Smoke and Mirrors

Human trafficking is happening. Let’s just get that out of the way up front. This is not a debate as to whether trafficking actually exists. I am pro-choice in that all people should have autonomy over their own bodies. I am against slavery, violence, and exploitation in any form against any gender. Forced prostitution is not sex work. It is rape. I understand that sexual violence is just one way that human oppression manifests itself.

To end exploitation we have to consider the many factors that are contributing to this global problem including racism, sexism, poverty, nationalism and the culture of violence that is rewarded and reinforced around the world. One cannot address the full spectrum of issues associated with human trafficking in a single post. This is an analysis of the consumer-driven demand for cheap labor and a call to any human with a conscience to take personal action to end human trafficking.

Currently, public discourse about trafficking is centered on the media’s obsession with sexploitation stories rooted in both moralistic and political dogma. It is difficult to identify real allies in the fight against trafficking because of widespread embellishment of facts and bipartisan support of policies that are harmful to women in the US as well as abroad.

This approach is harmful on a multitude of levels…

Facts and Figures

Nobody actually knows how many people are trafficked, where those people are taken to and in what sort of labor trafficked people are engaged in. The conflation of commercial sex work with human trafficking and the lumping together of farm, domestic and other forms of labor with sex trafficking causes a misdirection of attention and resources, leaving trafficked people without real solutions and resources.

Consumer Denial

The hype and focus on sex trafficking encourages North Americans to ignore capitalist- and consumer-driven demand for cheap labor in other markets such as agriculture, textiles, automotive manufacturing and domestic labor. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) makes it easier and lucrative for corporations to export manufacturing jobs to Mexico where workers are under-paid and labor and environmental provisions to protect workers are not enforced. This, in turn, gives workers incentive to cross borders in search of better opportunities. However, workers without legal documentation to be employed in the US are far more vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.

The sex trafficking obsession relieves us of guilt and accountability as consumers. We get to tell ourselves that we are ‘saving’ those poor, unfortunate foreign women- all the while pouring money into sweatshop labor and slave-wages for agricultural workers each time we make a purchase. How often do we as North American consumers actually consider where our products come from? Further, how often do we hold the corporations that profit from cheap labor accountable for the human rights abuses that they perpetuate?

The demand that drives the exploitation of human labor is not a demand for sex. It is a demand for cheap products. Look around you right now, how many of the items in view do you know the source of? Not just the store where they were purchased, but the source of the material. Where did the tiny little screws holding together these computers that we’re using come from? Are we willing to pay more for these products in order to ensure that laborers are paid fair wages and have safe working conditions? We do have responsibilities as consumers to be conscious about how we spend our money.

Check out The Story of Stuff for an in-depth look at how consumerism in North America affects labor markets, living conditions and the environment in developing countries.

If you actually care about ending human trafficking, it is critical that you look beyond the media glare on sex trafficking and understand the broader conditions that influence labor migration. Check out Laura Agustin’s book, Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry.

The Media Always Win in the End

The ‘other’ is so sexy. The media love it. Combine the ‘other’ with ‘sex’ with ‘bondage’ … if it bleeds it leads. Throw in helpless foreigners ~mostly under-aged~ who are chained to beds so that some can profit in figures of billions and, well, you’ve got yourself an on-going porno series that is seeing higher profits than even the top-rated AVN Award winners. It’s an opiate for the masses, we get off on it—then we run out to the mall to purchase clothes made by the people who actually are enslaved.

Our comfortable lives require that we are not burdened by the reality of people dying in the desert in order to make it across the border to pick our produce, build our tract homes and clean our hotel rooms. We are so transfixed on the salacious media coverage of the huge sex trafficking pornography splashed across the newspapers almost daily that we cannot see past our own demand for immediate consumerist gratification to evaluate the real issues.

Smoke and mirrors…. every consumer element of our lives from food to clothing to housing is dependent on cheap labor and the actual trafficking that does exist is driven by those markets- not by sex work. But sexual slavery sells more advertising units than farm, construction, or domestic slavery…

Political Posturing

Ever wonder why the ineffective anti-trafficking policies are so universally supported by both Republicans and Democrats? We know that it’s not because of their deep understanding of and commitment to human rights. It’s because politicians get an easy out. The Republicans get a high score with the 'feminists' and the Democrats don't have to risk upsetting the 'progressives' (read: compassionate capitalists)... “We’re doing it for the women.” “We’re challenging the inherent exploitation that is prostitution.”

Oh, yes, for the women. It’s all about taking care of women. Never mind that women are being infected by HIV at increasing rates each year and the US is actually making that problem worse—not better. And by throwing billions of dollars into abstinence-only, anti-prostitution and anti-abortion (yes FEMINISTS we’re on the same team here!!!) efforts rather than ANTI-HIV and ANTI-POVERTY efforts, they are killing women and enslaving women, children and men into labors of all kinds in order to create cheap products for the capitalist economy to chew up and spit out…

The Cycle of Deception

Politicians don’t want to have to change policies that will affect the bottom-line of their donors’ companies. So focusing on sex trafficking exclusively is a pat on the back for both the politicians and the corporations. Consumers remain distracted and un-moved by the real plight of migrant laborers. They're obsessed with the trafficking stories, assume that the government is doing something about it and believe that they are not part of the problem. Nobody wants to think too deeply about this. So consumers continue to give money to corporations that thrive on a cheap labor market. The corporations protect that cheap labor market by funding political campaigns and special interest groups to influence foreign and domestic policy. The media gets excellent ratings when reporting on anything sex trafficking-related, which drives up the advertising rates that the corporations pay. Then the consumers go out and purchase the products that they saw advertised during the sex trafficking news and TV dramas without giving thought to where and how those products were created... and the cycle continues... The media, the politicians and the corporations all win at the expense of human lives.


Women have been at the forefront of raising awareness about human trafficking and the economic exploitation of women. Sadly, there is conflict among feminists in developed nations. The conflict is a result of a generation divide as well as differences in attitudes toward sex, gender and sexuality. This often results in the exclusion of sex workers, immigrant workers, transgender women and young women in forming an effective response to human trafficking. This practice of exclusion is making the battle to change bad policies affecting women’s health increasingly difficult.

It also means that the anti-choice political forces don’t have to put as much effort into restricting access to birth control and safe, legal abortions because women are divided and working against each other rather than together. This division is killing the women’s movement and will have terrible domino effects for future generations of women and girls.

Most feminists fully support a woman’s right to choose on all matters of sexuality and understand that one woman’s choice to say ‘yes’ does not compromise another woman’s right to say ‘no.’ We have to question the motives of those who are the loudest and most influential in the human trafficking debate:

“Mainstream feminists like to say [Bush is] anti-woman, but by supporting the abolitionist work against the global sex trade, he has done more for women and girls than any other president I can think of. . . . Years from now, when the anti-Bush hysteria has died away, I believe he will be recognized as a true advocate for women’s freedom and human rights.” –Donna Hughes National Review (January 26, 2006)

Feminists know that when it comes to abortion and women’s rights, religious fundamentalists and the Bush administration in particular are not our friends. Why would any feminist claim that Bush has done “…more for women and girls than any other president I can think of…?” The first thing that Bush did when he got into office was re-implement the global gag-rule on abortion that limited funding to organizations who provide a variety of health and prevention services to women globally. Because of the limited funding, these organizations are unable to provide a wide variety of health services including counseling, condom distribution and well-woman care.

The anti-choice forces understand that by lumping prostitution into the abortion debate they can persuade women to abandon their right to choose for the sake of prohibiting prostitution- at least from an economic standpoint. PEPFAR is just one example of how the right to choose and the right to charge are both being attacked by the same anti-woman forces that keep Plan B from being sold in some pharmacies and the same forces attempting to require minors to get a parent’s signature in order to access safe and legal abortions. Feminists have to reconsider our attitudes toward sexuality, promiscuity and monogamy to adopt a more inclusive approach. If we don’t work together, we all lose.

Sex Workers (and their clients) are Part of the Solution

Smoke and mirrors people... Look over there so we can violate you from over here. That’s how power works. Sex workers have a lot of experience in observing and actualizing the art of power. Sex workers have a lot to teach us. We all lose because sex workers are silenced.

Those who lose most of all are the people who actually are trafficked for labor in many forms. Billions of dollars are allocated so that regional and federal task-forces can cruise the web looking for ‘trafficked’ women. The results of these hunts produce thousands of misdemeanor arrests of US sex workers, costing tax payers millions in administrative and incarceration expenses- but they produce very little that actually serves the needs of trafficking victims.

When the sex industry is not criminalized, there is little incentive to employ those who don’t wish to do the work. Trust me, thousands of women are quite happy to work as prostitutes, there’s no gap in available service providers to meet the far over-exaggerated demand that is reported. The underground nature of some areas of the sex industry are a breeding ground for corruption and labor abuses. Keeping sex workers and their clients criminalized leaves them without routes for reporting violence, suspicious behavior or anything that suggests abuse.

Forced prostitution is not sex work. It is rape. It is in the best interest of all for those who do not wish to do sex work to have an avenue to get out of the industry that includes practical solutions and resources for a sustainable and independent life. Sex workers want to contribute to these solutions and it’s frustrating that when a sex worker is happy with his/her work they are accused of being part of the problem. Arrest-tactics, social stigma and compromised personal safety limit the ability of sex workers to participate in effective action.

Practical Solutions

Another Way is a list of 10 ways that as consumers in North America we can minimize our role in promoting the demand for cheap labor and our impact on the environment and economies of developing nations.

Sex workers have to acknowledge our role in consumerism and we have to make decisions with our money that are aligned with our values. Sex workers are uniquely positioned to make an economic impact because our income is often directly connected to the same corporations that are profiting from cheap labor. We have a responsibility to take that money back into our communities by buying local, buying fair-trade, supporting labor organizing of immigrant workers and joining in human rights projects that are working to raise awareness about the true nature of human trafficking.

This is a big, huge problem. I wish that I could just make 10 bullet points as a checklist for sex workers to end human trafficking. None of the solutions are going to be easy. I certainly am not as accountable as a consumer as I should be. This is an area that requires us to be very conscious about our decisions, to look at our daily lives and truly evaluate what sort of changes we can make to improve conditions on this planet. I think real change will require a collective sense of compassion that is seriously lacking in the world. US citizens are not the only consumers that are driving the demand for cheap labor. This is a global matter and I think that US sex workers need to consult our global community to seek out more solutions.

Sex workers will not be included in these conversations without putting up a fight. Those who believe that all commercial sex work is equal to rape won’t acknowledge us because we disprove their theories just because we exist. Those who work in any form of health/prevention services can’t or won’t work with us because their funding is tied up with the anti-prostitution loyalty oath.

There is a systematic effort to keep us silent and to censor those who support us. We challenge all of the imbalances of power, gender and authority that the anti-trafficking industry rests delicately on. We’re also an easy scapegoat. People are more than happy to believe that consenting adults in the sex industry are causing human trafficking, it means they don’t have to question their own role in the demand for cheap labor.

To end human trafficking we have to appreciate the very nuanced and complex nature of this problem, we have to be willing to look at the root issues and we have to stop scapegoating sex workers.

Other resources:

Statement of the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women (GAATW), to the UN.GIFT Vienna Forum to Fight Human Trafficking

Briefing Materials Submitted to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants