Human Trafficking: The Internal Debate
For nearly ten years, the human trafficking sector has
been dominated by an internal political debate that has raged on
in the US and Europe. The
debate focuses on a subset within the human trafficking sector
– trafficking of women into the sex industry.
The battle-lines revolve around the following question
– “How does one address the sex industry in the context of
the trafficking sector?”
One side of the equation feels that the sex industry is
like any other industry – people being paid to provide a
service. Since the
sex industry isn’t regulated, they argue that trafficking and
other forms of exploitation would be reduced or eliminated if
the industry was legalized, legitimized and/or accepted since
regulatory employment processes could then be put in place to
protect those working in this industry.
On the other side of the equation are those who feel that
the sex industry is inherently exploitative, degrading and
dehumanizing for women. They
argue that the best way to eliminate sex trafficking is to
eliminate the trade itself.
Therefore, they advocate an abolitionist approach –
stop prostitution and trafficking will go away.
In some ways both groups are right and wrong at the same
time. For example,
on the abolitionist side, if brothels that use trafficked
persons are closed, no more persons can be trafficked into these
same establishments – this is true. But at the same time, new clandestine sex facilities will
probably open up resulting in trafficking continuing; but this
time in possibly an even more exploitative manner since they
will occur “underground.”
On the sex worker rights side of the equation, while
legalizing and legitimizing prostitution might allow for the
sector to put in place systems to regulate the sex industry to
reduce trafficking, this assumes that the regulatory bodies will
be well-staffed, efficient and without corruption.
As we have seen around the world, this is often not the
case. Thus, the
assumption only works if the system works – and in many cases,
the systems don’t; even in developed settings.
With these factors in mind, it is clear that neither
approach represents the “silver bullet” solution that will
effectively reduce or eliminate sex trafficking. With many other options available to us in the human
trafficking sector, why must we put so much faith in either one
or the other of these two options?
This is a fundamental question that needs to be asked in
the sector at this time.
Over the years, the supporters of both views have
publicly argued and debated to the point where this disagreement
has become highly personalized.
Likewise, this “civil war” has resulted in a number
of unfortunate outcomes. First, it has reduced the entire human
trafficking sector down to a very limited focus – whether the
sex industry/prostitution should be legitimized or eliminated.
By doing this, it negates all of the other forms of
trafficking (e.g. domestic servitude, exploitative labor, etc.)
and the full range of initiatives that address other elements of
the trafficking sector. Second,
instead of the sector evolving as new insights come to the
surface, this debate has kept the sector in a holding pattern.
Third, it has prevented many anti-trafficking sector
activists from working together.
Over the years, there has been tremendous pressure for
those addressing the problem to “pick teams.”
Finally, this has resulted in a tremendous amount of
mental energy being used to win over converts instead of being
used to develop implementation solutions. If one were to analyze the similarities and differences
between the basic philosophies of both camps – in totality –
one would realize that both sides have a lot in common.
This should be the starting point.
A more contemporary understanding of the trafficking
sector accepts the premise that the trafficking sector is much
broader than the sex industry and includes a full range of
interventions to address the problem.
It also accepts the basic concept that people should have
a right to disagree without any negative repercussions – the
basic concept that acts as the foundation for freedom of speech
and expression. What
is needed now is for us to stop people from throwing stones at
each other and to allow for a divergence of ideas to be accepted
and respected, with the hope that we can put our differences
aside and begin to work together.
In summary, for our anti-trafficking work to be
effective, it is essential that we all recognize that there is
no room for the politics that have dominated the last ten years
of the trafficking sector.
This internal bickering is distracting, takes vital
mental resources away from addressing the problem and serves to
prevent us from moving forward as a development community.
It also has had a result of alienating people who might
be interested in helping – but are turned off by this
It is time to reemphasize the point that it is not about
us, as activists, it is about the men, women and children we are
supposed to be serving. They
must always come first.