Human Trafficking Issues And Debates

Victims of human trafficking and men who buy sex.

Trafficking victims have shared testimony regarding the ways in which traffickers used them as products to be bought, sold, and discarded. Dis cussing the torture and abuse used by traffickers, Sarson and MacDonald28 described one young girl's testimony in which she told how her traffickers "rented her out" to local pedophiles. They also explain how traffickers, like pimps, exploit women and children to meet men's sexual needs.

Farley, Macleod, Anderson, and Golding's27 interviews with sex buyers illustrate how men remove women's humanity in prostitution. Buying a woman in prostitution gives men the power to turn women into a living version of his masturbation fantasy. He removes those qualities that define her as an individual, and for him she becomes sexualized body parts. She then acts the part of the thing he wants her to be. For example, a sex buyer said prostitution was like "renting an organ for ten minutes." Another man said, "I use them like I might use any other amenity, a restaurant, or a public convenience."

As shocking as these observations may sound to those who have an idealized notion of prostitution, the buyers' descriptions closely match women's descriptions of prostitution. Prostituted women explain how it feels to be treated like a rented organ. "It is internally damaging. You become in your own mind what these people do and say with you. You wonder how could you let yourself do this and why do these people want to do this to you."29 Women who prostitute have described it as "paid rape" and "voluntary slavery," and women exploited by traffickers use similar words. Prostitution is sexual harassment, sexual exploitation, and sometimes torture. A sex buyer's payment does not erase what we know about acts of sexual violence and rape.

A common myth is that sex buyers are harmless when it comes to prostitution. However, in the case of trafficking for the purpose of prostitution, the same sex buyers who purchase sex from allegedly "voluntary" prostitutes are also purchasing sex from trafficked women. One sex buyer said, "You get what you pay for without the 'no.'" Non-prostituting women have the right to say "no" and are legally protected from sexual harassment and sexual exploitation. But tolerating sexual abuse is the job description for prostitution and sex trafficking. Research shows that a majority of sex buyers refuse condoms, pay high prices to desperately poor women to not use condoms, or rape women without condoms.30-31 In research comparing frequent and infrequent sex buyers, the men who most frequently used women in prostitution were also those most likely to have committed sexually aggressive acts against non-prostituting women.32 In interviews with more than a hundred U.K. sex buyers, although a majority believed that most women have been lured, tricked, or trafficked into prostitution, they bought them anyway.27

Several studies have explored beliefs that sex buyers have about women's motivation to prostitute. A sex buyer stated, "All prostitutes are exploited. However, they also have good incomes." Some people have made the decision that it is reasonable to expect certain women to have sex with up to ten sex buyers a day in order to survive.33 Women who have been trafficked for prostitution tell us that they perform sex acts with as many as twenty to thirty sex buyers a day. Those women most often are poor and most often are racially marginalized. A neocolonial economic perspective is enshrined in a Canadian prostitution tourist's comment about women in Thai prostitution, who stated, "These girls gotta eat, don't they? I'm putting bread on their plate. I'm making a contribution. They'd starve to death unless they whored." The sex buyer's sympathetic attitude avoids the question: Do all women have the right to live without the sexual harassment or sexual exploitation of prostitution—or is that right reserved only for those who have sex, race, or class privilege?

Human trafficking and the legalization of prostitution. All women should have the right to survive without prostituting and to live in environments that condemn the practices that make human trafficking possible. However, even when extensive research data shows that the women in prostitution are victims of pimps and traffickers, in cities where prostitution is illegal, the women themselves are the ones who are arrested, abused, and persecuted by local authorities. On the other end of the spectrum, in cities where prostitution is legal or decriminalized, prostituted women are left to fend for themselves against abusive pimps and traffickers, who are frequently networked with organized crime.

There is extensive evidence about the negative consequences of legal and decriminalized prostitution. Legal prostitution specifies where prostitution is permitted to take place, including municipal tolerance zones or red-light zones. Decriminalized prostitution removes all laws against pimping, pandering, and buying women in prostitution, and decriminalizes the person who is prostituted. Legal and decriminalized prostitution are similar in their effects. Pimp-like, the state collects taxes from legal prostitution. In decriminalized regimes, the old-fashioned pimps become legitimized entrepreneurs.19

In 2003, New Zealand passed a law that decriminalized selling sex, buying sex, and pimping. The New Zealand Prostitution Law Review Committee reported what happened after prostitution was decriminalized.34 Seven years after the New Zealand law was passed, battles were still being waged about whose neighborhood prostitution would be zoned into. No one wanted prostitution next door. Prostitution was zoned into the neighborhoods of people who could not afford the legal fees to prevent it. The regulation of prostitution by zoning is a physical manifestation of the same social/psychological stigma that decriminalization advocates allegedly want to avoid. Whether in Turkish genelevs (walled-off multi-unit brothel complexes) or in Nevada brothels (ringed with barbed wire or electric fencing), women in state-zoned prostitution are physically isolated and socially rejected by the rest of society, and therefore more vulnerable to the crimes committed against them. The social stigma of prostitution persisted five years after decriminalization in New Zealand, according to the Law Review Committee. Moreover, after decriminalization in New Zealand, violence and sexual abuse in prostitution continued as before. According to the New Zealand Prostitution Law Review Committee, "The majority of sex workers felt that the law could do little about violence that occurred."34 They found that after the law was passed, 35% of women in prostitution reported they were still coerced by sex buyers. Women prostituted in massage parlors who were under the control of pimps reported the highest rate of coercion. Five years after legally defining prostitution as work, the New Zealand law was unable to change the exploitive quasi-contractual arrangements that existed before prostitution was decriminalized. Most people in prostitution (both indoor and street) continued to mistrust police and did not report crimes committed against them.

Legalizing prostitution does not decrease violence against women in prostitution. For example, in Australia, where prostitution is legal in some provinces, the Australian Occupational and Safety Codes recommend classes in hostage negotiation skills for those in legal prostitution, reflecting the sex buyers' violence.18 Human trafficking is also most prevalent wherever prostitution is legal or decriminalized. When prostitution is legal, pimps operate with impunity and sex buyers are welcomed. Trafficking of children has increased in New Zealand since decriminalization, especially the trafficking of ethnic minority Maori children. Reflecting increased organized crime since decriminalization, Auckland gangs have waged turf wars over control of prostitution. Since decriminalization, street prostitution has spiraled out of control, especially in New Zealand's largest city, Auckland. A 200% to 400% increase in street prostitution has been reported. After legalization of prostitution in Victoria, Australia, the number of legal brothels doubled. But the greatest expansion was in illegal prostitution. In one year there was a 300% increase in illegal brothels. Staff at a New Zealand agency providing prostitution exit strategies observed that there were twice as many sex buyers in the street since decriminalization. The sex buyers were more aggressive after prostitution was decriminalized, soliciting the agency's women staff members. Similar post-decriminalization increased aggression against women has been noted among Australian sex buyers.19

Human trafficking, prostitution and the concept of choice. The Dutch, and since then others, have posited essential differences between human trafficking and prostitution, but there is little evidence for this ideological viewpoint.35 The arguments for legalizing prostitution depend on the strength of two arguments: that prostitution is a choice for those in it and that the harms of prostitution are decreased if it is legalized. However, prostitution and human trafficking overlap in many ways, strongly suggesting that the existence of one contributes to the proliferation of the other.

A review of many peer-reviewed studies and reports from agencies who offer direct services to those in prostitution and from policy experts reveals that only a tiny percentage of all women in prostitution are in prostitution after making a genuine choice between viable alternatives.36 For most, prostitution is not a freely made choice, because the conditions that would permit genuine choice are not present: physical safety, equal power with buyers, and real alternatives. The very few who do choose prostitution are privileged by class or race or education. They usually have options for escape. Most women in prostitution do not have viable alternatives. They are coerced into prostitution by sex inequality, race/ethnic inequality, and economic inequality.

There is no evidence for the theory that legalization decreases the harm of prostitution. In fact, legalization increases trafficking, increases prostitution of children, and increases sex buyers' demands for cheaper or "unrestricted" sex acts.37,18 Whether prostitution is legal or illegal, research shows that the poorer she is, and the longer she has been in prostitution, the more likely a woman is to experience violence.38 The emotional consequences of prostitution are the same whether prostitution is legal or illegal, and whether it happens in a brothel, a strip club, a massage parlor, or on the street.1

Some governmental and some international laws address the intimate relationship between prostitution and trafficking. A United Nations document views trafficked women as victims, not criminals. The Palermo Pro-tocol39 declares that consent is irrelevant to whether or not trafficking has occurred. It encourages countries to develop legislative responses to men's demand for prostitution and establishes a method of international judicial cooperation that would permit prosecution of traffickers and organized criminals. The Palermo Protocol also addresses a range of other forms of sexual exploitation, including pornography.40

A decade ago, Sweden named prostitution as a form of violence against women that fosters inequality.41 As a result Sweden criminalized sex buyers but decriminalized the person in prostitution. Iceland, Norway, and South Korea have now passed similar laws, with the United Kingdom passing legislation that moves in a similar direction, and Israel considering such a bill in 2011.

The Swedish government's evaluation of the effects of their law on prostitution shows that in a decade since the law was passed, street prostitution in Sweden decreased by 50%, although it has increased in neighboring countries during that same time.42 There is no evidence that women have moved from street to indoor prostitution in Sweden. The intimate relationship between prostitution and trafficking is highlighted when buyers are criminalized. Sweden now has the fewest trafficked women in the European Union. The law interferes with the international business of pimping and the practice of buying sex. While there was initial resistance to the Swedish law, now more than 70% of the public support it. Women exiting prostitution use state-provided exit services. Not surprisingly, the report points out that the women out of prostitution favor the law, while women who are still exploited in prostitution are against the ban.

Whether or not it is legal, prostitution is extremely harmful for women. Women in prostitution have the highest rates of rape and homicide of any group of women ever studied.43-44 They are regularly physically assaulted and verbally abused, whether they prostitute on the street or in massage parlors, brothels, or hotels. Sexual violence and physical assault are the norm for women in legal as well as illegal prostitution, and among trafficked women. A study of women in legal Dutch prostitution found that 60% of the women were physically assaulted, 70% were threatened with physical assault, 40% experienced sexual violence, and 40% had been coerced into legal prostitution.38 The dilemma is not that there is no legal redress for coercion, physical assault, and rape in illegal prostitution. There are laws against those forms of violence. The dilemma is that once in prostitution, women cannot avoid sexual harassment, sexual exploitation, rape, and acts that are the equivalent of torture and that frequently meet U.S. and international definitions of human trafficking.

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