You are here

The Politics and Presumptions of Anti-Trafficking Rhetoric

Stories about the sex industry are replete with references to sexual slavery, innocent victims, captivity, and deception. Together, these themes form a narrative template for every case of sex industry work involving illegal migrant labor.

Gretchen Soderlund and Emma Grant

Issue #40, October 1998

In the 1910s, during the Progressive Era, sensationalistic stories of white women forced into prostitution at the hands of predatory men were widely circulated in the U.S. These stories drove home the image of the unwitting lily white sexual "slave" and her deceitful captor. Although "white slavery" was popularly considered one of the era's most pressing social problems, stories of its prevalence were greatly exaggerated. In the 1990s, stories of trafficked women, this time from so-called Third World and Eastern Bloc countries, abound in the news media. While the geographical locations have changed, these stories conform to the same basic narrative of female victims and male villains. Despite claims that sex industry trafficking has reached record proportions and taken on new characteristics in this era of globalized capital, the rhetoric surrounding trafficking has not similarly evolved; in fact, it seems to have ground to a halt sometime in the 1910s during the campaigns against white slavery. Stories about the sex industry are replete with references to sexual slavery, innocent victims, captivity, and deception. Together, these themes form a narrative template for every case of sex industry work involving illegal migrant labor.

For example, a March 24, 1998 article in the New York Times entitled "20 Women Forced Into Prostitution" details "the horrors inflicted on unwitting victims" by Mexican traffickers. The twenty women, the article goes on to say, were tricked by the promise of a far different life in the US: "It was the American dream of finding legitimate jobs, such as housekeeping and restaurant work, that led to a nightmarish life for women and girls." Likewise, a New York Times story appearing on July 6, 1998, "100,000 Slaves of West's Sex Industry," makes similar claims about trafficked Ukrainian sex workers: "Typically, a woman is lured to the West with a promise of work as a dancer, waitress, home help, or often on a promise of marriage." In a September 11, 1998 Chicago Tribune story, "Victims Forced to Dance Nude at Clubs, US Says," we learn that while the "victims" in this prostitution ring knew they would be put to work dancing in the US, they expected to be wearing "bikinis — not naked or topless," and to be working in a "sophisticated nightclub." The authors of these stories go out of their way to portray the women as totally ignorant of the work they would be doing in the United States. Of all migrant workers, only undocumented sex workers are portrayed as completely unwitting. Women who migrate illegally to work as domestics or waitresses, on the other hand, are rarely portrayed as being completely ignorant of the work awaiting them upon immigration. The women involved in sex industry rings, however, must be distanced from the sexual acts themselves before tears can be shed for them. In these news stories, women can be viewed sympathetically as victims only if they are first constructed as sexless, as women who would rather scrub a toilet than dance in the nude.

The frozen discourse on trafficking neither advances the rights and agency of workers in the global sex industry nor serves to improve the conditions under which they work. In short, anti-trafficking laws are used against the very women they are supposed to protect. Despite media representations of all "trafficked" women as innocent, unwitting victims, virtual sex slaves at the hands of mafiosos and other unsavory characters, many women are already privy to their job descriptions before arrival at their foreign destination. While the media, anti-trafficking organizations, governments, and even human rights groups work in tandem to emphasize the naiveté of these women regarding the sexual component of their future jobs, this construction of sex workers ultimately serves ulterior purposes.

The supposedly noble goal of "protecting the innocent" serves as a smokescreen for the creation of harsh and ultimately moralistic laws preventing the mobility of sex workers. These laws, which often specifically target the sex industry, rob sex workers of their ability to seek out financial opportunity away from their own country, which may be encountering economic depression due to globalization. This image of the virtuous trafficked woman not only undergirds repressive laws, but fails to capture the ways in which sex workers the world over have deliberately and skillfully worked around trafficking laws or used restrictive laws and their own "victim status" to advantage in dealing with immigration authorities. Since many sex workers are also undocumented migrant workers, they break the law when they work in the US without permits. By claiming that they are the victims of vast trafficking networks, they may not only avoid arrest, but they may also avoid immediate forced deportation. While we do not want to replace one overly general and stereotyped representation of sex workers with another, that of the "sly sex worker," we do wish to stress the ways in which some sex workers actively negotiate their way around less-than-ideal laws. Sex workers are rarely ignorant of their own circumstances and working conditions. On the contrary, they have special knowledge of their own situations.

One author of this essay worked as a health councellor for sex workers on two continents, including the US. In California she worked with twenty Thai brothel workers. While these workers were undocumented and working in the US illegally, it became apparent that these women were not "trafficked" in the sense of being kidnapped and forced into a life of virtual sex slavery. In fact each of them had a complex story to tell about the circumstances which ultimately led them to sex work in the US, and all of them expressed the view that their opportunity to perform sex work in the US was a great improvement over their previous work experiences. Because of the rapport the author developed with these women, and because of her own history of having been a sex worker, they were quite candid when discussing these circumstances. The diversity and complexity of sex workers' lives often disappears in the victim narratives of the anti-trafficking lobby.

Sadly, there are cases in which women are forced to work in the sex industry under deplorable conditions. These are extreme cases which should not be tolerated. However, the news media and various anti-trafficking groups have a tendency to collapse every story of migrant sex industry labor into one narrative of "trafficked women." By wrapping every incident in sensationalist language of "sexual slavery" and duplicity, these stories fail to address the diverse range of life circumstances which lead women and men to enter the sex industry. To understand the real problems and needs of sex workers, we must avoid such over generalizations and instead make a serious effort to understand the different contexts in which sex work occurs.

dancers The tightened regulations for which the anti-trafficking agenda lobbies ultimately hurt sex workers in a variety of ways. Domestic trafficking laws such as the Mann Act can be invoked to arrest sex workers as they travel independently across state lines. The Mann Act of 1910 prohibits the movement of women or girls across state lines for immoral purposes such as adultery or prostitution. Under this Act, it is illegal to purchase train or plane tickets for women sex workers (taxi fares, however, are not covered by the Act). More broadly, the Act renders a federal crime "immoral" arrangements that entail the crossing of state lines for their enactment. Since the Act prohibits illegal interstate commerce, arrests are made when the travel actually occurs. In the case of a prostitution offense, alleged "prostitutes" are arrested at the state level during travel, while "procurers" are arrested at the federal level. The Mann act can thus be used to arrest the prostitute or the third party.

Furthermore, international laws against trafficking make it very hard for sex workers to organize on their own behalf on an international level. Due to strict trafficking laws, known sex workers have been denied visas to travel or attend conferences in foreign countries. Although these problems are not limited to Third World workers, they do appear to affect them disproportionately. In this sense, they mirror many other immigration policies that restrict movement from Third World to First. In that sense, anti-trafficking laws are like other immigration laws that deny people with the least capital entry into richer countries. One Latin American sex worker, on her way to the 1997 International Conference on Prostitution in Los Angeles, was detained at the airport because she had a documented history of prostitution. In cases like this one, women who have never been trafficked in their lives were negatively affected by the laws. While some women are indeed "trafficked" in the sense that they are moved between countries through a brokered deal, neither the status quo conceptualization nor the current laws pertaining to trafficking distinguish between women who knowingly enter these arrangements, and women who do so against their will. Moreover, trafficking laws are overly broad, not distinguishing between "trafficked" women and women who perform sex work and are not trafficked.

Not only are sex workers' movements unjustly curtailed by trafficking laws, but their ability to organize and lobby on their own behalf domestically has, in some cases, been threatened by these laws. For example, in Australia, right-wing attacks against prostitutes' rights organizations have been conducted as part of an anti-trafficking campaign. These groups lobby for improved working conditions in the sex industry through the decriminalization of prostitution and the creation of prostitutes' unions. In Canberra, the capital city of Australia, where certain forms of sex work are legal and prostitutes are free to organize, the international specter of Asian women working illegally in brothels was recently used to justify domestic policies that, if passed, would overturn much of the progress made by the prostitutes' rights organization in that area. This progress includes occupational safety laws, health services, sexually transmitted disease prevention training, access to condoms, grievance procedures, and provision of safe places to work. The anti-trafficking solution emphasizes deportation and further criminalization, rather than legalization, of both foreign and domestic sex workers. If these policies indeed prevail, years of struggle on the part of Canberra prostitutes will be negated in the name of rescuing "trafficked" women. As prostitutes' rights organizers in Canberra have suggested, trafficking is not the real issue in these cases: the real issue is that these women were made to work illegally, with no recourse to the services available to legal prostitutes in the city. While the few Asian workers found working in Canberra were indeed doing so illegally, they were not undocumented. Rather, they had tourist visas which allowed them in the country, but did not allow them to work. In this case, the issue of "trafficking" was used in an attempt to rollback gains made by sex workers.

We contend, then, that to understand the sex industry and illegal immigration we must break out of the straightjacket of the 'trafficked victim' framework. Rarely do "trafficked women" not have an inkling of the kind of work that they might do in a foreign land. In many cases they are fully prepared to bend or break the law to reach their final goal. When concerned, but ultimately ill-informed, organizations define women as victims of a vast international trafficking conspiracy and call for more laws and legislation to "save" them, might these laws actually decrease their mobility and opportunity? The present approach to trafficking is not the solution. It limits sex workers' mobility and creates difficulties for those who engage in sex work of their own volition. Further, it obscures the fact that trafficking is, in part, the product of both illegality in the sex industry and strict immigration laws. Better solutions are available. Decriminalizing the sex industry and creating strong sex worker run organizations to monitor and address concerns about working conditions is a first step toward creating and maintaining safe workplaces for all workers in the sex industry, be they at home or abroad. Decriminalization of prostitution, even when it requires the crossing of borders, should be the ultimate goal. In the meantime, we must work to expand and protect those spaces where borders are still open and where opportunities for travel, albeit technically illegal, still exist.

For Further Reading: K. Kampadoo and J. Doezema, Global Sex Workers (New York: Routledge, 1998), especially Jo Doezema's chapter, "Forced to Choose."

Gretchen Soderlund is a Ph.D. candidate in Communications Research at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Emma Grant is a prostitutes' rights activist whose visa status is tenuous. Gretchen and Emma like to meet in large cities and hang out in hotel lounges and casinos. Gretchen can be reached at Emma can be reached at

Copyright © 1998 by Gretchen Soderlund and Emma Grant. Drawing 1998 by Mike Mosher. All rights reserved.