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The Eye of the Beholder: How Bad Data, Scrambles for Funding and Professional Bias Shape Human Trafficking Law and Policy, Dina Francesca Haynes

Following is a portion of a draft chapter entitled The Eye of the Beholder: How Bad Data, Scrambles for Funding and Professional Bias Shape Human Trafficking Law and Policy

Human trafficking is not unique in having attracted multiple and conflicting points of view on everything from the extent of the problem, the definition of what the problem is precisely, and who are its victims to how to best to support them. Like “sexy” and “of the moment” human rights issues of earlier decades, such as female genital mutilation (FGM) and genocide and perhaps like morally intractable issues such as abortion, there are advantages and disadvantages to the level and diversity of attention currently focused on the issue. The advantages are evident: more attention on a still little understood phenomenon should work to bring more funding, more activism, more legal teeth and more assistance to bear in supporting persons who are victims of the problem. But multiple disadvantages exist as well, although often more subtle and harder to discern. The level of interest means that a few experts are perpetually called upon to explain the fundamentals to relative newcomers; accordingly, the level of discourse necessary to tackle this complex issue does not advance rapidly. Too, there is a sort of brain drain, in that those who do gain expertise, particularly among law enforcement and policy makers, are quickly promoted (as there is considerable funding and attention on this issue) and their successors start over again with little or no knowledge. Furthermore, with so much interest even across otherwise uncooperative political divides, high level politicians and policy makers want to be involved and so funding is diverted to “High Level Working Groups” and away from those most likely to encounter a victim “in the field.” Human trafficking then becomes a top down issue, when it needs to be bottom up – driven by the real needs recognized by victim service providers (and specifically including those victim services providers who are not soliciting federal funding, to provide objective data), and voiced by the victims themselves.

One of the most cumbersome issues stymieing anti-trafficking efforts over the past twelve years since the adoption of the Palermo Protocol and the subsequent US Trafficking Victim Protection Act (TVPA) is that far too much of the discussion has centered on sex. Media, politicians, movies, celebrities, prosecutors, law enforcement and even academics have focused their attention almost exclusively on human trafficking for sex.

So much discussion of human trafficking now centers around sex, most audience members attending a talk or reading about human trafficking expect that sex trafficking will be the focus of discussion, even when the discussion is specifically slated to center on human trafficking into domestic servitude, for example. Because the audience has been primed by the media focus on trafficking for sex, they envision an entirely different sort of “victim” when experts talk to them about human trafficking. The audience is prepared for (and expects to hear about) sex and so other areas of human trafficking are ignored, regardless of the fact that the varieties of ways in which humans have been exploited by traffickers abound. In the United States, for example, victims of human trafficking have been forced into severely exploitative labor (domestic service, nannies, agriculture, factory work; cleaners and maintenance crews); misled about the work that would be available and then trapped by their debt and/or lack of immigration status or visa portability (teachers, welders,); adult sex workers deprived of their earnings and coerced or forced into work that they do not wish to do and children forced into sex work and other types of indentured or forced labor (hair braiding). Internationally, people are trafficked from their countries of origin to countries of destination for all of the foregoing reasons, as well types of forced and indentured labor as yet unknown in the United States (camel jockeys, massage on the beach, inherited servitude). People are also trafficked within the interior of their own countries.

In fact, the ILO estimates that 12.3 million people, possibly a majority of whom are women, are in forced labor at any given time. About one and a half million of these may be forced specifically into sex trafficking. Sex trafficking is horrific, to be sure, and must be addressed. But the foregoing figures would suggest that about thirteen percent of forced labor involves sex. Although not all exploitative labor would rise to the level of human trafficking (which requires that one be severely exploited), most forced labor arguably would. Even if more conservatively viewed, much of the world’s human trafficking market is focused on forced labor for work other than sex, while most of the discussions (and assumptions, and funding) focus on trafficking in humans for sex. It is also important to note here, as an introduction to the trouble with statistics which will be covered further below, that the most verifiable figures (those collected by organizations working with victims of human trafficking; IOM, UNODC, ILO), conclude only that they assist more victims of commercial sexual exploitation. Assisting more victims of sexual exploitation and knowing that there therefore are more people exploited for sex than for other forms of labor are two different things. It is also important to know that the US government overlooks involuntary servitude when calculating the number of trafficked persons. Since involuntary servitude would qualify as labor trafficking, were it counted, it is possible that this is another way in which labor trafficking is being underestimated, while sex trafficking is being over-estimated.

Worse still, a growing number of “experts” and politicians perpetuate the uncertain statistics and the conflation between human trafficking and prostitution, and these are shaping anti-trafficking policy. Some of them believe that ending prostitution will actually eradicate human trafficking, while others have the primary objective of abolishing prostitution, and merely use the attention and funding currently available to human trafficking as a vehicle by which to achieve their objective.

Because this chapter is about multiple points of view currently focused on the topic of human trafficking, and because I argue that it is imperative for those purporting to work on human trafficking to be transparent with regard to their agendas so that the audience has a fair chance of understanding the objectives the expert might hold and how that might impact their point of view, it is appropriate at the outset to set forward my own views on the contentious aspects of the issue. I will begin by stating that I take no position on whether or not prostitution should be legalized or abolished. I believe that there are many women who engage in sex work willingly and consensually, and many more that likely would opt for work other than selling sex were it available to them and well paid. I believe that all sex workers should be protected against disease, abuse and horrible working conditions and that sex workers can be raped, deprived of their wages by middlemen, exploited and abused. Because sex workers can be raped, exploited and abused (a view contrary to the position held by some abolitionists, discussed further below), I hold that conflating all sex work with “human trafficking” (or rape, as some of them argue), and arguing that sex work can never be consensual, undermines the ability to protect sex workers from the aforementioned harms. If all prostitution is rape, as some radical feminists argue, then how can those who actually do rape a prostitute be criminally charged? If all prostitution is exploitative, as some also argue, then how can a sex worker recoup wages of which she has been deprived? The available data, such as it is, on the correlation of legalized prostitution to human trafficking has not convinced me one way or the other. While I do appreciate the argument that women should have actual access to other well-paying jobs in order to ascertain whether their choice of sex work is actually a free and consensual one, I do not agree with the “false consciousness” arguments, and find it offensive that some people purporting to work on behalf of victims of human trafficking are so free in stripping them of their individual agency and substituting it with their own. While we may wish it to be so that all women everywhere have a real choice between selling their bodies for sex and electing to become, say, teachers or policewomen, most currently do not have that choice. We can (and should) work toward that goal, but that would require that our anti-trafficking efforts be directed to eradicating poverty and global economic disparity, as I argued in the opening sentences of this chapter, not prostitution. It is simply repugnant for western women to tell women from other parts of the world that, although they may think they have chosen sex work in order to feed their children, this belief is only their ignorant “false consciousness” leading them astray.

I view mine as somewhat of a centrist position, but not aligned with the “neo-abolitionists” — those who characterize their anti-prostitution campaigns as anti-trafficking campaigns, purposely using the terms “abolition” and “modern day slavery” to link their prostitution abolition agenda to the unassailable earlier efforts to end slavery. Finally, and most important to me, I find it deeply problematic that so many discussions of human trafficking devolve immediately into agitation to end prostitution, because this detracts and distracts us from delving into the hard work of eradicating trafficking in human beings. And even more problematic that so much funding and political attention allocated towards human trafficking is directed towards the abolition of prostitution – particularly when it employs bad research to substantiate the correlation. 

Related posts:

  1. Data Matters
  2. Used, Abused, Arrested and Deported: Extending Immigration Benefits to Protect the Victims of Trafficking and to Secure the Prosecution of Traffickers by Dina Haynes
  3. On the Frontlines: Gender, War, and the Post-Conflict Process by Dina Haynes
  4. Masculinities and Child Soldiers in Post-Conflict Societies by Dina Haynes
  5. Lessons from Arizona Market: Human Trafficking, Democratization and the Neoliberal Reconstruction Agenda by Dina Haynes