Prostitution And Human Trafficking Under The Lens Of Violence Against Women

Women in prostitution suffer extremely high rates of violence from pimps and from men who buy them for sexual use. Farley and Barkan16 found that among 130 people in prostitution interviewed in San Francisco 82% had been physically assaulted, 83% had been threatened with a weapon, and 68% had been raped while prostituting.

A Korean woman who was overwhelmed with credit card debt was led to believe by traffickers that if she traveled to the United States, she could work in the entertainment industry, quickly earn a lot of money, and then return home. A college student from a poor family who wanted to impress her new friends, You-Mi quickly generated $40,000 in debt. Naively believing traffickers who told her she would pour drinks as a hostess (but would not have to sell sex) for $10,000 a month in Los Angeles Korea Town, she was supplied a fake passport, and once in the United States and under the control of traffickers, she was moved between Los Angeles and San Francisco in massage parlors controlled by Korean organized criminals. In 2006 she prostituted fifteen hours a day at massage brothels with blacked-out windows and double metal security doors. You-Mi was allowed outside only if escorted by cabbies that were paid by the traffickers. Unable to speak more than a few basic sentences in English, she was unaware of where she was and dependent on her captors for food and shelter. You-Mi was isolated, terrorized, and prostituted in a massage brothel under prisonlike conditions of debt bondage. After a long struggle, she was finally recognized as a victim of trafficking.17

Regardless of the nature of the freely made, deceived, tricked, or coerced decision a woman makes to move to another country for prostitution, after she has actually moved she will be "recruited, transported and controlled by organized crime networks," Sullivan18 wrote about Australian prostitution. The same is true in the United States. There is an evolving public awareness about the human rights violations of sex trafficking in the United States. This awareness and public outrage about trafficking, however, exists primarily for victims who have been transported across international borders.

Domestic trafficking—the sale of women in prostitution from poorer to more prosperous sex markets within a single country—can be as devastating for the women as international trafficking. This is true in countries where there is assumed to be significant wealth such as New Zealand and the United States as well as countries where there is more visible poverty such as India and Zambia.

The apparently civilized transaction between elite prostitutes and their clients in luxury hotels is underpinned by the same logic that underpins the forcible sale of girls in a Bangladeshi brothel. This logic is premised on a value system that grades girls and women—and sometimes men and boys—according to their sexual value. (p. 247)4

Wherever there is a market, and wherever they can wrest control from other gangs or from local pimps, organized criminals run prostitution rings both inside countries and across international borders. Traffickers are businessmen who pay close attention to men's demand for prostitution. They obtain the women and girls who supply that demand wherever women are vulnerable because of economic factors and cultural practices that devalue women.

Although physical violence may or may not occur, in all cases of trafficking for prostitution, psychosocial coercion happens in contexts of sex and race inequality and under conditions of poverty or financial stress, and often a history of childhood abuse or neglect. Women may legally and seemingly voluntarily migrate from a poorer to a wealthier part of the world, for example with a work permit and the promise of a good job from a friend who turns out to be a trafficker. Once she has migrated, away from home and community support, she is dependent on traffickers and their networks. At that point the pimp/trafficker's psychological and physical coercion expands while her options for escape rapidly shrink.

Prostitution is the destination point for sex trafficking. Legal prostitution is a major contributing factor to the human rights violations of sex trafficking. Where prostitution is legal, states in effect say to the world: we accept the selling of women for sex; we consider pimps and traffickers to be sex entrepreneurs rather than organized criminals; we consider men who buy women for sex to be consumers of sexual services rather than predators. That same message is sent when governments look away from prostitution in their jurisdictions, refusing to enforce existing laws against buying and prostituting women.

There is widespread misunderstanding about the legal and conceptual differences between prostitution and trafficking.19 Sex trafficking is not about transportation; rather, it involves coercive control. Any prostitution that involves third-party control or exploitation or pimping meets the definition of human trafficking. What is relevant is how she is abused in prostitution, the control of, sale and sexual use of a human being. Women who are used as maids or field workers are used in prostitution-like activities by traffickers. Women and girls are especially vulnerable to sexual abuse when used in domestic servitude.20 An International Labor Organization (ILO) assessment in El Salvador found that two-thirds of girls in domestic service had been physically or psychologically abused, and many had also been sexually abused. The girls lived in constant fear of sexual advances from their employers, by the adult men in the extended family, the stronger children, or by other male workers of the household. When the girls became pregnant, they were often abandoned to the streets.21 Not surprisingly, another ILO study on the sexual exploitation of Tanzanian girls found that many prostituted children were evicted by employers who had sexually abused them while they were working as domestic servants.22

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