What’s wrong with the international feminist anti-trafficking lobby?

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This article is part of Canvas’s International Women’s Week mini-issue

One of the greatest achievements of contemporary feminism has been the ability for prominent feminist activists and thinkers to have their voice heard on international negotiation on a number of feminist issues. Labelled “Governance Feminism”, the power feminists have exercised in such negotiations and the treaties and agreements that they produce are an effective response to those who doubt the continuing relevance of feminist theory and practice today.

Nowhere is this more observable than in the case of feminist input into international anti-trafficking negotiations, in which they have exercised significant power over outcome and the agenda. The events leading up to the 2000 UN “Trafficking Protocol”, for example, saw an intensive feminist lobby from key pressure groups such as the Kathleen Barry’s Coalition Against the Trafficking of Women (CATW) and others. The obvious success gained by such feminists, in response to such an obvious evil, makes it uncomfortable to talk of the narrative produced by these leading feminist groups. And yet those that have proved hegemonic in anti-trafficking debates have produced a problematic discourse, one that both misunderstands the depth of the problem at hand and stigmatizes the very women it is trying to help.

The debates central to trafficking in women have seen the renaissance of a longstanding dispute among feminist scholars centring on the issues of consent vs. coercion. Those following the views of Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon, expressed during their anti-pornography activism in the 1980s, such as CATW, have argued for a definition of trafficking that recognises that “prostitution is a form of sexual violence which can never be consented to” (Doezema, 2005, p. 71)[1]. Under such an argument any woman clandestinely migrating for the purpose of prostitution becomes a victim of sex trafficking. Conversely sex-worker activists and liberal feminist point to the increasing amount of sex-worker rights organisations in non-western countries as an indication of the consent of migrant sex workers.

The hinge of this debate, the conceptual split between coercion and consent, is in itself a problematic dichotomy which misunderstands the lived experience of its subjects. Whilst agreeing that a woman would never choose prostitution given access to better economic and social conditions, the discourse adopted by modern feminist abolitionists to paint sex-trafficking as a “new type of slavery” misrepresents reality (Berman, 2003, p. 43). Almost incongruent to the imagery employed by radical feminists, of domineering pimps and “foreign criminal gangs” forcing women into sex work in other countries, evidence suggests a large proportion of these women seek help to migrate, knowing their destination (Weitzer, 2007, p. 454.)[2] For example, one report commission by USAID reports that most Vietnamese women seeking to work in Cambodian brothels do so to support their families, often relying on relatives and friends to help them make the journey (Weitzer,2007, p. 454). Other literature draws similar conclusions with smugglers being often driven out of poverty rather than criminality, reflecting “a business built for the poor by the poor” (Sharman, p. 94.) Even so, the migrant often experiences some kind of deception or abuse and different parts of the journey, in the form of failed expectations or dishonesty in terms of working conditions.

As such dominant feminist thought on the issues of sex-trafficking and prostitution have failed to consider such subtleties and  the “multiple migration trajectories and worker experience” of the subjects involved (Wietzer, 2007, p. 454). No space has been created within mainstream debate for the victim of sex-trafficking to speak truly of her own experiences. Radical feminists have been quick to ignore the voices of sex-workers with perspectives not corresponding to their own abolitionist views, dual strategy that has consisted of patronisation and objectification. Non-western women who claim to be “negotiating between consenting adults” when partaking in sex-work, such those members of the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee in Calcutta, one of the world’s largest sex worker’s rights organizations, are dismissed as deluded and despairing (Doezema, 2005, p. 70). In the words of leading anti-trafficking feminist Catharine Barry, such women are merely “normalizing their exploitation” in a last-ditch appeal for dignity (Doezema, 2005, p. 74). In the place of vocal contributions for sex-workers has come the construction of a graphic image of a suffering body. This entails objectifying prostitutes, depicting them as “empty holes surrounded by flesh”, in a discursive strategy used by feminist lobbies to depict the magnitude of the issue of sex-trafficking (Doezema, 2005, p. 74.)

Owing to the nature of sex-trafficking, and the increasingly non-western face of the migrant sex worker, discourse produced by dominant anti-trafficking debate has often slipped into a troublesome eurocentrism. The temptation has been to posit the non-western prostitution as victimised by barbaric cultures, entailing a troublesome cultural essentialism and moving dangerously close to the motifs of European colonialism. Kathleen Barry explicitly locates the “victims of sex trafficking” as victims of “cultures where females are expected to sacrifice themselves” (Doezema, 2001, p. 31)[3]. At the most extreme this dialogue has become reminiscent of the civilizing troupe of European imperialism.  In an article for the Washington Post Phyllis Chester and Donna Hughes, two prominent CATW spokespeople, frame the struggle against the global sex trade as fight for Western values against backward Eastern ones, such the “fascist political movement” of Islam (Sharma, 2005, p. 101)[4].  Far from uncommon, many Western feminists see women from the global south, prevented from the benefits of Western culture and victims of “preindustrial and feudal societies”, as particular vulnerable to sexual slavery. (Sharma, 2005,p. 100).

Far from taking sides on the coercion vs. consent debate central to feminist thought on prostitution (domestic and international), I wanted in this article to suggest that such debate should be de-emphasised and replaced by the real experiences of women involved. Feminism‘s success in being heard on international stage provides an unprecedented opportunity for the lived experiences of women everywhere to transgress those boundaries which have traditionally kept their voices from being heard. However for a social theory which claims to be “forged directly from women’s experiences”, grand narratives have often taken precedence over real life accounts. In the area of sex-trafficking this has led to politics which has misrepresented the real problems behind the issue and thus created inadequate solutions, often in form of intensifying border controls and the stigmatization of all female migrants.

Written by Jack Gibson



1Jo Doezema, “Now You See Her, Now You Don’t: Sex Workers At The UN Trafficking Protocol Negotiations, Social & Legal Studies, Vol. 14 (2005), pp. 61-89

2 Ronald Weitzer, “The Social Construction of Sex Trafficking: Ideology and Institutionalization of a Moral Crusade, Politics & Society, Vol. 35 (2007),  pp. 447-475.

3 Doezema, Jo, “Ouch! Western Feminists’ ‘Wounded Attachment’ to the ‘Third World Prostitute”, Feminist Review, Vol. 67 (2001), pp. 16-38.

4 Sharma, Nandita “Anti-Trafficking Rhetoric and the Making of a Global Apartheid”, National Women’s’ Studies Association Journal, Vol. 17 (2005) , pp. 88-111.