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.