July 13, 2008

Choice, Rights and Trafficking

A friend of mine emailed me with the following question:

I am wondering about the issue of workers rights. The issue of rights for a 14 year old feel blurry, especially if she is a foreigner or is being forced into the job. Economically, they need to make a living, but some of these girls are kidnapped or lured from former Soviet states and then they have no choice but to be involved in the trade. It seems to me there is the matter of kidnapping or being forced into it, but also another issue if girls feel they must do this business to survive because there are no other economic opportunities for them, including education or non-sex related work. Obviously, if someone is choosing that field it is one matter, but wouldn't the rights of someone forced into the sex trade include help getting out of slavery?

Here's my response (and I'm really curious to hear your thoughts, too!):

I think the issue changes a lot when talking about young girls as opposed to adult women. It's the conflation of everything into one problem: trafficking and sex work are thought of as the same thing (they're not), young women and adult women in the sex industry are all the same (also not true, but "poor adult women" are thought of in this very paternalistic way that they need to be protected from choosing options that "we know better" about) This results in making policies that apply homogenously to these very different populations and situations, which then lead to further rights violations. I've heard sex workers complain that when they got pulled into the industry, no one was helping them even though they said they didn't want to be there, and now that they're established as sex workers, anti-trafficking law enforcement doesn't listen to them when they say that this is the viable economic option they chose. Hence they feel denied choice on both counts.

There's also issues in terms of street children, homelessness, lack of educational opportunity, etc, etc, and when the economic/livelihood concerns are not being addressed, then it becomes that you are rescuing women (young or adult) but then having them do what? There's a huge emphasis on rescue, with little follow-up on what happens after that - and while I understand that people view the rescue part as being urgent and an emergency - but without follow-up, this methodology actually leads to more individuals being pulled into trafficked situations.

It also disturbs me that while we are livid about trafficking into the sex industry, we remain rather complacent about trafficking into all other labor. Which leads to the question: is it the trafficking and the exploitative circumstances we are livid about, or is it the existence of a sex industry?

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