity of the phenomenon makes it difficult to quantify, its dimensions nonetheless remain unedifying.

The advocates of prostitution as work have nothing to say, moreover, about the 2004 UNICEF estimate that 1.2 million children annually are victims of trafficking. No one disputes the estimate. If this undisputed figure is justified, as it seems to be, the global trade in human beings for purposes of prostitution is obviously more extensive than the trade in children alone. Note that as far as the various international organizations are concerned, including those that favour the regulation of prostitution, trade in children is by definition “forced”, since the concept of consent cannot apply.
In 2006, using a database set up under the global program on human trafficking that pools information from over five hundred sources, the UNODC estimates that 92% of the victims of human trafficking are destined for prostitution, and 48% of them are children. According to the ILO, in 2005 women and girls made up 98% of the victims of trafficking for purposes of sexual exploitation. The UNODC estimates that human trafficking affects millions of people annually. Practically no country in the world is spared : the Office lists 127 source countries and 137 destination countries.

Be that as it may, whatever the various estimates are, it is clear that prostitution and trafficking for purposes of prostitution are industrial-scale activities that exploit millions of women and children, shipping them from one market to another, generally from the poorer regions to countries that are less poor, or to the wealthy countries.

Over- or understatement ?

Because they reject the distinction between “forced” and “voluntary” prostitution and trafficking, the abolitionists are often accused of painting an overly black picture, and dramatizing the issue. Much is made of their use of estimates that have to be “exaggerated” or “slanted” because they include people who “consent” to prostitution. The emphasis on the way they “exaggerate” is an attempt to invalidate their entire analysis.

Obviously, when we discuss estimates, we are talking about extrapolation from known cases. There are a number of factors that explain the lack of reliable data on the trade in women and children for purposes of prostitution. In many cases, they are the same factors that explain the lack of knowledge about the industry at the national level. That being the case, when we examine these factors, we may conclude-unlike the advocates of prostitution as work-that the “alarming“ or “exaggerated” estimates used by the various international organizations and the abolitionists are under - rather than overstatements of the situation.

1. Trafficking for purposes of sexual exploitation is an activity that is very often clandestine and illegal. It is therefore difficult to obtain data precisely because it is clandestine.

2. A part of the trade is legal. This is the case in countries like Canada, Switzerland, Cyprus, Slovenia, Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Luxembourg and others that annually issue tens of thousands of “artist” visas to nude dancers and those who work in the adult entertainment industry. In 2004, Swiss embassies issued 5,953 “L” visas for nightclub dancers, the preferred mechanism of pimps and traffickers who prostitute women. That same year, Slovenia issued 650 visas, most of them to female Ukrainian nationals. In 2003, the Japanese government issued 55,000 visas to Filipino women ; in 2004, the figure was 71,084. A number of Caribbean countries, including St Lucia, the Bahamas, Jamaica and Surinam, issue visas to “dancers” to allow them to work “entertaining” men. This is also the case in the Netherlands Antilles, where prostitution is regulated, particularly St Maarten, Curaçao and Bonaire. Those concerned do not appear in the official statistics on human trafficking, because the activity is legal, and therefore not a part of the trade in human beings which, of course, is a criminal activity !

3. The victims of trafficking for purposes of prostitution are reluctant to report themselves to the authorities in transit or destination countries, or are prevented from doing so by intimidation or fear of reprisals ; they are also afraid of deportation.

4. Combatting the trafficking of women and children for purposes of prostitution is not a government priority ; as a result, neither is research into it. Moreover, there are some governments that encourage trafficking for prostitution. One example among others is the travel guide for women published by the GTZ, a specialized agency of the federal Ministry of Cooperation in Germany, which offers advice to women on how to cross borders without difficulty in order to get into the prostitution industry.

5. Many countries have no laws against trafficking in people. There are accordingly no national statistics.

6. Lastly, the data are a political issue. For many organizations and for governments that regulate prostitution, when the trade for purposes of sexual exploitation is considered “voluntary”, it is not trafficking. Therefore, such organizations systematically minimize the scale of the phenomenon.

Revisionism and denial

In the minds of the advocates of prostitution as work, alongside the “forced” prostitution that is intolerable as a violation of human rights, there also exists a “voluntary” form of prostitution, which is acceptable since it respects personal autonomy and the right to control one’s body. In short, in the thinking of the “supporters” of prostitution as work, the “right” to dispose of one’s sexuality on the prostitution market in this era of neoliberal capitalism is now just another in the panoply of fundamental democratic rights. Instead of promoting the “right” not to be a prostitute, the object now is to argue for the right to be one !
Denial of the extent of the trafficking is closely linked to this legitimization of prostitution.
This essentially liberal feminism, also labelled by some as “sex-positive”, in contrast to the “sex-negative” abolitionists, implies historical revisionism and denial of the structurally oppressive nature of prostitution. Obviously, if prostitution were an institution that oppressed women, the feminists would be logically bound to fight for its abolition.

There is no lack of recent examples of the rewriting of history. Thus, one advocate of prostitution as work, Maria Nengeh Mensah, manages in her introduction to a book on the third wave of feminism : Dialogues sur la troisième vague féministe (Montreal, Remue-ménage, 2005) to limit the first wave of feminism to the movement for universal suffrage, and charges the first wave with being at the root of the international abolitionist movement.

New histories of prostitution are appearing that reinterpret the institution as a source of power for women over men. To adopt this line, one has to refrain deliberately from any analysis of the prostitution of children. Who can seriously argue that prostitution is a source of power for little girls over men ? Yet some have sought to do so. For example, early in the 20th century, doctors and jurists who hoped to secure universal adoption of a regulatory approach, agreed in Vienna - where juvenile prostitution flourished - that in prostitution, girls exerted the seductive power peculiar to the eternal woman : what is nowadays referred to by some as “sexual power” or the “empowerment“ of girls. The pornography of the time, particularly Les mémoires de Joséphine Mutzenbaker (1906), conveyed this idea, which is widespread in contemporary pornography.

This new “history” also incorporates denial of the existence of the “white slave trade”, which it relegates to mere myth. This “fanciful” trade, it is claimed, enabled the abolitionists of the turn of the 20th century to score points in their campaign against the prostitution of women. As a result, the new “history” holds that for more than a century, the abolitionists have been fabricating legends to rally governments to their cause. There never was a white slave trade, quite simply because the young women prostitutes who were moved from country to country, and from continent to continent, “consented”. Oddly enough, this “consent” was especially forthcoming among the most vulnerable groups, particularly Jewish women from Eastern Europe, who were the most numerous victims of the trade. The trade today also affects a disproportionate number of women and children from ethnic and national minorities who are victims of discrimination. “Consent” seems to come essentially from the poorest and most vulnerable of women.

Prostitution and oppression

Whether female-girls and women of all ages-or male-boys, adolescents, young men, transvestites, transsexuals-prostitution is a social institution used almost exclusively by men. It is an industry that exists essentially to give pleasure to men and to demonstrate their superiority.

In regulated or unregulated settings, the industry displays its wares where each client can make his selection. Some cruise the streets of a neighbourhood in their cars assessing the ”merchandise”, others ogle women in store windows. Some take a comfortable seat in a brothel or a karaoke club and watch young women parade before them, identifying the one that takes their fancy by a number pinned to a bustier or a swimsuit. For many johns, the chief pleasure is derived precisely from the ogling, the picking out, the selecting and ultimately from knowing that all this flesh is available and on offer to them. Confirmed in their male superiority, such men are pleased that so many young women, older women or very young ones, and “feminized” boys and men are potentially at their service, that the use of their bodies can be bought. As a result, they feel all-powerful ; they are the “gods” described in advertisements promoting sex tourism in Central America and the Caribbean. The power that comes from their wallets, however weak, is so to speak validated not only in the act of prostitution itself, but also in the very existence of prostitution.
For these men, women give themselves up to prostitution : they are comfort girls, daughters of joy, the warrior’s booty, a recreational amenity. They are dominated by their sex, fixated on their bodies, have “chosen” to be what they are and enjoy prostitution, and this proves their inferiority to men. The one who spends the money has a constant advantage over the one who provides the goods, which gives men a formidable edge in prostitution, according to Georg Simmel. Money is the key ; it binds and subjugates the prostitute to the client, making the relationship impersonal and reified, and bestowing supremacy on the one who pays. As Françoise Héritier puts it, payment is not an act of freedom : it signifies the emancipation of the man and the subservience of the woman.
Paying for a sex act releases the client ; the recompense implies the end of the payor’s liability and its transfer to the person who takes the money. The latter is consequently the one at fault. In prostitution, the client is not looking for reciprocity. Male pleasure is unidirectional. It is precisely the subordination of female or feminized bodies that provides the pleasure.

Generally, the argument that legalization or decriminalization benefits prostitutes is nothing but a stratagem. It is futile to claim that the legalization of prostitution is defended in the interests of those prostituted ; governments that have legalized it have never done so in response to arguments favouring the madams and the pimps. The real reasons are quite different in nature : it seems natural to some people for some members of mankind to be at the sexual service of others. It also seems natural to them for money to be able to buy anything or anybody, and for it to enable the desires of the payor to be imposed on the payee.

The system of prostitution is an especially significant manifestation of the dominance of the male sex in a mercantile society. The merchandise is a mere “thing”, and even though it appears to be such, it is basically a social relationship. The transformation of a human being into goods for prostitution signifies not only objectification, but enrolment in a relationship of sexist submission and commercial subordination. As in any relationship of dominance, those dominated and exploited develop forms of resistance, strategies for survival and ways of alleviating their plight. Sexual objectification through prostitution does not eliminate the capacity to resist of the victim-the prostitute - who by definition is a thinking being capable of action, but it imposes upon them an oppressive social structure that can and must be abolished.


According to the criticisms expressed by the advocates of “sex work”, the abolitionists discount what prostitutes say. Do they really ? According to the latest survey by Farley and Lynne (in Not for sale, 2004), 95% of Vancouver’s prostitutes want to get out of prostitution. Their research also brought out the immediate needs of women prostitutes, a majority of whom (52%) are aboriginal. Some 82% of them needed drug or alcohol rehabilitation treatment, 66% of them housing or a safe place to live, 67% job training, 41% medical care, 49% training in self-defence, 58% counselling, 33% legal aid, 12% childcare services and 4% physical protection against pimps. However, 32% of them were for legalization or total decriminalization of prostitution. Despite substantial propaganda in favour of these policy options, particularly from NGOs that work with prostitutes on STD prevention, 68% of Vancouver prostitutes do not see legalization or decriminalization as a solution for their problems, including those related to their physical and sexual security. Note that Vancouver has the highest number of murdered and missing prostitutes in Canada. Questions of safety are thus very important there, and despite this, legalization or total decriminalization is not seen by most of those chiefly involved as the solution. If Nicole Nepton, Stella and other advocates of prostitution as work are honest in claiming to be listening to and passing on the message the prostitutes give them, how is it that they are not repeating the message ?

Version originale en français : L’envergure de la traite à des fins de prostitution

Read also the related article on the issues raised by prostitution seen as work : Enjeux de la prostitution considérée comme travail du sexe.

Richard Poulin is sociologist.

French version posted on Sisyphe on June 22, 2006.

English version posted on Sisyphe on 27 August, 2006.

Richard Poulin, sociologist

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