What Has Happened to ‘Sex Trafficking’?

The question assumes two things: 1) that trafficking for sexual exploitation was in focus in the past, but 2) this is now no longer the case. Both assumptions are worth teasing out.

Currently, it is not uncommon to hear that ‘sex trafficking’ is a fad grounded in simplistic stereotypes about gender, migration and labour that has resulted in some spectacularly poorly designed (and harmful) interventions. Due to improvements in data (we now know trafficking takes place within other labour sectors) and more nuanced reflections regarding programming (rescuing presumed victims in the sex trade tends to create more problems than it solves), many agencies and donors have shifted focus accordingly. In short, the reason for the decline in the focus on sex trafficking is that the anti-trafficking sector has become more enlightened.

I disagree with this view.

First of all, it is not entirely clear that a focus on trafficking for sexual exploitation has decreased. Whereas it is the case that some agencies that received considerable donor funding in the past (especially if it involved children) are now experiencing donor fatigue, this is not necessarily the case elsewhere. For example, I am currently a commission member as part of a public inquiry into trafficking in New South Wales, Australia, where “sex trafficking” remains a key concern, despite several voices calling for a broadened focus on labour trafficking. Similarly, whereas several agencies in the Mekong region seem ‘fed up’ with more than a decade of anti-trafficking, this is seen as the ‘new thing’ Down Under. Hence, there are intriguing time lags between different regions. In Scandinavia, including my native Norway, trafficking for sexual exploitation remains the main focus both in media and in government interventions, where criminalizing the ‘demand side’ has been in vogue for some time (although it has lately been increasingly critiqued). In the Mekong region itself, some agencies, such as the Somaly Mam Foundation, seem to maintain success in generating both media attention and funding. Rather than assuming that anti-trafficking is a coherent, monolithic entity, it is important to recognize that it is a rather porous and fragmented constellation of agencies, donors and implementers which manifests itself differently in various geographical contexts. There is no such thing as a general ‘view’ or ‘trend’ when it comes to the combat against trafficking for sexual exploitation.

Secondly, the notion that there has been a huge focus on sex trafficking, although not incorrect, needs to be qualified. A concern with trafficking for sexual exploitation goes back more than a hundred years – the first international convention dates back to 1904 – but very few States ratified those laws. In other words, up until the Palermo Protocol, ‘sex trafficking’ was predominately a media concern without much will to address it politically. All this changed with the advent of the UN antitrafficking protocol in 2000. Yet the reason for this change has much more to do with nation States’ concern regarding controlling migration, as well as security concerns. The same goes for the plethora of government action plans, laws, MOUs and government funding for anti-trafficking. As such, the focus on sex within anti-trafficking has in some ways always been cosmetic.

Thirdly, it is unsurprising that particular aid challenges, such as ‘sex trafficking’, seem to exhaust themselves. The aid industry is full of fashions and fads, such as ‘microcredit’ and ‘sustainable development,’ which were celebrated in the 1990s. Trafficking is not immune from this. (As one Thai NGO worker once told me, “In the 1990s we called it ‘child sex tourism,’ now we call it ‘sex trafficking.’)

Trafficking for sexual exploitation always grabs attention, but there is a certain inherent donor fatigue, as it is immensely difficult to design good and meaningful programmes, let alone produce credible data on its prevalence. No wonder both donors and implementers get tired of combating sex trafficking as a solid evidence base and results remain opaque. Several agencies (IOM included) have gradually started to address other sectors, such as the fishing industry, which has contributed to a reorientation of programmes. Although numbers remain elusive, it is in some ways more straightforward for aid agencies to engage sectors other than sex work, as programmes do not get bogged down with endless debates regarding agency and consent as they do within prostitution. However, it does not mean that ‘sex trafficking’ disappears, only that the language slightly changes over time. Hence, many agencies advocate a broader focus on labour. Some see ‘safe migration’ as the new thing. Others see ‘child protection’ – which many agencies did in the 1990s – as the best way forward. Yet another group sees supply chain governance as “‘cutting-edge’ (despite the fact that political economic literature has spent considerable time theorizing this phenomenon back since the 19th century).

Prostitution fascinates. And, within the public domain, questions of ‘free will’ often reduces itself from a concern regarding structural inequality to the question of the female body, whether it is ‘sex trafficking,’ prostitution, the burqa, female genital mutilation, foot binding or cosmetic surgery. And why should policymakers care about this? The general public’s sensibilities to the imposition on women’s bodies and agency is so self-evident that it manifests itself again and again in various contexts. Although several donors and programmes now appear to address broader structural problems of labour (such as a focus on supply chains), it is important to note that policy and programming can quickly slip back to a focus on the individual, biological body – the ‘trafficking survivor.’ It is precisely this idiom that ‘sex trafficking’ captures so well.

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