Sex Trafficking: The Abolitionist Fallacy

Economic hardship, discrimination, and violence have driven millions of women to work in the sex sector around the world, and their numbers will increase as a result of the current global economic crisis. Unless the underlying factors pushing women to opt for selling sex to support themselves and their families are remedied, many women will continue to have few other options.

Yet the Bush administration, supported by the evangelical right-wing and some radical feminists, spent eight years promoting laws to criminalize prostitution and clients as the means to abolish prostitution and stop human trafficking into the sex sector. The ideology-driven approach is notable for the absence of any concrete evidence that it works. Proponents of such an approach have also failed to demonstrate that it avoids harming women or provides other livelihoods for those it aspires to help. It reduces all adults in the sex sector (even highly paid “call girls” and those working legally) to victim status and considers all prostitution to be a form of trafficking.

Unfortunately for many of the women who are objects of this policy, the ensuing crackdowns have meant prison, violence, forced “rehabilitation” and no means to earn an adequate livelihood. At the same time, the policy has not achieved its goal of reducing the incidence of trafficking, prostitution, commercial sexual exploitation of children or HIV/AIDs. The only responses to date from the new administration are President Barack Obama’s affirmation at the Saddleback Presidential Forum that human trafficking “has to be a top priority” and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s statement at her confirmation hearing that she takes “very seriously the function of the State Department to lead our government through the Office on Human Trafficking to do all that we can to end this modern form of slavery.”

The Abolitionists

The most politically active abolitionists in the United States are Michael Horowitz (Hudson Institute), Janet Crouse (Concerned Women for America), Donna Hughes (University of Rhode Island), Equality Now, and the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women. They have worked successfully over the last eight years to bring about many of the anti-prostitution legal and policy changes regarding human trafficking and HIV/AIDs.

The latest entrant to this crowded field of abolitionists is Siddharth Kara, a former investment banker and business executive who has written the book Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery (2008). Kara traveled to India, Nepal, Albania, Moldova, and elsewhere to research his book. But like his fellow abolitionists, he too falls short of producing evidence that criminalizing demand will stop trafficking or abolish prostitution. He supports criminalizing clients, in part, based on a visit to The Netherlands where prostitution is legal (but not to Sweden, where it is illegal and clients are criminalized). He quotes Suzanne Hoff of La Strada, an anti-trafficking organization, as reporting that the majority of the women selling sex in Amsterdam are trafficked. But, as Hoff told me, she did not and could not make such a statement “for the simple reason that there are not — and have never been — reliable figures on the number or percent of women being exploited or forced into the sex industry.”

“If I had to choose a policy today,” he writes, “I would choose the stance of the U.S. and Swedish governments: the criminalization of prostitution, including the purchase of sex acts and the owning, operating, or financing of sex establishments” because this approach “has a better chance of curtailing demand for sex slaves.” Wishing won’t make it so; neither is it a basis for sound policymaking.

Like similar travelers, Kara is deeply touched by the victims’ stories and wants to mount a campaign to bring justice, assistance, and hope to the women and girls. The centerpiece of his campaign is the destruction of the economic basis of the trafficking business. The economic model he erects is built on several unexamined assumptions and unattributed statements of fact and data. The most seriously flawed assumption he makes is to equate human beings — trafficked persons and sex workers — with commodities. His economic model treats women as passive objects that are pushed and pulled by exploiters using forced labor to lower costs to meet demand, and ignores the poverty, discrimination, and violence that compel women to make risky decisions. Adults who make rational choices from among limited options are actors who don’t fit a neat supply/demand economic model, and so they are factored out of the equation in order to situate trafficking as a commodity business.

Some of Kara’s proposed solutions are dangerous, unworkable or unrealistic. For example, he advocates for private citizen community vigilance committees to go into brothels undercover to locate trafficked women and girls. But he was unsuccessful in going undercover and even chased away from one brothel area. He recognizes, on the one hand, that up to a third of victims are rescued by clients, and opines on the other that clients are looking “for a way to act out violent, racist, pedophiliac, or other antisocial traits.”6 Yet, by opting to prosecute all clients, he ignores the fact that women and youth like those he met will continue to migrate and sell sex, no matter how many men are imprisoned. At the personal level, Kara also equivocates: While he advocates for raids to rescue trafficked women and girls, he nonetheless leaves a woman he believes has been trafficked in the United States to her fate because she “needed the money for her family and there was a threat of violence against her parents.”

All of his proposed solutions suffer from a lack of input from the people who will be primarily affected: trafficked persons and adult sex workers. To develop effective, evidence-based, do-no-harm policies, advocates and policy makers must work collaboratively with persons who may be helped or harmed by the proposed laws and policies.

What Works

Effective change comes from the bottom up, within the affected community where the persons who are the most knowledgeable and motivated live and work. The only way to build sustainable movements for change is to empower and support a vibrant civil society. This is particularly important when the issues have social, cultural, and economic bases that are highly resistant to any attempt at regulation by criminal law. Sex worker organizations in the United States, India, Thailand, Cambodia, Mali, Brazil, South Africa, and elsewhere are the front-line actors, who have first-hand knowledge about how raids, anti-prostitution campaigns, “vigilance” committees, and law enforcement approaches impact their lives and undermine efforts to combat trafficking, child prostitution, and the spread of HIV/AIDs.

Instead of harassing and stigmatizing women in the sex sector, governments and civil society should recognize and value their accomplishments — such as removing children and trafficked women from brothels, creating adult literacy programs, organizing micro-enterprise programs so women can find other sources of income, setting up schools for their children, and raising awareness about HIV/AIDs and health issues.

The Obama administration should reject the ideology-driven policies, practices, and programs of the past eight years. Specifically, it should base all programs and policies on proven results and sound ideas derived from objective evidence. It should take into consideration the concerns and ideas of sex worker groups when developing new programs and policies. The administration should stop applying the anti-prostitution pledge in a way that prevents the funding of U.S. and foreign organizations that work with sex workers. Civil servants who have been trained to carry out the anti-prostitution agenda over the last eight years must abandon that agenda and operate under a new, more open and inclusive policy based on rights and evidence. And the government should remove all of its materials related to human trafficking, sex work, and/or HIV/AIDs that are inconsistent with the above recommendations from websites and distribution.

In this way, the new administration can create progressive, non-judgmental, rights- and evidence-based strategies in partnership with sex worker organizations and other experts to ensure that U.S. goals to stop human trafficking and the spread of HIV/AIDs are accomplished without causing further collateral harm.

Ann Jordan is the director of the Program on Human Trafficking and Forced Labor at the Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law, American University Washington College of Law. She is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.
  • Jody Williams

    This is reprinted from the “Honest Courtesan” Blog. “Just because you don’t hang with people that do certain things doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. – I’m going to assume you don’t hang out with people who cook meth for example. Does that mean because you don’t “see it’ in your daily life that it doesn’t exist? What child molesters? I would imagine you don’t hang out with child molesters nor do you see it done every day in your social circles.

    Does that mean it doesn’t exist? Of course not. It exists. I would also hope that it’s not something you see every day in your social or work circles. But I witnessed it myself when I was in the sex industry. When I would try to go to the police for help they would throw me out of their offices, hang up the phone on me, or better yet tell me things like “we can’t get a warrant based on the word of a whore”. Now I don’t know how old you are but let me describe what Los Angeles was during the 1980’s for a sex worker. It was open season. We have FIVE serial killers targeting us in the news. FIVE. One of them was the HIllside Strangler case. They started out as two pimps. They would call for an escort to come out to their address, then kidnap her, lock her in a hotel room, beat, rape, torture and brainwash her into submission -and then bring johns to the room, take the money and scare her into staying in that room for fear they were standing right outside the door. One of those victims they stabbed 52 times. The hospital staff refused to treat her because she was a “filthy disease ridden prostitute”. Once I demanded a doctor treat her and save her life – they refused to change the dressing on her wounds because she was a “criminal”. I had to stay with her and change her dressings. They discharged her after 48 hours because they didn’t even want “our kind” in their hospital.

    I took her when she was well enough to the Hillside Strangler Task Force’s office and we gave them these guys names, addresses, phone numbers, and even told them that he had promised to strike again – when and where. Then they refused to do anything. When I pushed them they said “we can’t get a warrant based on the word of a whore”. When I pushed harder they threatened to arrest me for being a prostitute. Sure enough that woman was found exactly like he said he would and it took them a YEAR to finally go out and get these guys. Then it was only when he took a victim who had not previously been a prostitute. Only when they started going after “straight” women – that’s when they did something.

    Maybe you’ve never seen cases where there were “guerilla” pimps who would literally kidnap women right off the streets, tie them up, beat them, drug them, handcuff them to beds while they brought the tricks in to screw them and collect the money while laughing – but I have. Maybe you didn’t see our own CIA loaded women up like cattle onto diplomat planes to give to Saudi Arabians while they were negotiating for oil rights because they liked “white women” who were never seen again – but I have. When I tried to stop one of those planes because a friend of mine had been kidnapped onto that plane – I was told it couldn’t be stopped because it was a “diplomat’s” plane. Then I had to stand there and hear “what’s one less whore in the USA” out of airport security and local police. Do you know why they dubbed me the “High Tech Madam” when I was arrested?

    Because the serial killers targeting us, and the traffickers who were selling us onto those planes out of the country, were so prevalent and the police could care absolutely less about us – I had a programmer make us a database so I could track these phone numbers to try and protect us because the police wouldn’t. This was before cell phones, reverse directories, and the internet. This was when we were branded “criminals” and “deviants”.

    I myself had more than one kidnapping attempt done to me and am just lucky I could fight well enough to have protected myself. One time the only thing that stopped me from being thrown into the back of a van by three pimps was a gun I was carrying. So don’t tell me trafficking doesn’t exist at all because I witnessed it big time. I also knew that if a man who worked at a gas station kidnaps, rapes, and tortures a house wife – that man will be arrested. However, if that man is a pimp and that woman is raped by a man who hands money to that pimp for the pleasure of that rape without fear of being arrested – then that woman would not see justice. In fact, if she tried to have him arrested she would be arrested. That’s the way it was in the 1970’s and 1980’s and that’s why I started our program, our hotline, our network of survivors who were willing to help other victims to find rescue and safety.

    It’s why Polaris has been trying to shut me down since 2002. It’s why I am going to have to file a suit now against 10 states, Catholic Charities, the Lutheran Church, the Salvation Army, etc. Because they’re trying to now regain control over our hotline so that victims who witness law enforcement, our government, our politicians involved in trafficking don’t have a way to call for help outside of a system they control. It’s because they took a movement I started to educate people as to why they needed to completely decriminalize sex work – and are now using it to try and gain further control of sex workers and even now criminalize the purchasing of sex as well as the information control. Hitler went after the pornographers first. We are experiencing a modern day attack patterned right after Hitler when we are seeing them attack any websites that advertise the sex industry by branding it “trafficking”.

    They used my name falsely on these types of videos attacking the sex industry in order to piss off my connections within the sex industry that used to feed me tips about where “real” trafficking was going on so we could help those victims. And rather than come talk to me – the sex workers’ rights groups acted like they believed anything the press said or that was printed online when even the celebrities will tell you that you can’t believe what the press writes.

    I have the legal evidence and rights now to get an injunction against this whole damn “police state” they’ve put together in places like Phoenix, Chicago, etc. and can I get one bit of help from within the sex industry or the sex workers’ rights groups where they are holding women against their constitutional rights and forcing them into brainwashing programs under threat of arrest and taking their children – and I have the proof they are taking federal money for it while discriminating against LGBT’s and other religions such as the Jewish and Buddhist women and they have defrauded them using my name to get said money as well – and again is anyone standing with me to do something about this?

    Where are you? You should be ashamed of yourself trying to convince those in the sex industry trafficking doesn’t exist because it does. And some of those women who are being murdered, kidnapped, disappearing are sex workers too – just like you. Are you sticking up for them – or trying to act like they don’t exist? Jessie Foster is one such case. She was working as an escort for a pimp named Peter Todd. One day her and her “sister in law” went missing. The madam they worked for was found in a ditch. The police didn’t even check the house they lived in until two weeks after she’d been reported missing by her mother. By then, Peter had repainted the inside of the house and burned the carpeting claiming he was “redecorating”. I have a woman in our group who escaped from Peter before this case and believe me – they were “forced” to do what they did. She tells me horror stories while crying. She’s still having nightmares and can’t sleep without medication because of what he did to her before she escaped. She’s a sex worker now because her PTSD is so bad she can’t work at a regular job.

    When I was a madam I had traffickers offering me $25,000 to “buy” young women with no family who would never be heard from again. That still goes on today. I have women right now who are being forced to work in massage parlors at 50 and 60 years old because they’re threatening to kill their family members back in China and the police won’t do anything to stop it and neither will the DA because they’re being bribed not to. I know because they’ve threatened me when the women came to me for help. These women were told they were coming to work in nail salons in this country. Which they did for about a week and then wound up in the massage parlor right next door – or has no one noticed how many nail salons are right by Asian massage parlors but me?

    Trafficking exists and it’s why this country needs to decriminalize sex work on any level. That was a message I almost had across until this right wing Christian faction with wads of cash got into the arena the year my mother died and they knew I didn’t have the strength that year to keep fighting them back. Or hasn’t anyone noticed that Polaris was started by a wealthy white guy in Washington DC. No it’s not the victims that he’s worried about – but his political and financial agenda. Which by the way has anyone even seen any HIV outreach campaigns into the sex industry since Polaris opened? I don’t mean just within the porn industry with them fighting back the AHF – I mean what is the sex industry doing about getting HIV information out? Do you know I didn’t even know about the HIV vaccine until six months ago? Do you know I haven’t had one sex worker call my hotline in five years that has even had an HIV test within the last year? Not one of them is using condoms either.

    These “anti-trafficking” people connected to Polaris are counting on the fact I’m very busy taking care of my daughter who has a brain tumor right now so I don’t have the time to fight them full time like I used to – which is why I need help. It did not escape me they launched this “end demand” campaign the minute they heard I was having to take my daughter to UCLA for treatment for the brain tumor because I have successfully beat these people at their game many times when I’m not sucked down by personal issues like this. They could have launched it any time before – but they waited until they knew I couldn’t fight back as vigorously against them as I normally do and have won in the past. And after they smashed a lot of my relationships within the sex workers’ rights groups with their false propaganda they signed my name to. Look at this – – they actually have my name up there as a speaker but I was not invited to speak. They even told me not to come after I found my name on their site. Why use my name if they aren’t using my reputation for their gain? A reputation that was making progress in the decriminalization movement until they stepped in.

    I made progress because I stuck to the truth and the facts. But you sound just as delusional as them when you try to act like it doesn’t exist at all as they do when they make it sound like it’s happening in every case or every level of the sex industry when it isn’t either. You don’t think trafficking is all that real today because you don’t “see it”? You call me and I’ll let you talk to a few of our members who are in recovery with our program because it takes healing after this type of ordeal – and then you can tell me what you think about the issue then. Because just because you don’t need help doesn’t mean they don’t. Neither does the fact they need help mean you do either.

    But until they accept the fact that sex work is work and real and until you accept trafficking is in fact real and there are victims – then we aren’t going to make any headway at all and they keep winning and taking ground. Why do you think they’ve been trying so hard to smear and undermine me Maggie? Because I was making headway that’s why because I didn’t make up any numbers and I didn’t live in denial either – I stuck to the facts and the truth. Still am. But I need help with this and that’s the truth also.