Sex Work and Human Trafficking

I’ve touched on the issue of human trafficking and it’s association with prostitution briefly in my first few posts, but I think that before I finish my five posts with an analysis of Worcester sexual exploitation, it’s important to give some more international context. The implications of human trafficking debates and preventative policy is heavily intertwined with border security policy and has major impacts on the treatment of migrants to western states. The issue of human trafficking is an interesting one; I don’t know of any positions that are for trafficking, but there are definitely conflicting ideologies and approaches to tackling the problem. I’m going to structure this post by laying out the bases of the two main schools of thought; prostitution abolitionists and pro-regulation/legalization of sex work, and present how I see the pros and cons of each. I’m planning to analyze abolitionist arguments more heavily because they are the dominant international perception of the sex industry. I can honestly say that I have no complete allegiance to either side, and that I agree and disagree with stances from both. It’s also important to note that I don’t think that there is one working model for all cases. I think that differing political, economic and social contexts can dictate weather abolishing prostitution or regulating it would be appropriate.


Prostitution Abolition

An abolitionist stance on prostitution believes that prostitution is a violation of human rights by definition, and is a patriarchal tool of oppression. International discourse has historically been shaped by this stance, and a UN Report sources commercial sexual exploitation as a root source of gender inequality and preventing the “full advancement of women” (Commission on the Status of Women). While I don’t think that this quite fits for a conclusive international mandate, I definitely recognize the gendered dynamic that the sex industry often serves. I also believe that within the current gendered world we live in, simply legalizing prostitution will not ensure the safety or autonomy of people who sell sex and has resulted in increases of human trafficking in the past. Legalizing prostitution has led to 200-400% increases in street prostitution, twice as many johns on the street, increases in organized crime and no reduction in violence against prostituted people (WAASE Public Forum). Countries that have legalized prostitution have also often experienced spikes in human trafficking across their borders. For example, the Netherlands have been attempting to combat this issue by trying to introduce policy that would require sex workers to register in order to work legally (Netherland Info Service, 2013). I can’t say that I completely agree with that approach, and I could see issues arising from abuses of listing sex workers and increased stigma as a result. I think that a more effective model might be to create self-regulating boards of sex workers who have social connections and access to networks that law enforcement and other agencies do not. People actively engaged in sex work have the local knowledge and social capital to know when a new sex worker has been trafficked, and are more effective at resolving the issue without involving law enforcement (Bandyopadhyay). The ‘raid and rescue’ model that is often followed by law enforcement when attempting to ‘rescue’ people who have been trafficked and sexually exploited has often resulted in worse conditions for the victims of trafficking.

One of my main concerns with the abolitionist perspective is the treatment of migrant populations as a result of being ‘rescued’. Many people consciously left their home country and allowed themselves to be trafficked and were then sexually exploited against their will. The deportation of these people does not guarantee their safety from sexual exploitation, since there are not often trauma services provided to them after their ‘rescue’, and it puts them back in the same place that they left in the first place (Bandyopadhyay). This model also creates a lot of international stigma and racial/moral panics by leaning on the ‘white slavery’ narrative. Southern countries are then typically targeted as “source countries” for trafficking (Kempadoo). The role that demand for trafficking is easily ignored in favor of pointing to the supply of trafficking victims. The abolitionist stance can lend itself to the western tendency of middle-class feminist reformists ‘saving’ their ‘fallen sisters’ (Ho).



Pro-regulation standpoints operate under the ideology of validating sex work as a form of labor and guaranteeing protection and positive working environments for sex workers through decriminalization and regulation of the sex work industry. In my idealized feminist world, I would unequivocally see this as the appropriate model. However, I have to question what defines a choice. Economic conditions and societal norms, among other things, are undeniable influences and factors of choice, but I also don’t want to invalidate the decisions people make by picking apart and invalidating the reasons why someone made a choice.

A major issue that pro-regulation positions take with abolition is the danger of criminalization of people selling sex. Combined with the white slavery narrative, criminalization often results in the demonization of people of color, particularly in urban contexts (Bernstein). Pro-regulation positions work to end the stigma and violence around sex work by giving autonomy and agency to sex workers. They also problematize the collusion of human trafficking with forced prostitution that many anti-trafficking agendas adhere to. Pro-regulation positions believe that by regulating and legitimizing sex work, as a profession will eliminate the unknown and uncounted factors that create space for human trafficking.

My Position

Deciphering an effective model for reducing human trafficking in the context of prostitution is very difficult because there is little reliable empirical research done on the conclusive conditions of sex workers internationally. Conducting such research will be incredibly difficult, partly because each context, or ‘case’ of prostitution is so different and completely dictated by the specific circumstances. Selling sex, other than within brothels, is often conducted in isolation from other sex workers, which makes it very difficult to create space for the organization of all sex workers. There is also the issue of who is included as someone who sells sex; many people don’t identify their own commodification of sex as a label and have no desire to organize with people they don’t identify with.

In regards to my proposal to attacking human trafficking, I believe that the first step should be to reject the current relationship between the state and the migrant. Governments and economic policy creates the demand for cheapened labor, which therefore demands human trafficking. Government policy sees migrants as a threat to state border security, and creates the need for migrating people to rely on third party actors to gain entry and stability in a new country. This opens the door for trafficking and exploitation, and closes the door for trafficked victims to expect assistance from a government that doesn’t guarantee them that right. The sex industry does have an undeniable tie to human trafficking, and I believe the Nordic model is the best existing approach to protecting sex workers and attempting to reduce influxes of trafficked and prostituted victims. I haven’t done much research into the trafficking rates resulting from this model, but I think the decriminalization of selling sex combined with the criminalization of buying sex is a positive way to target the demand for sex work, and therefore trafficked prostitution.


Bandyopadhyay, Nandinee. Streetwalkers Show the Way: Reframing the Global Debate on Trafficking from Sex Workers’ Perspectives. Working paper no. 309. N.p.: Institute of Development Studies at the U of Sussex Brighton, 2008. Web.

Bernstein, Elizabeth. “Militarized Humanitarianism Meets Carceral Feminism: The Politics of Sex, Rights, and Freedom in Contemporary Antitrafficking Campaigns.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 36.1 (2010): 45-71. JSTOR [JSTOR]. Web.

Davies, Nick. “Prostitution and Trafficking – the Anatomy of a Moral Panic.” The Guardian 19 Oct. 2009: n. pag. Print.

Ho, Josephine. “From Anti-trafficking to Social Discipline.” Trafficking and Prostitution Reconsidered: New Perspectives on Migration, Sex Work, and Human Rights. By Jyoti Sanghera, Bandana Pattanaik, and Kamala Kempadoo. Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2005. 84-104. Print.

Kempadoo, Kamala.2005.“From Moral Panic to Global Justice: Changing Perspectives on Trafficking.”In Trafficking and Prostitution Reconsidered: New Perspectives on Migration, Sex Work, and Human Rights.Kamala Kempadoo, ed.Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, pp. vii-xxxiv.

NIS News Bulletin. “Prostitution Bill Battered in Upper House.” NIS (Netherlands Info Service) News Bulletin [The Hague] 7 Oct. 2013: n. pag. Print.

United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. Economic and Social Council. Rep. no. E/CN.6/2008/NGO/25. Vol. 55 Session. N.p.: United Nations, n.d. Print.

From Development to Deviance: Sexual Exploitation in Tenancingo, Tlaxcala, Mexico


Tlaxcala-Puebla Metropolitan Area

(“Puebla-Tlaxcala (Metropolitan Area, Metropolitan Areas)”)

In extending conversations on Reproductive Health to discuss realities affecting girls and women around the world, it is important to discuss sexual exploitation, especially in the context of development. Sexual exploitation — or, more specifically, commercial sexual exploitation, or prostitution — is a practice that occurs across the world: from New York City, to Tlaxcala, Mexico, to Worcester, Massachusetts. In applying a gender lens, sexual exploitation as a whole disproportionally affects women. While it certainly not only women that contribute to the estimated statistic of 20.9 million sexually exploited persons per year (“Global Sex Trafficking Sheet” 1), girls and women make up 98% of sexually exploited individuals (“Global Sex Trafficking Sheet” 1).

But before discussing how this manifests in Tenancinco, I want to introduce some contemporary discourse around sexual exploitation. Recently, Amnesty International has been known for its call to decriminalize all aspects of “sex work” (Murphy 1).While the organization has firmly stated that it does not ally with “sex work that … involve[s] coersion, sexual exploitation, or abuse” (Murphy 1), the article “Sex Workers’ Rights are Human Rights” features very little discussion on the fundamental power differences involved in sexual exploitation in the vast majority of instances. That is, victims of exploitation are subject to abuse or an unfulfilling lifestyle, in which they are led to believe that prostitution is their only choice. In some cases, people are physically enslaved; held captive to the sex trade industry. Other times, “pimps” will inflict emotional and verbal abuse, leading the victimized person to believe that they do not have any viable options if they were to exit “the life” of prostitution. In any case, sexually exploited individuals are reminded that there will always be a demand for sex each time they are purchased — a moral discussion that Amnesty International directly avoids.

What I want to make very clear is that, while there may be an argument to be made for people who make the informed, enthusiastic choice to engage in “sex work”, the majority of the time, people do not choose to exploited.

Coming back to the theme of the blog, sexual exploitation is worsened with the pressures of development and globalization. A prime example of this takes place in Tenancinco: a small city within the state of Tlaxcala, Mexico — about eighty miles southeast of  Mexico City (Pearson 1). Otherwise surrounded by mountainous areas (“Puebla-Tlaxcala”) consisting of poorer, rural populations (Lakhini 1), Tenancinco is near the metropolitan area of Puebla-Tlaxcala; an area that has been industrialized in the past half-century. The state of Tlaxcala is a major producer of “textiles, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, machinery, automotive parts, handicrafts and other goods” (“Puebla-Tlaxcala”).

However, the conditions in Tenancinco worsened as factory jobs throughout the Tlaxcala region proved to be undesirable (OECD). As time went on, more and more of the town’s economy was sustained by sex trade (Pearson 1): first throughout Mexico, and now in New York as well. Today, there are generations of boys that grow up “aspiring to be traffickers” (Pearson 1). The Guardian writes: “This improbable crime story began in the 1950s after industrialisation, when working-age men returned home from neighbouring states to find few opportunities beyond badly paid factory jobs. Pimping and trafficking, which they had seen while working away, was a way to get ahead, and many set up small, family-run sexual exploitation rings” (Pearson 1).

As mentioned before, Tenancinco is surrounded by impoverished regions, extending into Southern Mexico and Guatemala (WBUR). Many of the people in these areas identify as  indigenous; a facet that is not indicative of privilege in Mexico (Lakhini 1). A common practice is for a family of traffickers to send a young man to these neighboring communities, particularly, a man that is trained to entice young women with promises of a better life: more money, a better lifestyle, and love (Lakhini 1). The young women are then brought to Tenancinco, where they are sexually exploited, while physically and emotionally enslaved (Lakhini 1).

Prostitution is so embedded into the culture of Tenancinco, traffickers seem to have no problem with visibility. Across the landscape of modest, working-class dwellings, families of traffickers will have built extravagant properties, adorned with excess decoration, some say in order to block the windows (Moreno-Taxman 20). Additionally, on highways leading out of Tenancinco, “nighclubs and motels” are conveniently placed as areas for “motorists” to solicit sex (Lakhini 1). Even public celebrations will feature “revelers as caped pimps”, that outwardly “parade their prostitutes” (Pearson 1). While Mexico has attempted to take legal action, the culture of sexual exploitation is so prevalent, it has become fairly accepted (Pearson 1).

Recently, sexually exploited individuals have been trafficked into the United States: particularly to the neighborhood of Queens in New York City (WBUR). Since then, United States law enforcement has been involved in the criminalization of families in Tenancinco (Lakhini 1). But once again — is the United States doing the right thing? After all, it is because of powers in the United States that communities in the Pueblo-Tlaxcala area cannot find desirable and sustaining work. While I believe that any trafficker should be criminalized, it is important to look at the societal implications of sexual exploitation.

What would happen if industrialization was never implemented in Mexico? How many girls and women would be saved from sexual exploitation?

Works Cited

“Global Sex Trafficking Sheet”. Equality Now. Equality Now, n.d. Web. 1 Apr. 2016.

Murphy, Catherine.”Sex Workers’ Rights are Human Rights”. Amnesty International. Amnesty International, 14 Aug. 2015. Web. 1 Apr. 2016.

Lakhani, Nina. “Tenancingo: The small town at the heart of Mexico’s sex-slave trade”. The Guardian. The Guardian, 4 Apr. 2015. Web. 1 Apr. 2016.

Moreno-Taxman, Karlene. “Human Trafficking Mexico: International Human Trafficking Victims from Mexico to Your Community”. Eastern District of Wisconsin. United States Department of Justice, n.d. Web. 1 Apr. 2016.

OECD. OECD Territorial Reviews: Puebla-Tlaxcala, Mexico 2013. OECD Publishing, 2013. Web. 1 Apr. 2016.

Pearson, Erica. “Small Mexican town of Tenancingo is major part of sex trafficking pipeline to New York”. New York Daily News. Daily News, 3 Jun. 2012. Web. 1 Apr. 2016.

“Prostitution Pipeline To U.S. Begins in Tenancingo, Mexico”. Here & Now with Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson. WBUR, 30 Jun. 2014. Web. 1 Apr. 2016.

“Puebla-Tlaxcala (Metropolitan Area, Metropolitan Areas)”.  Instituto Nacional de Estadística Geografía e Informática, Mexico. City Population Data, n.d. Web. 1 Apr. 2016.



Human Trafficking (& Africa)

trafficking pic

During my last two blog posts I have been exploring different ideas surrounding gender based violence (GBV). I started with the general idea of GBV then narrowed it down to GBV in Africa. For this blog, I am delving even deeper into these ideas by focusing specifically on human trafficking in Africa. I began my research by reading a scholarly chapter written by the World Bank association that talks about many aspects of human trafficking. I then found an issue brief on human trafficking and migration in South Africa. This led me to find a news article about South African trafficking by the IRIN, a news agency based in Geneva. But I wanted more than just facts I wanted a face, something to make this issue seem more personal. I eventually found an article in BBC news that shares one Nigerian women’s story of having been sold into, and getting out of, human trafficking.

The internationally recognized definition of human trafficking, as defined by the UN, is, “ The recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation” (World Bank). In simpler terms human trafficking is moving people against their will in order to exploit their labor, one way or another. This can be done in many forms such as domestic servitude, slavery, and even child soldier enrollment. However, the most common form of human trafficking is for sexual exploitation, or forced prostitution.

My first question was how, besides forced drug use, would you get a girl to do such a thing against her will? IRIN news explained, “In many cases, women and children are lured to South Africa with promises of jobs, education or marriage, only to be sold and sexually exploited” (IRIN). Traffickers create situations in which the victim does not have any choice but to obey. Other than false promises traffickers use debt-bondage, starvation, abuse, imprisonment, threats, and forced drug use to enlist victims. Sometimes women are even sold off by their families, husbands/ boyfriends, or kidnapped.

“The image of human beings being sold into virtual or actual slavery creates a moral imperative to act that seems inhuman to refuse,” (IRIN). Although it is hard to get a real statistic of how many people are exploited by this industry the International Labor Organization (ILO) estimated that between 1995-2004 2.45 million people around the world were sold into human trafficking. An overwhelming 80% of which were women. The worst part is, between 1999-2005, only around 7,700 of those victims were helped (World Bank). This is not okay!

So what is being done? The World Bank has made many steps towards prevention of human trafficking. There is a movement to strengthen regional work with migration and labor, monitoring and improving the analyses of rates or incidence, and increasing awareness (World Bank). South Africa is enlisting the help of the media to spread awareness about human trafficking and how to help survivors (IRIN). In 2008, Mozambique became the first country within the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to formally criminalize human trafficking. Although they were the first to pass a specific law, 12 other countries in the SADC recognize the Palermo Protocol. This calls for combatting human trafficking and aiding the surviving victims (IRIN). In 2010 South Africa created the Prevention & Combatting of Human Trafficking bill, although it has not yet been put into action (FMSP).

Although we are starting to do a lot to stop this horrible industry, we still have a long way to go. The human trafficking industry makes between 7 billion and 12 billion US dollars a year, making it the third most lucrative criminal activity (IRIN).

Kemi, a woman from Benin City Nigeria, shared her story with BBC news. She was promised a better job in Italy so that she could support her family. Once there, however, she found herself faced with a job in prostitution. At first she refused but after being starved she finally complied. She ended up working for 3 years before she was able to escape. Even after Kemi had escaped she didn’t truly feel free. She was too ashamed from her experience to return home to her family with no money. She said, “They are wicked…the woman that sent me has two girls. She is sending them to the best schools with the money that I earned with my body” (BBC). This quote shocked me. The trafficker who sold Kemi into three years of forced prostitution has 2 daughters! Does she think consider this morally acceptable; what if it had been her daughters?

The human trafficking epidemic is not just statistics from “over there”. This affects women and children everywhere. Each woman sold into this kind of exploitation has a face, a family, and a life.


Development, Sex Work and Sexual Exploitation

Until a couple of years ago, I’ve had a very narrow view of how sex is sold. When I was fourteen, I read a book called Sold, by Patricia McCormick and I’ve been fascinated with the industry and all of its complexities and implications since. In the last year I’ve been working to localize my attention on sex work to the Main South neighborhood in Worcester, MA. Right now I’m an intern at a local women’s shelter called Abby’s House Worcester, and I’m looking at the connections between sexual exploitation and homelessness. Before further introducing the direction I want this blog to go in, I think it’s really important to give some working definitions that can help to break down the differences between the many different kinds of sex work. These are only the words that I’ve been told are the most respectful and accurate by advocates and sexually exploited women in Worcester, but I’m also aware that these are probably not the words that a lot of people find most comfortable.

Sex work– Describes a wide range of selling sex and sexuality, including pornography, prostitution, in some cases stripping etc. The term “sex work” usually implies choice and autonomy.

Prostitution– The industry and the act of selling sex. It’s important to note that prostitution is a term that many people who sell sex don’t identify with, and there are varying forms of selling sex- the ‘streetwalking’ archetype is not the only way that sexual acts are sold. Online communities of selling sex, ‘call girls’, people who exchange sex for material goods or only sell sex to certain people etc. all fall under my working definition of the term prostitution. Another important clarification is the difference between the terms ‘prostitution’, which describes the act and industry, and ‘prostitute’, which is increasingly being seen as a degrading term.

Prostituted people/sexually exploited people– Someone who is selling sex, but not by their own choice and are usually not easily able to get out of the life. There’s been a shift from using the term “prostitute”, which many see as degrading, to “prostituted person”, or “prostituted woman”.

The life– From what I can tell, using “the life” to describe involvement and the experiences of selling sex is a localized Worcester term.

Human trafficking– The illegal buying and selling of persons. It’s often associated with sexual slavery, but extends to many more forms of coercion and industries.

Pimps– Someone who controls sex workers and profits off of them, often both physically and emotionally.

Johns– Someone (usually a man) who buys sex.

Sting– A police sweep of a known area where sex is being sold that almost always targets arresting sex workers.

Learning more about the current situation of Worcester’s sexual exploitation has been really interesting- from what I’ve seen so far it’s very unique from other typical models of prostitution. Over the next four blog posts, I’m going begin by  looking at the industry of sex work more globally and then move locally to the Main South neighborhood of Worcester.

I want to compare case studies of sex work with sexual exploitation, and look at the demographic makeup of both groups. There have been recent movements among sex workers in Latin America to unionize and legitimize sex work, and I want to look at the complexities of those initiatives and the possibility of their applicability in other contexts. Within Latin America, I also want to look at the impact that human trafficking has on sex work.

International aid often comes with conditions, and there’s frequently a clear quid pro quo between cracking down sex work and receiving international aid. To give a bigger picture of the global discourse around selling sex, I’m going to be using some UN reports, and analyses of international policies. I also think it would be interesting to look into the societal relationships within countries that have legalized prostitution.


Most of the articles that I’ve been looking through on larger news sites write about sex work as a degradation of society, which is unfortunately a common perception of sex work and sex workers. There’s also a common erasure of sex workers who aren’t women, which I’m interested to look more into. I’m going to be using writings from news organizations such as Latinamerican Press, BBC, and some articles from my Sex and Development class. My following posts will hopefully help readers to get a better picture of sex work both globally, as well as in the neighborhood surround Clark University’s campus.