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Tracing the “Traffic in Women”: Moral and Political Economies of Sexual Labor

By Elizabeth Bernstein Published 2012

Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers
"Rescued" sex workers in lockdown in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

In recent years, the trafficking of women and children into the sex sector has become the focus of a steady spate of media coverage, the subject of abundant policy interventions, and the target of local, national, and transnational activist campaigns uniting highly diverse constituencies. From the political left to the far right, from secular feminists to evangelical Christians, sex trafficking is frequently described as “modern day slavery” and is considered to be a moral question that is “beyond politics,” something no one could possibly claim to be “for.” This unity is all the more striking given the fact that definitions of the term remain murky, with many states and activists applying it not only to forced but also to voluntary forms of sexual labor. Despite this ambiguity, sex trafficking has risen to a position of cultural and political prominence that it has not held since the “white slavery” panic similarly circled the globe at the turn of the last century.

This surge of interest presents sociologists and other scholars with some vexing social and historical questions. If prostitution is the “oldest profession,” why the resurgence of interest in it now? How has the issue of sex trafficking come to unite constituencies that otherwise have opposing politics and interests, especially in relation to matters of sex and gender (as ongoing political controversies over gay marriage and abortion powerfully reveal)?

No doubt, the globalization, expansion, and diversification of sexual commerce in recent decades have been relevant factors in fostering this consensus. It was for this reason that my own interest in this question first emerged over a decade ago, leading me to conduct ethnographic research on the globalization and structural transformations of sexual labor.1 In the mid-1990s, I began researching the complex dynamics of sexual commerce and its regulation, focusing in particular on three cities—San Francisco, Stockholm, and Amsterdam. These were cities of similar size and with comparable political-economic profiles, but they were on the cusp of adopting three different regulatory models: decriminalization, criminalization, and legalization. Trained as an ethnographer, I spent a number of years getting to know communities of sex workers, clients, and state agents, as well as visiting brothels, streetwalking strolls, and holding tanks for arrested sex workers.

In addition to understanding the changing structural and experiential contours of new global markets in sexual labor, I used ethnographic research to illuminate the sometimes unintended consequences of new regulatory policies in each of these cities. Like Abraham Flexner, the Institute’s founding Director, who researched policies pertaining to prostitution in the early 1900s, I found some unexpected things.2 For example, I found that in San Francisco, a new de facto decriminalization policy actually lead to more arrests of sex workers (particularly those who worked on the streets), but for crimes other than prostitution, such as littering, disorderly conduct, and public nuisance violations. In Amsterdam, I found that the legalization of brothel keeping in the year 2000 actually led to a decline in the size of the sex industry and to the vacating of brothels in the red-light district. With regulations that were costly to enforce, many of the smaller enterprises went out of business. In addition, since legal residence in the Netherlands was now a requirement for sex workers, and more than 85 percent had been illegal migrants in the first place, many left for neighboring Belgium or Germany where their papers were less likely to be checked. In Stockholm, I found that feminist-led campaigns against purchasing sex, and its resultant criminalization, led to more dangers for street-based sex-workers, who now had fewer choices in choosing clients. As in the other two cases, the new Swedish law served primarily to push burgeoning markets behind closed doors or to other parts of the city. Crucially, all of these policies—decriminalization, legalization, and criminalization—were offered up as different kinds of enlightened, feminist-friendly solutions to the problem of prostitution and were framed in terms of “women’s interests.” Crucially, too, all three of these policies yielded similar effects: the removal of economically disenfranchised and racially marginalized streetwalkers from gentrifying city centers; the de facto tolerance of a small tier of predominantly white and relatively privileged indoor sex workers; and the increased policing of illegal migrant workers, pushing them further underground.

My current research on the politics of trafficking begins where my earlier research left off, temporally, empirically, and theoretically. In this new work, I am considering the various constituencies who have resurrected the issue of the “traffic in women,” as well as the impact of this framework upon the sex workers it purports to help. One of the things that I have found is that the various constituencies who have pushed for the anti-trafficking frame have been united not only by a politics around gender and sexuality (i.e., a commitment to an ideal of amatively coupled heterosexual egalitarianism, one that cannot imagine a place for prostitution outside the scope of exploitation) but also by an unspoken commitment to a particular carceral agenda, in which the pursuit of “women’s human rights” is envisioned primarily in terms of criminal justice. Crucially, the unspoken sexual and carceral assumptions that prevail among these well-intentioned social activists can often wind up doing more harm than good.

Contemporary anti-trafficking campaigns have been far more successful at criminalizing marginalized populations, enforcing border control, and measuring the compliance of other countries with human rights standards based on the curtailment of prostitution than they have been at issuing any concrete benefits to victims. This is true both within the United States, where pimps can now be given 99-year prison sentences as sex traffickers and where sex workers are increasingly arrested and deported for the sake of their “protection,” as well as elsewhere around the globe, where the U.S. tier-ranking of other countries in its annual Trafficking in Persons Report, and associated economic sanctions, have led to the tightening of borders internationally and to the passage of punitive anti-prostitution policies in numerous countries.3 The accelerated arrest of sex workers is particularly ironic, given that sex workers themselves are likely to describe prison, not prostitution, as tantamount to slavery. Increasingly, heightened policing, arrests, and incarceration have become the surprising political core of many activist agendas on behalf of “women’s human rights.”

My own research seeks to reveal such paradoxes, but also to do more. The sociological study of sexual labor reveals a more general methodological problem that has beset many social researchers. There is no “thing in itself” beyond how it is framed, because the discursive apparatus that surrounds the issue determines what you can see, how the problem is defined in the first place, and the possible moral and political responses that can emerge. For example, is the “problem” of trafficking one of sex, of migration, of criminal networks, or of global social inequalities? My project seeks to explain how particular frameworks arise and the kinds of solutions that get embraced, as well as the reasons that other possible interventions have often been foreclosed. In doing so, I aim not only to reframe the problem of “sex trafficking,” but also to better understand the politically complex laws, policies, and social actors that together endeavor to stop it. 

Elizabeth Bernstein, Member (2011–12) in the School of Social Science, is Associate Professor of Women’s, Gender, & Sexuality Studies and Sociology at Barnard College, Columbia University. Her current book manuscript, “Brokered Subjects: Sex, Trafficking, and the Politics of Freedom,” will be published by the University of Chicago Press.

Published in The Institute Letter Fall 2012