Sex Trafficking and the “P” word

steve simmons photoPeople used to ask me whether or not by reaching out and helping prostituted women – women still in “the life” – I was actually enabling and facilitating them to remain in that life. Fortunately I don’t hear that question any more – but I’m sure it still comes up. No, we need to continue to break through to the person on the inside. The person who is prostituted is not defined by what she (or he!) does no more than we are. True, it is not always easy for someone to leave the life, even if they desperately want to and by meeting them where they are, we can give them a hand up and out of it. We are starting to care more for minors who have been caught in prostitution. That is a step in the right direction.

We can hype and talk about being anti-slavery and anti-sex-trafficking all we want, but we still can’t talk about being anti-prostitution. Human trafficking, particularly sexual exploitation and prostitution are not exactly the same thing but they are inextricably linked.

No matter what the pro-sex work contingent tells you, prostitution is NOT safe and will NEVER be safe. Vice will not be regulated. It will squeeze out of the grip of social and legal parameters to take its own insidious path of destruction.

The links are clear and I’m just going to post a lot of links for you to click, read, and learn. I don’t have to do a lot of writing here.

Recently I re-blogged a post by “Surviving Prostitution”, a powerful perspective on the reality of life for women who sell sex and what we can do about it. It’s well worth your time to read it. In this post, I’ll briefly develop the link between prostitution and trafficking.

Incredible Stat When people think of human trafficking, it is often of the exploitation of virginal tribal girls in SE Asia. This is stereotypical, but there is of course some truth to that. According to the International Labor Organization, the sex industry represents up to 14% of Thailand’s GDP. Two points here: 1) the number of “willing” Thai girls cannot fuel this demand; and 2) the demand that fuels this enormous trade cannot possibly be primarily from foreign men.

Melissa Farley of Prostitution Research has done much to dispel the myth that regulated prostitution actually protects women from being trafficked.

“Men’s demand for trafficked women cannot be distinguished from the demand for prostitution. The same qualities in women that are sought by men who buy sex are also risk factors for trafficking, for example, young age, low price, foreigner or “exotic,” and inability to speak the local language.”

Back Alley (an excerpt from this BBC report)

In the Latvian capital Riga, brothels are illegal, so the sex industry is more discreet with back street brothels and street workers. One British man told me about a “back alley basement place” his group had visited. Like almost all the Brits I met, he did not want to tell me his name or be identified, admitting they were doing things they would not dream of doing at home. But he said they had been shown a group of girls and he thought they were probably trafficked.

“They stood against the wall with a lack of soul, a dead look on their faces, which suggested that they weren’t necessarily there out of their own free will.

“My initial feeling was they had just been brought out of the cupboard and they’ve just been released from the shackles and marched out to then have an hour with someone.”

He told me half the group had seen enough at that point and left. The other half stayed.

Read about the paradigm shift emerging in law enforcement’s approach to prostitution. We have a long way to go in this regard, even in the United States, but it is a start.

PornAnother “P” word. Donna Hughes explains in this “Porn Harms” briefing how pornography is linked to prostitution, which is linked to slavery of women.

The issue of demand and men and the flesh trade is for another post, but if there any doubt that prostitution and slavery are linked you can read this article on the pimp subculture. One can find hundreds of books on Amazon on “pimpology” and “pimphood” Warning: you might want to temporarily adjust the filter controls on your computer and don’t do this search on a computer shared by your children. Let’s stop glorifying pimphood – you can start by watching your language: you do not “pimp your ride”.

When the link between prostitution and human trafficking is more firmly established in our society’s understanding of the issue, then more progress can be made to address the problem of slavery today. When we can put the light into the dark underground of prostitution then we can see it as one of the roots feeding human trafficking. When we can expose these roots, then we can work to effectively chop them to destruction.


13 thoughts on “Sex Trafficking and the “P” word

  1. I recently started reading the book, “Half the Sky” and had to set it aside for a while because of the awfulness of what the women whose stories are told have experienced. Hideous. One chapter was all about the legalization of prostitution in a European country and yet still many underage girls and foreign women were enslaved. Right in within a “monitored and regulated” legal brothel. Who are we trying to kid here? [pun not intended]

    • I agree. Prostitution leads into child prostitution. This has happened in most countries where they actually legalized prostitution.

  2. I am sorry that I must disagree with what so many consider a noble cause. But the fact is that this entire issue is driven by extreme and sensational stories – because it sells movies/TV and it wins donations as well as new zealots to a faux-issue. These horrible back street brothels that we hear about are rarely open to international tourists. At some point the people of that region make their own decision about enforcing laws and protecting women and children. First world “wars on trafficking” insult third world countries over cultural and sovereignty issues.

    As a tourist in several famous countries known for prostitution I have observed a huge number of prostitutes who are passed over most nights, but wish with all their hearts that a man will pay them for a sexual relationship. The article has the supply and demand issue reversed. Women from all over Philippines and Thailand come to places where there is prostitution with tourists of their own free will. They are desperate for money and have hopes to meet a man who will support them. Prostitution as repeatedly been proven to be empowering for women with little education or other career opportunities. Trafficking is an attack on prostitution. Trafficking also continues to be redefined so more people have potential to be accused. If attacks on prostitution, under the guise of trafficking, suddenly succeed millions of women and their children could starve. Millions of lonely older men, and women too, will lose a comforting temporary relationship that brings succor to their lives. One of several reasons women are prostitutes is that they too are lonely for a temporary, comforting relationship when they were hurt by abusive or unloved relationships early in their lives. Prostitutes have repeated told me they have experienced no abuse, and certainly no violence. Anyone who has met or even observed prostitution around the world can use simply common sense to know this entire issue is simply NOT the way it is portrayed in the digital media! And at some point, in rare cases when extreme stories are true, we should still mind our own business for cultural and sovereignty reasons.

    And I suspect this response will be edited from this site because in modern, digital America it is to easy to tell only one side of a story.

    • Dear “John”,

      I will let you disagree here and I’m glad you had the courage to speak your mind. However, I’m not writing a debate response here. There is no purpose in that as it is obvious that there will be no turning of minds or hearts and that you are not open for discussion. You’ve exposed yourself quite well enough for people to see that I don’t have to.

      I encourage you to find the proof you claim about prostitution and how healthy and empowering it is to women. Yes, the boys and girls, men and women who are prostituted ARE lonely, but a single sex act for money to pay their pimp, their drug supplier, or feed their children will never provide the succor they long for. Many have long since given up and died inside and find a false identity in selling themselves because that is the heavy message that society has burden has placed on them and leaves them there, even keeps them there as a form of societal violence.

      I have yet to meet a woman who has found true intimacy and emotional fulfillment in prostitution – although they would never admit that to a paying john. Even the ones who “chose” to enter the business would say they would not make the same mistake again. My information is from talking with women with whom I have a real relationship – not a business client relationship.

      Neither will the lonely men find the intimacy and emotional attachment through paying for sex. I won’t go down that road here – there are others who work on the demand side who can discuss this more eloquently than I.

      Yes, trafficking and prostitution are NOT the same thing, but they are inextricably linked. Yes, trafficking IS an attack on prostitution. Let’s keep it that way. There may be cultural taboos to this topic, but no culture can withstand the injustice of vulnerable people being continually abused and exploited. I won’t stand aside and mind my own business – there are too many grateful people on my side that are glad that I didn’t.

  3. Hello Katherine,

    I welcomed your honest dialogue with this point of view. And I agree there will be no truing or minds or hearts. But my side of this issue has not been zealously promoted on the internet as your has and I think yours is based on exaggeration.

    I am bothered that you claim your knowledge of this subject is better than mine because you have “a real relationship – not a business client relationship.” Frankly one of the problems with this entire dialogue, especially on the internet, is that men who have known prostitutes intimately will not normally speak up while those who interact with the saddest and most extreme cases are the ones who benefit from telling extreme stories. Prostitutes willing to come to an NGO or be “saved” by an NGO have reason to tell tall tails you want to hear. They are the ones who are disenchanted or have been abused as sex workers. In America, for example, a prostitute is now given a choice between being charged with a crime or to claim victim status. As victims they receive various benefits. Organizations, maybe yours, know they need victims to justify their zealous mission and, therefore, couch prostitutes to be victims.

    I on the other hand meet casually or intimately hundreds of prostitutes who are neither “rescued” nor want to be “rescued”. In huge bars in Philippines of Thailand young women simply can not fake an obvious sense of joy and community among the other women and customers in bars. Zealous websites seem to copy from each other because I often see the same store of women forced to service 20 customers a day as one obvious example. But my MBA in marketing tells me this defies common sense. In all major sex tourism sites I have visited I see women out number men by a huge number. It is obvious many women have no customers from week to week. I have known several of these women well and lived twice with prostitutes. The idea that these women have “given up and died inside” is ridiculous regarding the vast majority of women in sex tourism locations. True pleasure with the sex act – not always, but often – can NOT be faked. Several women have shared their pay plans from work in bars and none seemed concerned about their share. In sex tourist locations violence is virtually unknown or at least that is what many prostitutes have told me. They have often seemed confused that I would ask such a thing.

    Frankly I admit that I know nothing about sad sack situations off the beaten tourist track, but I repeat that to some extent do-gooders from first world countries should, in fact must, mind their own business instead of trampling on culture and sovereignty of other countries.

    • John,
      Having studies anthropology throughout my college years, I understand what you are saying about trampling culture. I do however think there are times that the need to honor culture has to take a back seat to protecting victims. Many nations trampled culture in WW2 because they felt that the culture of Nazi Germany was not as important as need to protect the victims.

      In this case it seems to come down to that one point, are those humans that are trafficked truly victims? I say they are the worst kind of victims. I cannot sit on the side of this issue and ignore those caught in its grip!

      • Hi Mike, Great dialogue. I contend that prostitutes are NOT victims. They will be the first to tell you so. They would be insulted to hear you say that.

        I assume some people appreciate the other side of the story. Of course I am speaking for that other point of view, one that does not rely on exaggeration and extreme stories which, for many of us, defy common sense.

        Consider for a moment that the cold war is over and we are now overwhelmed with new non-military wars: war on drugs, war on terrorism, war on same sex marriage, and wars on this and on that. A war on modern day slavery and a war on trafficking fall into that category. For me, I see them all as an expression of a hyper-religious super power that doesn’t know where to turn next to express its power. I am curious how you would feel if a do-good NGO based in another country wanted to march boldly into the Texas or Ohio media and make powerful accusations about prostitution, as they see it in from the context of their culture. I suspect you would think Americans can damn well deal with their own issues, right? But foreign people don’t normally show up in Abilene or Youngstown and make demands that Americans clean up their act. I assure you that Thailand, Philippines, Germany, Austria, and Japan – all of which are countries where prostitution is a way of life – feel the same way. If they had their way they would lambast America for misunderstanding and abusing prostitutes in America. It is probably America that has real civil rights issues over the way sex workers are treated. If you disagree please understand that I am expressing the way this issue is seen from an international viewpoint. In other words that is the way other countries see your issue of attacking prostitution under its new umbrella category “trafficking.”

        I appreciate your interest in anthropology. I am steeped in the soft sciences too but economics was the most useful. I’m also retired from the Department of State and have seen a bit of the world. I have seen how DoS employees get their marching orders and off they go to save the world with many thinking that will be their best route to being an ambassador someday. I have observed and experienced prostitution in twelve countries and I have never been offered a child; never heard a woman complain of violence except in America; never experienced scams or theft from a woman except in America; never had a woman suggest even once that she was victim or ask for help even when I had befriended them in other ways; and I simply can’t understand where all this extreme “victim” talk comes from. I have seen hotels check IDs. I have seen women in bars show amazing comradely with each other and with customers. Often you can feel a sense of community where the women are in control. I have seen interaction between sex workers and mamasons as if they were family. I have even selected a favorite woman from a crowd of sex workers in a bar only to be amazed at how her face lit up with anticipation and how she high-fived other women as she walked out the door with me.

        As I have said, the extreme things you hear about on the internet are virtually unheard of in the real world where international sex tourism takes place. The international nature of tourism is the only possible excuse to ignore national sovereignty when a first world country makes demands and threats against a developing country. America doesn’t seem to attack Germany in the same way they might attack Philippines. Germany has huge brothels in many larger cities. (Goggle FKK Clubs.)

        I have heard that rural India can be brutal with sex workers. I have heard Korean men can be very quick to finish the job with no feeling for the woman although only rarely with any violence. Things happen. An when they do that is all that makes the news. Almost always women do have a choice and they often chose prostitution. But you are defending the side of this issue that thrives on absolutely off the wall exaggeration on the internet. Muslim youth can be driven to jihad – example, the Boston Marathon bombers – by extreme Imans they meet on the internet. So too can anti-trafficking zealots rally to attack trafficking, a word that didn’t exist 15 years ago, and pay in their donations to support this new industry. But what do I know?

        Frankly I am more of a media critic than a defender of prostitution, but only because I know a lot more about prostitution than you do. That is why I see this as a dangerously inaccurate media issue with potential to harm many people. Ask me how people are harmed if attacks on prostitution succeed. To start with Americans look ignorant and devoid of feelings to many people around the world when they make attacks based on false information. I am angry about what I am seeing.

        It was Mark Twain who said, “It is easier to fool someone than it is to convince him he has been fooled.” Think about it!

  4. What an interesting discussion.


    A few comments, although I too recognize that likely we are not going to change minds or hearts here.

    1. It is irrelevant whether ‘horrible back street brothels’ are open to international tourists or not. Whether these brothels service local or foreign men/women has nothing to do with the right-ness or wrong-ness of women being enslaved in such situations. Lack of freedom to choose one’s own life, to chose how one will make his/her way in life is wrong, no matter what.

    2. Trafficking is not confined to the third world. It is found in Europe and in the United States. You are correct that a lot of the digital media focuses on trafficking in Asia and Africa. This is unfortunate, because it contributes to the mistaken belief that trafficking is not a problem right here in our own neighborhoods.

    3. Sexual pleasure will never fulfill the deepest longings for comfort, connection, and intimacy. We are sexual beings, but we are more – so much more. Just like a drug-induced high, or an extravagant shopping spree will never offer lasting comfort, neither will a sexual experience give the lasting comfort and connection that humans at their deepest being long for.

    I agree with Mike – I cannot sit and do nothing while men, women, boys, and girls are trapped in such situations, no matter how glamorous the situation might appear to be.

  5. Hello Amy, More dialogue. I love this. Very useful stuff.

    1) At some point first world countries – especially the only hyper-religious, narcissistic one – should mind its own business. It has enough problems of its own and its citizens can rally more effectively to them. I strongly urge Americans and other first world citizens to read Tony Wagner’s “The Global Achievement Gap” about failures of and suggested changes to the American education system. This is one example of an issue anti-trafficking zealots would be more useful to attack. Why irritate people in other countries, especially over false and exaggerated information, when there are important issues at home?

    2) Well now, just what is the truth regarding trafficking in America? I urge you to consider the seminal Washington Post article that debunks trafficking in America.
    “Human Trafficking Evokes Outrage, Little Evidence”

    The Washington Post is one of the best examples of traditional journalism and the title of the article speaks for itself. There is a lot more trafficking and more victims in American now than 10 years ago, but the reasons for that are (1) trafficking has been redefined several times to include more circumstances under an ever growing umbrella of unrelated crimes and (2) now “victims” receive benefits they did not get years ago.

    The same misinformation applies to international prostitution too.

    3) I agree that prostitution is not a substitute for life long traditional marriage. Unfortunately that kind of marriage is rarer with each passing year. It certainly is a lot more rare in many European countries than it is in America, At the root of prostitution is the marriage at a young age of third world girls to their male peers. It is those girls who have already had sex as recreation – where little other recreation exists – and had children in their teens. Maybe or maybe not they married the young men around them. Neither are ready for marriage. The man leaves the seen. These girls have little education and no career skills. In many countries they are the ones who choose prostitution often with support of mothers, sisters or neighbors who did the same thing. Does this make them victims? Many people in comfortable surroundings would say yes and work hard to “save” these women. The women themselves are indeed victims but only in the sense that the anti-trafficking zealots attempt to drive them out from what they likely view as the best, and maybe only job, available to them. These girls are victims of you, the people who oppose trafficking and, in that way, prostitution too! If the goals of anti-trafficking zealots were immediately achieved many thousands, maybe millions, of children would likely starve and their mothers would likely join the homeless people on the street.

    Oddly enough these women, as well as their customers, think differently than anti-trafficking zealots. These young women have no expectation of finding the romantic, long lasting happiness that someone in a comfortable first world middle class environment routinely expects. Older expat men are popular because they can supply security to the woman and her family – in exchange for sex, trustworthiness, and companionship. It is a more mature commitment to each other, I think. But both parties can have an hour or so of companionship where none might otherwise be available. The smart prostitute, the ones with aptitude for the work, know intuitively that it is not just a slam bang sex act that pleases either party, but rather the overall experience. Many times the woman has spent many hours, maybe several days just hanging out in a bar with many other girls waiting for something to happen. In my own case, after many years of marriage, I am happy for companionship. I have paid bar fines only to take a new “friend” to a movie, once to a live theater production which was something she had never seen before, or to dinner. I love to feed prostitutes and talk over dinner or breakfast. I love the way they like to wash my dishes and maybe clean my house. My house is nicer than their room and often they don’t want to go home. Prostitution is not just about sex. And in deed it might be the escorting service approximating a real date rather than the sex that is the most important part of the relationship. It has been for me. I have met many couples happily in long term relationships who initially met “professionally”. And why not?

    Do you have any idea how hard it is for men and women over, say, 50 to meet these days? There has been a huge growth in male prostitutes for older women in recent years. In Bangkok there are several “host bars” – as opposed to hostess bars – which are especially popular with Japanese women according to a recent newspaper article. French women find their vacation “pleasure” in the Caribbean and former French African colonies, I’m told. In many places around the world prostitution is treated as a form of entertainment – and why not? It is and always has been a form of entertainment that brings comfort to people. One party gets some money she (or he) needs. I have been with some prostitutes who seemed to have so much fun with me that I thought I should charge her – but that is not how it works.

    Every relationship that includes sex does not have to “fulfill the deepest longings for comfort, connection, and intimacy” yet it can still be important to both parties involved. What about “friends with benefits”? How does that different from prostitution? The money exchanged makes it different, I suppose, but the shared benefits of the relationships are basically the same – right? It is the increase of “friends with benefits” and with “hooking up” instead of dating that almost eliminates prostitution in American except for older men. Older men are the life blood of prostitution.

    I make no claims of any “glamor” associated with prostitution, although there is some I suppose, especially if I were rich enough to know the “Charlie Sheen-style” pros getting thousands of dollars for a night. But I know nothing about that and your mission offers little threat to that kind of prostitution.

    Americans and all first world people have so many more important issues to contribute too in their own countries, and those issues are not seen by other cultures around the world as personal attacks on them. The ever expanding umbrella of laws under the new category of trafficking is seen as attacks on culture and ways of life and as personal attacks of many people who don’t happen to be American. America needs friends and would be better off not throwing its weight around just now. If Thailand or Germany or whomever wants to do something about prostitution, they have it within their power to do it without involvement from naive hyper-religious people. The rest of the world should not have to dance to the tune of people who are driven by exaggerated, sensational, and incorrect information. This is especially true when those other people have so many of their own issues that are more and more obvious to the rest of the world.

    What does the Bible say. I am thinking about the part that says something to the tune of “you shouldn’t complain about the speck in your neighbor’s eye when you have a log in your own”, or something like that. Surely someone reading this can quote the correct passage.

    ENJOY – this other point of view on this issue.

    • John:


      I don’t know if you have children – but regardless, would you be okay with one of your children choosing this as their career? If not, why not?

      And let’s just hash out (pre-emptively) any comparison to other “low-reputation” jobs (or at least what society deems as such). Of course, those parents who are housekeepers, department store security guards, McDonald’s French fry-makers (or any other jobs that are lower paying and/or viewed as low-skill) would most likely not choose the same job for THEIR children. They want their kids to go as far in life as they can….shoot for the moon, get their BA, BS, MBA, MD, JD, become the President, etc. These workers AND those entrapped in prostitution are both working hard and doing a job in order to feed themselves and their families – but that’s about as far as the comparison goes. The major difference is that the other workers do not have to bare their soul and body and sell it to the next person who makes an offer or their next appointment, or whomever their pimp requires them to sell to. Ask these women (and men) if they really want THEIR children to follow in their footsteps. Really? The answer cannot be ‘yes.’ And the reason they would say no is not just so that their kids can be ‘higher up’ in society or make more money.

      Also, if you believe that these women enjoy their lot in life so much….and don’t want to be called ‘victims,’ ask yourself if maybe they say this because they are so far IN it and do not see a way out. Admitting that you are being victimized would be a tough thing to admit….how hard it would be to continue doing something that you believe has you in a slave-master or victim-victimizer relationship and you want to get out, but don’t or can’t see a way. That would be worse, if that is possible. Is it fair to say that maybe these women tell you what they think you want to hear…so they can get or keep a customer, or they think/say what they want to believe, so they have some modicum of peace? Just some questions for thought.

  6. Thank you, Amy, Mike, and Stacey for your comments.

    First, I will point out a couple of true statements – yes there seems to be way more girls on the streets and in the bars than there are clients. Yes, I agree that the prostituted people don’t want to be considered victims – especially when they are still in the business. Stacey’s point about this is well stated.

    Your truthful observations stop there.

    You make assumptions on my work that you know nothing about. I speak three languages and regularly visit prostituted males, females, and transgenders on the street and in the bars and have done so in many different countries on three different continents for many years. I think I know what I’m talking about.

    You make assumptions that you have an objective view. There is bias in the way the girls will answer your questions because it is in the context of a commercial relationship – of course they want to make you feel comfortable and that everything is OK. They are, as you know, competing for your business, not your love. Your marketing skills should also tell you that you cannot make broad assumptions about the market based on what you see and a few anecdotal experiences (or perhaps it is more than a few).

    You make an assumption that you are not, as a foreigner visiting prostitutes in other countries, trampling on their customs. Prostitution is a way of life for many people in many countries, but that doesn’t mean that the customs or laws of that country reflect this. It is, in fact illegal in the countries that you mention. Working with prostituted people and being against prostitution is not the same thing.

    You assume that being able to pay off a family member’s medical debt or feed one’s children, or even put yourself through school by prostitution is equal to empowerment. Stacey had another good point about what we would do if a loved one started prostituting him or herself. One may reason from your statements that you may empower your wife (if you have) to go out and sexually prostitute herself – especially if she was longing for that emotional intimacy she was lacking from you.

    John, I do hope that you find what you are truly longing for. I’m guessing that the ways you have tried to find peace and fulfillment aren’t really working for you.

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