Lecture 11 (spring semester). Human Trafficking: Sex work, gender, migration.


Human Trafficking: Sex Work, Gender, and Migration 



In the last few weeks of this semester focussing on globalization and migration, we have examined the idea that people migrate with different degrees of freedom and agency, and make their decisions to migrate in the context of constraining and enabling factors. We considered the ways in which the ability to migrate (and to choose to stay) can be analyzed in terms of categories of class, caste, nationality, gender, sexuality, and “race”. In week four we looked at investment and professional migration, including the examples of Chinese elite migration to Australia, Canada, and the US, and the circulation of Indian IT professionals between India and the US.

Last week (lectures & seminars 9) we built on our sociological knowledge of globalization and migration by looking at our first categories of forced migration: refugee, asylum seeker migration, and internal displacement.

We introduced the international norms and law that aim to protect and govern the movement of these kinds of forced migration, examined the different kinds of conflict and disaster that cause people to flee, as well as other push and pull factors; we examined the way that states respond to these forms of migration, and the way they are represented in the media and in political discourse. For the seminars, we discussed some ethnographic research on the forced migrants’ experience of precarity; we watched parts of the Italian documentary film Fire at Sea, had group discussions on the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe and what we thought could be done to help solve it, and posted your ideas and peer comments on our online board.

This week’s lecture and some migration concepts/issues  revision

This week we are looking at other forms of forced and coerced migration including human trafficking, precarious migrant labour, and people smuggling.

Let’s just keep in some of the migration questions relevant to trafficking:

Do people migrate because of push or pull Factors? Or sometimes Both? Does the political economy and other factors give some structure their choices/actions? Is migration perceived as a problem and, if so, by whom?

In this lecture, we will consider

  • What is trafficking? How is it similar or different to smuggling?
  • How and why did the problem of human trafficking arise? How does that problematising relate to globalization?
  • Common misconceptions about migration and trafficking: Taking apart the myths
  • Responses to trafficking
  • What does trafficking mean for gender, agency, and globalisation
  • What is the difference between trafficking and migrancy?

In this week’s seminars we will discuss the readings, the two videos played today, and the visual images in the seminar power point to think about competing representations of gender, class, power, agency.

“Human Trafficking and “People Smuggling”

First, let’s look at the similarity and difference between trafficking and smuggling as forms of labour migration (migration for work).

  • Trafficking in persons is legally defined as

the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation.

  • Exploitation is legally defined as

at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs

(United Nations, The Palermo Protocol, 2000: Article 3)

So trafficking involves:

  • a kind of forced or coerced migration, or
  • the use of force or coercion after voluntary migration

Let’s have a look at an example

Loveth Nigerian sex trafficking victim

Loveth, 21, in a shelter for victims of sex trafficking in Italy. Loveth states she had been forced into prostitution for four years in Libya after being raped by her traffickers. She told The Guardian she was 17 when she left Nigeria, and that a madam had offered her work as a childminder in Europe. “Before they took me to Libya they used two boys to break my virginity and then in Libya they took me to a house and sent many men to sleep with me.”

In this example, the migrant labourer traveled voluntarily for what she claims she believed to have been legal work, and then found she had been tricked, so that she could be exploited.  So her migration is defined by the UN as a kind of trafficking. This is an example of the second kind of trafficking, exploitation after voluntary migration (not forced migration). But we can also say it was coerced, inasmuch as it is the madam’s (alleged) lie about ‘childminding work’ that encourages “Loveth” to migrate.

Let’s watch the following video from The Guardian Newspaper on trafficking of Nigerian women and girls to Italy:


Quick questions about the video

What kind of “human trafficking” are the women involved in? Can we tell whether the stories are true or not? How might we evaluate the claims?

In the international law, People smuggling is defined differently from human trafficking:

“procurement, in order to obtain, directly or indirectly, a financial or other material benefit, of the illegal  entry of a person into a State Party of which the person is not a national or a permanent resident.” (UN, Article 3, Smuggling of Migrants Protocol).

So, one example of migrant smuggling might include the Libyan boatmen paid to bring migrants from northern Africa to southern Europe:

libyan smuggler migrants Ghat

As we discussed in last week’s lecture, asylum seekers often rely on smugglers to be able to cross borders, and many smuggling networks include friends and family members, as well as individuals and groups undertaking aspects of smuggling for business.

The term “trafficking” − a kind of forced migration− is both similar to and different from the term “people smuggling” (also the subject of its own protocol).

“Trafficking” and people smuggling” are similar in that both terms of international law defining forms of international migration as illegal.

However, they differ inasmuch as “trafficking” involves a kind of forced migration, while “people smuggling” involves consent, as the migrant contracts a party (the “smuggler”) to assist with her (or his) illegal migration.

As we will discuss below, it’s actually more complicated than this forced/free dichotomy suggests, in part because of the emphasis on “prostitution”. To begin to understand that, let’s have a look at how and why anti-trafficking law came into being.

The “war on migration”, the “war on terror” (modern origins of international and national law on human trafficking part 1) 

Professor Julia O’Connell Davidson is a British sociologist specialising in critiques of some of the dominant ideas of “human trafficking”. In her book Modern Slavery — The Margins of Freedom (2015:3) she explains how anti-trafficking and anti-smuggling law and norms arose, in part, through the US and other state’s concerns about the risks that globalization posed for state power in the 1990s.

Tranational organized crime was represented as the expansion of illegal transactions at the expense of the legal economy and its supporting political institutions. Uncontrolled international immigration (including criminal migration and asylum migration) was viewed as threatening national sovereignty and in the guise of the possible migration of terrorists, as threatening national security.

As we saw in last week’s lecture states took a variety of legislative and administrative measures to restrict the flow of asylum seeker migration because of these perceived threats. The concern for sovereignty and security thereby combined ‘the war on terror’  with the ‘war on migration’,  while the latter was fought against migration from “the global south” in particular.

The “war on trafficking” then, emerged in the context of state’s efforts to control international movement and trade and to criminalise those they viewed as undesirable. The idea of “the forced movement of women and girls across borders and into prostitution … was parcelled up with phenomena such as smuggling, money laundering and drug and gun running” as a problem for interstate cooperation (O’Connell-Davidson, 2015:4).

This inter-state cooperation took form in international law including the following convention and its protocols.

The UN Convention on Transnational Organized Crime (2000)

The Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children 

The Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea, and Air

The Protocol against the Illicit Manufacturing of and the Trafficking in Firearms, Their Parts and Components and Ammunition.

These have corresponding national legislation in many states, with the US legislation particularly influential as it seeks to impose its view of trafficking on other states and gain their compliance in “the war on trafficking”.  The US legislation reflects the interest of the religious and feminist groups in preventing sex work and sex work migration:

The Trafficking Victim Protection Act, (2000) (TVPA)

The Trafficking Victim Protection Amendment  Act (2008), also known as the William Wilberforce Act.

The TVPA “created a two-tier definition:

“severe forms of trafficking in persons,” in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion,

and “sex trafficking,” defined simply as the recruitment, harboring, transportation, or obtaining of a person for the purpose of a commercial sex act”. Chin, Ko-lin. 31)

The “war on prostitution” (modern origins of international and national law on human trafficking part 2)

Ronald Weitzer is an American sociologist and criminologist with expertise in the politics of sex work and “human trafficking” in America. He takes a social constructionist approach to explaining the rise of the idea of human trafficking.  In the social constructionist approach, social conditions become problems as a result by interested parties making claims that may (and may not)  be based on existing social situations. The claims are more important than the conditions themselves.

One way of transforming claims into problems is via what Robin Cohen described as “moral panics” and the “moral crusades” designed to address them. A moral panic defines a particular condition as purely evil.

In his article”The social construction of sex trafficking” Weitzer explains how anti-trafficking developed in the form of a moral crusade against sex work (termed “prostitution”) and sex work in the US. As he recounts, the trafficking debates in the 1990s followed debates over sex work in the US, with an odd coalition of radical feminists and the religious right campaigning for the prohibition of pornography (beginning in the late 1980s), and federal and some state government actors cooperating via a national commission and crackdown on pornography. A similar coalition coalesced to advocate that trafficking should be defined in a way that recognized their belief that all prostitution is ultimately forced or coerced and abusive.

On the religious right stood the organizations Focus on the Family, National Association of Evangelicals, Catholic Bishops Conference, Traditional Values Coalition, Concerned Women for America, Salvation Army, International Justice Mission, Shared Hope International, and Religious Freedom Coalition among others. These faith groups regard all forms of sex work as immoral and unnatural, as threatening God-given family values, the institution of marriage and the proper relationship between genders, love, sex, and social reproduction.

With them were the neo-abolitionist feminist groups, including the Coalition Against Trafficking Women (CATW), Equality Now, the Protection Project, and Standing Against Global Exploitation (SAGE) (Weitzer, 2007). Rather than espouse the “family values” that their core beliefs denigrated, the radical feminist discourse worked in terms of prostitution as exploitative and objectifying, as a kind of (sexual) slavery, as a form of violence against women (Weitzer, 2007) that is “paradigmatic of a system of male power” (O’Neill & Scoular 2008). The right wing faith groups adopted much of this language in their efforts to gain greater legitimacy for the war on prostitution and trafficking.

Weitzer notes that these faith and feminist groups cooperated on their opposition to prostitution and pornography despite their strong differences on core issues (for each side) such as abortion and same-sex marriage.

The success of this faith-feminist coalition in the US was based, in part, on political opportunity, as they made their case during the George W. Bush presidency (2001-9). Bush, a Republican, drew on conservative Christian support, as well as on supporters of certain kinds of women’s right, sometimes combining protection of women’s right with “war-on-terror discourse, as was the case in the argument that the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan was fought to protect Afghan women and girls (Berry 2003).

On the other side, pro-sex work advocates included the Network of Sex Work Projects, the Sex Workers Outreach Project, the Global Alliance Against Trafficking in Women, and the Sex Workers Project in New York. These groups argued that most sex work is consensual and that abuse has more to do with the conditions of work than with the actual work itself. These groups focussing on research about and support for women involved in sex work have been represented as “pro-prostitution” advocates by their opponents (Weitzer, 2007).

So, the international and US law on “trafficking” reflects the interests of those groups who seek to prohibit or abolish “prostitution”.

Strategies, measures, and monitoring to support the anti-trafficking norms and law

US anti-trafficking strategy

TVPA 2000 was aimed at accomplishing

“Three Ps” “Three Rs” (victim-centered)
prosecuting traffickers (a criminal justice approach) rescue
protecting victims (the humanitarian approach) rehabilitation
preventing human trafficking (strategic approach) reintegration

In accordance with TVPA, the Department of State is required to submit to the U.S. Congress an annual  Trafficking in Persons Report) on foreign governments’ efforts to eliminate severe forms of trafficking in persons (Chin and Finckenauer, 2012; 201)

The U.S. Department of State also established the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons (GTIP Office).

UN anti-trafficking strategy

The UN followed its protocol with:

efforts to encourage states to ratify (117 had ratified by 2014)

collaboration with local governments, as well as coordination of regional and
global anti-trafficking forums.

the UN Global Initiative to Fight Trafficking (UN.GIFT) (2007) that aims at expanding anti-trafficking efforts to include members of the business community, civil society, and celebrities.

Global Plan of Action (GPA) (2008) against trafficking, intended to align and further integrate all states’ efforts to end trafficking.

Neo-Abolitionist sex trafficking: issues of force, consent, and constraint

Criminal Justice Professors Chin and Finckenauer, (2012:30) observe that “trafficking victims” are represented as being

forced to work with little or no pay; they are beaten or raped; they and their families are threatened; they are deceived by being promised one job and then forced to work at another; they are controlled in their movements; their documents are held.

However, for the US State Department and others involved in anti-trafficking, women and girls must be considered victims of trafficking even if they had consented to prostitution.

Thus the US William Wilberforce Act (2008) further differentiates between “aggravated sex trafficking” and “sex trafficking”.

“Aggravated sex trafficking” is defined as involving the use of force, fraud, or coercion to cause a person to engage in prostitution.

“Sex trafficking”, is a lesser offense defined as persuading, inducing, or enticing an individual into prostitution (without the need for force, fraud, or coercion).

This latter provision makes all prostitution, including prostitution, entered into voluntarily, a form of criminal sex trafficking (see Chin and Finckenauer, 2012:269).

The idea that women should be considered as trafficked victims even if they “chose” prostitution has been subject to intense ongoing debate. On the side of the moral crusaders are aligned the Christian Right, determined to protect traditional family values against the sin of prostitution, some feminists determined to protect women from sexual objectification, and political actors seeking to define American liberalism against the perceived illiberalism of non-Western states.

In the view of this anti-prostitution coalition, women and girls who voluntarily engage in prostitution cannot be regarded as having consented for two main reasons.

Firstly, their livelihood choices may have been so overly constrained as to have negated the possibility of free choice:  typically, extreme poverty is regarded as constraining women’s choices to such an extent that prostitution seems an (or the only) viable option.

Other constraining factors may include shame and control common to patriarchal societies that limit women and girl’s opportunities to such an extent that sex work may seem to be a viable option.

In such cases, the decision is not regarded as consent for want of a viable option.

Secondly, if all prostitution is regarded as exploitation, then one cannot be considered to have consented to exploitation. On this basis, women and girls who agree to sex work have been duped (tricked) into consent, therefore their agreement is not informed consent. This means that the sex workers’ attitude (her/his idea that s/he is working voluntarily) is regarded as wrong: the “prostitute” is regarded as a victim whose ignorance or naivety has been exploited.

Examples; chickenheads; child prostitution …

Effectively, the legal (and abolitionist) definition of trafficking works to equate migrants’ sex work with exploitation (Doezema 2010).

This view of sex work (and migration for sex work) makes it impossible to distinguish between smuggling and trafficking (Skilbrei & Tveit 2008): a smuggled sex worker becomes a trafficking victim (regardless of her/his perspective or consent).

“Human Trafficking” = “Modern Slavery”?

American anti-trafficking policy is a reinvention of early 20th century campaigns against and myths of so-called ‘white slavery” and prostitution. In her book  Sex Slaves and Discourse Masters (2000) Dr. Jo Doezema explains that turn-of-the-century policy makers, advocates, and the media used the term “white slavery” to describe how male immigrants and men of colour forced white women into prostitution. The “white slavery” discourse fed off and encouraged anxieties about female sexuality and autonomy, race and immigration.

The US Congress White Slave Traffic Act, 1910, (also known as the Mann Act), prohibited the interstate transportation of women for “immoral purposes” and criminalized interracial sex (Langum 1994). Thus once enforced with legislation, the “white slavery” discourse enabled laws restricting women’s mobility, while representing these restrictions as having been enacted in the interest of protecting the supposed “trafficking victims” (Doezema, 2000).

The current “war against trafficking” also reinvents the 19th-century abolitionist (anti-slavery) campaigns, with the conflict between ‘slavery’ and freedom’ this time imagined on the site of the female migrant victim, who needs to be rescued from her often-Oriental and definitively UnAmerican enslavement.


Myths of Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery

This week’s seminar

Next Week’s Lecture (8)

Globalization: Precarious labour and migration

Please Note: This blog is educational. Any images or works represented or discussed are used for teaching purposes only.

Author: shabbycheek

Lecturer and researcher in intersectional cultural studies, historical sociology, American and migration studies. Working in China on America, British, Australian and Chinese social justice issues using Feminist materialist, post-Marxist (Gramscian), Critical Race Studies and post-colonial perspectives.

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