When I tell people I’m moving to Southeast Asia to volunteer with anti-trafficking organizations, they often look at me like I’m insane. Maybe they think it’s futile, maybe they think it’s dangerous, maybe they don’t fully understand it. I find myself categorizing prostitution in my conversations, especially with people who don’t understand the differences between sex trafficking and prostitution. But wait. Don’t both involve the exchange of sex for money? Yes, but let me explain. Generally speaking, there are two types of prostitution in the world—voluntary and involuntary. Voluntary prostitution involves women (and men) who choose their line of sex work, have autonomy in their choices, and benefit economically from that work. Involuntary prostitution involves women and girls (and boys) who are forced, coerced, sold, beaten, drugged, and/or raped into a line of work that they rarely benefit from economically.
Numbers vary between sources but the UN estimates that 2 million people are trafficked annually. The International Labour Organization estimates that 21 million people are currently the victims of forced labour in nations all over the world – 4.5 million are victims of forced sexual exploitation.
When it comes to prostitution, there are generally three world views:
- abolition: the prostitute is considered a victim
- regulation: the prostitute is considered a worker
- prohibition: the prostitute is considered a criminal
When it comes to human trafficking, I’m cease and desist. For the intents and purposes of this blog and my volunteer excursion, I will focus solely on trafficking including sexual exploitation. Sure, there are feminist theories on prostitution, sex work, legalization and regulation, but I’m not going into any of that here. My focus is on involuntary prostitution, how it impacts women and girls worldwide, and what we can do to successfully combat it.
Sex trafficking is defined as: a modern-day form of slavery in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such an act is under the age of 18 years. The majority of its victims are women and girls. There are a number of deceptive tools used to coerce or mislead high risk individuals:
- the promise of a good job in another country;
- a false marriage proposal turned debt-bondage;
- being sold into the sex trade by parents, husbands, boyfriends;
- being directly kidnapped by traffickers
Those who are trafficked generally fall victim to debt-bondage. Debt-bondage works like this:
A trafficker kidnaps or coerces a woman or girl to a new county with the promise of a good job. Once in the new country, the woman or girl is told she owes the trafficker money for her transportation, food, and shelter. The woman or girl is then expected to repay this debt through commercial sex work. She is told she cannot leave until her debt is repaid.
When victims fight against their traffickers and customers, they are broken down until they comply. They are subject to starvation, confinement, beatings, rape, forced drug use, and the threat of shame to their families. Aside from the mental, emotional and physical abuse, there are many health risks as well: addiction, physical injuries (broken bones, concussions, burns, vaginal/anal tearings), traumatic brain injuries, and, of course, STDs, miscarriages, sterility, menstrual problems and forced abortions. The psychological harms include mind-body dissociations, shame, grief, fear, distrust, hatred of men, self-hate, suicide, suicidal thoughts, PTSD, acute anxiety, depression, and insomnia.
Human trafficking doesn’t make for light conversation. It’s not a pretty subject. In fact, the horrors of this brutal, multi-billion dollar industry are hard to look at and accept. But we have to look at it. And more importantly, we have to do something about it. The face of these victims is primarily female, and females aren’t highly regarded in many parts of the world. This has to change culturally, politically and economically. There is nothing right about 13-year-old girls being unknowingly sold into the sex trade and then forced to to have sex with dozens of men each day. The systematic oppression of women and girls worldwide must shift. And it must shift now.