Sex Trafficking: Zero Tolerance

The Bush administration's abolitionist approach to the problem may end up doing more harm than good.

| Wed May 4, 2005 2:00 AM EDT

In 2000 Congress passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) in order to monitor the human-trafficking records of countries around the world. States that failed to meet the law's new standards would be targeted for political pressure, and sanctions in some cases, until they cracked down on trafficking. The law marked a high point in a growing U.S. campaign against the global sex trade. A few months later, when George W. Bush took office, he worked to expand that fight, emphasizing its moral dimension above all else. As he put it in a 2003 address to the United Nations, "The victims of the sex trade see little of life before they see the very worst of life—an underground of brutality and lonely fear."

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Nobody denies that trafficking is an important issue. By some counts, up to 40 million women have been enslaved worldwide, often sold by parents or boyfriends into bondage, poverty, and degradation. Nevertheless, the issue is not always as simple as it appears, and all too often crackdowns on trafficking end up cracking down on—and hurting—women who are simply trying to make a living in the sex industry, insisting on the right to ply their trade. This failure to distinguish the two different cases has led progressive human rights activists to claim that the Bush administration's interpretation and use of anti-trafficking laws like the TVPA are too simplistic, and often do as much harm as good.

By many measures, the TVPA has been and continues to be a success, both domestically and abroad. The trafficking of women into the United States has dropped from 50,000 in 2001 to 20,000 in 2003, according to the State Department's Trafficking in Persons Reports. Internationally, the U.S. spent $117 million in 2003 on global anti-trafficking programs in over 50 countries around the world. The FBI has reportedly been dispatched to countries like Romania, Albania, Bosnia, and Bulgaria to disrupt trafficking rings. Many of the targeted countries, meanwhile, are starting to provide new social service programs to rescue and rehabilitate trafficking victims. But the Bush administration has made clear time and time again that these successes are only the shots fired in a larger battle against trafficking. "We have made great progress," John Ashcroft said back in 2003, "but each heartbreaking tale of injustice compels us to do even more."

When the Trafficking Victims Protection Act was passed in 2000, it had wide bipartisan support in Congress—its two co-sponsors in the Senate were the socially conservative Sam Brownback (R-KS) and the liberal Paul Wellstone (D-MN). Its authors reached a compromise on a working definition of "trafficking," broadly understood as the forced labor of individuals in a wide variety of sectors, including agriculture, domestic, industry, and sex work. But in the ensuing years, the Bush administration has sought to focus primarily on sex trafficking, a problem that the president called a "special evil" in a 2003 address to the UN General Assembly.

The White House's focus on sex trafficking have won enthusiastic support from conservative feminist groups like the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, which has long backed hard-line stance on the sex trade. These groups view all prostitution as an inherent violation of women's rights, rather than focusing on only those instances in which women are forced into sex work against their will. On the opposite side of the spectrum are rights-based advocacy groups such as the Thailand-based Global Alliance Against Trafficking in Women, which distinguish between voluntary and forced prostitution, acknowledge the inevitability of the sex trade, and seek anti-trafficking solutions that can work within this framework.

The rights-based group argues that not all prostitutes who live and work abroad are trafficking victims. Many women see sex work as a profitable occupation, often moving to countries where they can earn an even better living, and then send remittances home to their families. Filipino women working in the sex and entertainment industry in Japan, for instance, send home anywhere from $450 million to $1 billion a year. Abolitionists, on the other hand, including the Bush administration, shift the focus away from economic necessity towards moral outrage. "If you're focusing on rescuing women from sexual harm, figuring out how women can be part of equitable development isn't on the table," says Ali Miller, a human rights lawyer and gender and sexuality expert at Columbia University.

The debate between the two camps has thus far played out mostly on a national level, as states have tried to figure out the best way to tackle domestic prostitution. Sweden, for instance, opted for a largely abolition-based approach in 1999, passing a law prohibiting the purchase of sexual services. According to an assessment by the Norwegian Ministry of Justice, the number of street prostitutes in Sweden fell 41 percent between 1998 and 2003, but as a result, more than two-thirds of prostitutes are now thought to be working indoors: at home, in a brothel, in a club, or as escorts, communicating with customers via cell phone and the internet. By pushing the business underground, the danger of violence to women increases. A smaller client base means lower prices, forcing women to accept customers they would otherwise refuse, such as men who demand unprotected sex. The Swedish government claims that this law was meant for "setting norms," but the Norwegian report concludes that "the Swedish experience shows that exposing, investigating and bringing to court sex purchase offences that occur indoors are demanding on resources and difficult to prove."

The Netherlands, on the other hand, with a sex industry 10 times the size of Sweden's, acknowledges that prostitution—called "sex work"—is an inevitability, and has regulated the sex industry by legalizing brothels and creating official zones for street prostitution. The term "trafficking" is used only to designate forced prostitution, and traffickers are duly prosecuted. Dutch police reports suggest that, as a result, prostitution has become both easier to regulate and socially acceptable. Rights-based organizations like the Network for Sex Work Projects applaud the creation of a safer workplace for most women in the Dutch sex industry, though they criticize the lack of protections for many trafficking victims, including non-EU citizens who are in the Netherlands illegally.

But despite its successes, a Netherlands-style approach has been flatly ruled out by the Bush administration. A State Department fact sheet on trafficking declares: "It is a vicious myth that women and children who work as prostitutes have voluntarily chosen such a life for themselves." Likewise, USAID has announced that "organizations which advocate or support the legalization of prostitution are not appropriate partners for USAID anti-trafficking grants or contracts."

There is some evidence that the emphasis on abolition in anti-trafficking efforts has had adverse effects around the world. South Korea, for one, responded to a trafficking citation by the Bush administration in 2001 by hastily establishing an inter-ministry task force to combat trafficking. The following June, Colin Powell announced that "South Korea, by the standards of the report, has made great strides in improving its record." U.S. pressure appears to have set in motion drastic changes in a country that had not passed a single prostitution law since 1961. Last September, South Korea's legislature passed a sweeping anti-prostitution law, including prison sentences and fines, not only for traffickers, but for women who work in the sex industry and haven't been coerced into prostitution. (Trafficked women are exempt from punishment.)

But as with Sweden, the crackdowns on the sex trade in South Korea "are forcing [prostitutes] to work clandestinely," says Sealing Cheng, an anthropologist who has been doing prostitution-related research in South Korea since 1998. "That they want to be free from exploitation and abuse does not mean that they want to be out of a job." Many South Korean sex workers are simply switching methods, moving their business to residential areas, finding clients on the internet, or even migrating to Macau or Hong Kong for better work prospects. And last year, more than 2,000 sex workers launched a hunger strike on the streets of Seoul to protest the new prostitution law.

Many other countries are also taking a turn for the abolitionist approach in response to the TVPA, including South Africa, Nigeria, Cambodia, the Philippines, and Russia. This year, in response to being singled out by the 2004 TVPA report, Japan is planning to crack down on its notorious sex industry by cutting down the number of "entertainer visas" it issues to Filipino women from abroad and by tightening its immigration and labor laws. The Philippine government fears the loss of billions of dollars in remittances, and activists are worried that these legal reforms could further harm foreign women who work in an already highly xenophobic, sexist, unregulated, organized crime-driven market by driving practices further underground.

By pressuring countries to enact sweeping new anti-prostitution laws, the White House is glossing over many of the complexities of trafficking. The case of the Netherlands suggests that it should be possible to crack down on actual trafficking without harming women who are, on their own, looking to make a living in the sex trade. But the White House has waved off any such approach. "Within the TVPA, there is the potential for more rights-oriented work," says Ali Miller of Columbia, "but the current administration is focusing on sex trafficking, and calling prostitution per se a violation."

Even more egregiously, of late there is mounting evidence that the TVPA is being used to pursue goals only incidentally related to trafficking. Colin Powell explicitly stated in 2002, "Countries that do not make such an effort [to reduce trafficking], however, will be subject to sanctions." But Human Rights Watch has pointed out that the punishments have often been doled out in an inconsistent fashion. North Korea, Cuba, and Venezuela have all been singled out for havey sanctions under the trafficking act, even though they are not the world's worst when it comes to trafficking. This fact has led some human rights activists to question the sincerity of the entire project. "Right now," says Miller, "the TVPA reports are just a tool for the US to sop the Christian right wing and to whack governments that it is also otherwise angry at." In the meantime, deft solutions for dealing with human trafficking are being lost in the shuffle.