One of the most significant and persistent barriers to combating human trafficking is widespread insistence on distinguishing between sexual trafficking and prostitution. While linking the two is about as easy as connecting smoking to lung cancer, we continue to decouple trafficking from branches of the commercial sex industry like prostitution and pornography.
Of course most of us want to end sexual slavery, but the commercial sex industry — which is the very lifeblood of trafficking — is increasingly tolerated. Prostitution is seen by plenty as a legitimate, if suboptimal, form of "work," and pornography is taken to be harmless. And yet the commercial sex market and sex trafficking are symbiotically related; the latter simply would not exist without the former. Women and girls are trafficked into brothels, strip clubs and massage parlors. They're photographed and filmed servicing men. Customers — including men who simply click on free porn on the web — do not and cannot distinguish between trafficked women, prostitutes and porn stars.
Those who draw a bright line between sex trafficking and prostitution often argue for legalizing prostitution. After all, they say, if prostitution were legalized, then the government would be poised to regulate it and curb harms experienced by prostitutes. In fact, the State Department's 2010 Trafficking in Persons Report even claimed that countries that had legalized prostitution were making efforts to eliminate sexual trafficking.
But rather than eliminate sexual trafficking, the evidence has consistently revealed that legalizing prostitution fosters it. Dorchen Leidholdt, Co-Executive Director of the international NGO Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, stated:
"Jurisdictions that have legalized prostitution have demonstrated just what happens when prostitution is legitimized and protected by law: the number of sex businesses grows, as does the demand for prostitution. Legalized prostitution brings sex tourists and heightens the demand among local men. Local women constitute an inadequate supply so foreign girls and women are trafficked in to meet the demand. The trafficked women are cheaper, younger, more exciting to customers, and easier to control. More trafficked women means more local demand and more sex tourism."
In other words, sexual demand is not as stable as you might think; it can be stimulated. Just consider what happened in Australia when its government decriminalized prostitution and took control of the industry: "in New South Wales where brothels were decriminalized in 1995, the number of brothels in Sydney had tripled to 400-500 by 1999, with the vast majority having no license." In other words the illegal sector of the sex industry flourished once prostitution was legalized. The Netherlands are another excellent case study. Their brothels were legalized in 2000, but the number of reported human trafficking cases increased from 341 in 2000 to 909 in 2009. When the sex industry enjoys government protection, it thrives and demand increases. It also becomes much more difficult to identify instances of abuse and to prosecute trafficking.
What if a woman wants to become a prostitute? In her book "Prostitution, Power and Freedom," Nottingham University Sociology Professor Julia O'Connell explained that this phenomenon, known as "casual prostitution," accounts for a mere one percent of women in the sex industry. And in a recent study of trafficking and prostitution across nine countries, researchers found that out of 785 sex workers, "89 percent … wanted to escape prostitution but did not have other options for survival."
Free choice here is largely a myth. Catherine MacKinnon, pioneer of the legal battle against sexual harassment in the workforce, argued that "If being a sex worker were truly a free choice, why is it that women with the fewest options are the ones most apt to 'choose' it?" Closely related to the issue of choice is that of consent, or the idea that prostitution is innocuous if the prostituted woman gives her consent. But the condition of consent is an unfounded criterion.
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