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Trafficking in Lies

Sex work doesn't cause human trafficking—borders do

Carceral feminists hold that if we could abolish prostitution through criminalizing clients and managers, the trafficking of women would end, as there would be no sex trade to traffic them into. As the deputy prime minister of Sweden writes, “It is very obvious to us that there is a very clear link between prostitution and trafficking . . . Without prostitution there would be no trafficking of women.” This perspective views prostitution as intrinsically more horrifying than other kinds of work (including work that is “low-status,” exploitative, or low-paid), and as such, views attempting to abolish prostitution through criminal law as a worthwhile end in itself. For those who hold these views, defending sex workers’ rights is akin to defending trafficking.

In these conversations, trafficking becomes a battle between good and evil, monstrosity and innocence, replete with heavy-handed imagery of chains, ropes, and cuffs to signify enslavement and descriptors such as nefarious, wicked, villainous, and iniquitous. This “evil” is driven by the aberrance of commercial sex and by anomalous (and distinctly racialized) “bad actors”: the individual villain, the pimp, the trafficker. A police officer summarizes this approach as: “we’ll put all these pimps, all these traffickers in prison . . . and that’ll solve the problem.” Numerous images associated with modern anti-trafficking campaigns feature a white girl held captive by a black man: he is a dark hand over her mouth or a looming, shadowy figure behind her.

Fancy-dress “pimp costumes” offer a cartoonishly racist vision of 1970s Black masculinity, while American law-enforcement unashamedly use terms such as “gorilla pimp” and link trafficking to rap music. There is a horror-movie entertainment quality to this at times: tourists can go on “sex-trafficking bus tours” to shudder over locations where they’re told sexual violence has recently occurred (“perhaps you are wondering where these crimes take place”) or buy an “awareness-raising” sandwich featuring a naked woman with her body marked up as if for a butcher. Conventionally sexy nude women are depicted wrapped in tape or packed under plastic, with labels indicating “meat.”

Conversely, the victim is often presented with her “girlishness” emphasized. Young women are styled to look pre-pubescent, in pigtails or hair ribbons, holding teddy bears. This imagery suggests another key preoccupation shared by modern and nineteenth-century anti-trafficking campaigners: innocence. A glance at the names chosen for police operations and NGOs highlights this: Lost Innocence, Saving Innocence, Freedom4Innocence, the Protected Innocence Challenge, Innocents at Risk, Restore Innocence, Rescue Innocence, Innocence for Sale.

Tourists can go on “sex-trafficking bus tours” to shudder over locations where they’re told sexual violence has recently occurred.

For feminists, this preoccupation with feminine “innocence” should be a red flag, not least because it speaks to a prurient interest in young women. Conversely, LGBTQ people, black people, and deliberate prostitutes are often left out of the category of innocence, and as a result harm against people in these groups becomes less legible as harm. For example, a young Black man may face arrest rather than support; indeed, resources for runaway and homeless youth (whose realities are rather more complex than chains and ropes) were not included in the U.S. Congress’s 2015 reauthorization of the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act. Anti-trafficking statutes often exclude deliberate prostitutes from the category of people able to seek redress, as to be a “legitimate” trafficking victim requires innocence, and a deliberate prostitute, however harmed, cannot fulfill that requirement.

There is a huge emphasis on kidnapping and, correspondingly, heroic rescues. In the wildly popular action film Taken (2008), the daughter of the hero (played by Liam Neeson) is snatched by Albanian sex traffickers while on holiday in Paris. Taken typifies many real anti-trafficking campaigns, presenting trafficking as a context-free evil, a kidnap at random that could happen to anyone, anywhere. As if to emphasize the links between Hollywood and policy, the “hero” is literally written into U.S. law—the HERO Act (which stands for the Human Exploitation Rescue Operations Act) takes funding from ICE to train U.S. military veterans to fight trafficking. (In Taken, Neeson has daughter-rescuing skills due to his time as a CIA agent.) Visitors to the website of the Freedom Challenge, an anti-trafficking NGO, are told:

You crawl into bed and wrap yourself in your favorite blanket . . . You’re alone, sleeping soundly and dreaming sweetly. Suddenly, a rustling in the next room jolts you awake. You . . . tiptoe across the cold floor and crack open the door. A bag is thrown over your head. You’re carried away.

A spokeswoman for another organization told reporters that being “stolen off the street” at random by human traffickers constituted “a very big possibility” and warned people to stay in groups to avoid being kidnapped. An anxious mother’s claim that she thought her children were going to be abducted by traffickers in IKEA was shared more than 100,000 times on social media. (All this resonates with nineteenth-century white-slavery fears; in 1899, a missionary with the Women’s Christian Temperance Union reported “there is a slave trade in this country, and it is not black folks at this time, but little white girls—thirteen, fourteen, sixteen, and seventeen years of age—and they are snatched out of our arms, and from our Sabbath schools and from our Communion tables.”) Slick, shareable videos depict young girls grabbed by strangers on the street, vanishing into vans. The plot of Taken repeatedly highlights the traffickers’ nationality. After the film’s success, Neeson had to issue a statement reassuring U.S. parents that their children could go on school trips to Paris without being snatched by Albanian trafficking gangs. “The foreigner,” writes historian Maria Luddy, has always been “an international figure symbolic of the white slaver.”

People are not, en masse, being snatched off the street. A report from the UK’s anti-slavery commission notes that cases of kidnap are very unusual, essentially because it would make little sense to “give” someone the services of taking them across a border for free, when people are willing to pay up to thirty thousand pounds to be taken across that same border. The vast, vast majority of people who end up in exploitative situations were seeking to migrate and have become entrapped in a horrifically exploitative system because when people migrate without papers they have few to no rights. Acknowledging that people who end up in exploitative situations wanted to migrate is not to blame them. It is to say that the solution to their exploitative situation is to enable them to migrate legally and with rights. Everything else is at best a distraction (sexy chains! evil villains!) and at worst, actively worsens the problem by pushing for laws which make it harder, not easier, to migrate legally and with rights.

You might be thinking that we seem to be talking about people smuggling rather than people trafficking, and that those two things are different. People smuggling is when someone pays a smuggler to get them over a border: in UK law, human trafficking is when someone is transported for the purposes of forced labor or exploitation using force, fraud, or coercion. It’s tempting to think of these as separate things, but there is no bright line between them: they are two iterations of the same system.

Let’s break it down. It is common for people to take on huge debts to smugglers to cross a border. So far, so good: clearly smuggling. But once the journey begins, the person seeking to migrate finds that the debt has grown, or that the work they are expected to undertake upon arrival in order to pay off the debt is different from what was agreed. Suddenly, the situation has spiraled out of control and they find themselves trying to work off the debt, with little hope of ever earning enough to leave. Smuggling becomes trafficking. The discourse of trafficking largely fails to help people in this situation, because it paints them as kidnapped and enchained rather than as trying to migrate. It therefore seeks to “rescue” them by blocking irregular migration routes and sending undocumented people home—often the very last thing trafficked people want. Although they might hate their exploitative workplace, their ideal option would be to stay in their destination country in a different job or with better workplace conditions; an acceptable option would be to stay in the country under the current, shit working conditions, but the very worst option would be to be sent home with their debt still unpaid.

By viewing trafficking as conceptually akin to kidnap, anti-trafficking activists, NGOs, and governments can sidestep broader questions of safe migration. If the trafficked person is brought across borders unwillingly, there is no need to think about the people who will attempt this migration regardless of its illegality or conclude that the way to make people safer is to offer them legal migration routes. People smuggling tends to happen to less vulnerable migrants: those who have the cash to pay a smuggler upfront or have a family or community already settled in the destination country. People trafficking tends to happen to more vulnerable migrants: those who must take on a debt to the smuggler to travel and who have no community connections in their destination country. Both want to travel, however, and this is what anti-trafficking conversations largely obscure with their talk about kidnap and chains.

The mass migrations of the twenty-first century are driven by human-made catastrophes—climate change, poverty, war—and reproduce the glaring inequalities from which they emerge. Countries in the global north bear hugely disproportionate responsibility for climate change, yet disproportionately close their doors to people fleeing the effects of climate chaos, leaving desperate families to sleep under canvas amid snow at the edges of Fortress Europe. As migrant-rights organizer Harsha Walia writes, “While history is marked by the hybridity of human societies and the desire for movement, the reality of most of migration today reveals the unequal relations between rich and poor, between North and South, between whiteness and its others.”

By viewing trafficking as conceptually akin to kidnap, anti-trafficking activists, NGOs, and governments can sidestep broader questions of safe migration.

A system where everybody could migrate, live, and work legally and in safety would not be a huge, radical departure; it would simply take seriously the reality that people are already migrating and working, and that as a society we should prioritize their safety and rights. However, instead of starting from the premise of valuing human life, the countries of the global north enact harsh immigration laws that make it hard for people from global south countries to migrate. You don’t stop people wanting or needing to migrate by making it illegal for them to do so, you just make it more dangerous and difficult, and leave them more vulnerable to exploitation. Punitive laws may dissuade some from making the journey, but they guarantee that everyone who does travel is doing so in the worst possible conditions. Spending billions of dollars on policing borders actively makes this worse, without addressing the reasons people might want to migrate—notably, gross inequality between nations, which in large part is a legacy of colonial—and contemporary—plunder and imperialist violence.

The clash between people’s need to migrate and intensifying border fortifications has predictable outcomes. Migration scholars Nassim Majidi and Saagarika Dadu-Brown write that intensifying border restrictions creates new migrant-smuggler relationships,” adding that “smugglers will take advantage of a border closure or restriction to increase prices.” Since the early 1990s, the Border Patrol has recovered the bodies of six thousand people on the US side of the border, with as many as double that number thought to be lying undiscovered in the desert. Isabel Garcia, co-chair of a local US migrants’ rights organization, says “we never thought that we’d be in the business of helping to identify remains like in a war zone, and here we are.” The U.S. Department of Homeland Security reports that, as the border hardened, the costs to migrants who hire smugglers significantly increased—yet the proportion of migrants using the services of smugglers also increased, from 45 per cent to around 95 per cent. Even as the inability to cross borders legally directly pushes would-be migrants into the arms of people smugglers, it increases the fees these smugglers can charge. As ethnologist Samuel Martinez writes, “We have known for more than a decade that higher and longer walls, increased Border Patrol surveillance, and heightened bureaucratic impediments to immigration have deflected immigrants into the grip of smugglers.” This pattern repeats at borders around the world. In Nepal, the International Labour Organization found that banning women under the age of thirty from emigrating (which aimed to tackle their exploitation) had instead “strengthened unlicensed migration agents,” increasing the ability of these agents to entrap women in exploitative situations.

This interplay is familiar to us in other contexts. When abortion is criminalized, women seeking abortions turn to back-street abortionists—some of whom will be altruistic, many of whom will be unscrupulous. Although the pro-choice movement obviously decries people who charge exploitative fees to perform criminalized abortions in unsafe or neglectful ways, we also recognize that these bad actors are not aberrant villains who have come out of nowhere. Instead, the criminalization of abortion has directly created the market for unscrupulous abortion providers. Rather than simply “cracking down,” the policy solution that has put them out of business where it has been implemented is, of course, access to safe, legal, free abortion services. People living in places like England and Canada who can access free abortion services do not tend to  pay people to perform dangerous back-alley procedures. Why would they? In the same way, people who can cross borders legally do not pay someone to smuggle them across. Like the people who perform illegal abortions, smugglers are not inexplicable villains; instead, the criminalization of undocumented migration has directly created the market for people smuggling.

However, much mainstream trafficking discourse characterizes the abuse of migrants and people selling sex as the work of individual bad actors, external to and independent of state actions and political choices. Sometimes this discourse works not only to obscure the role of the state but to absolve it. One feminist commentator, for example, writes of the sex trade that “criminalization doesn’t rape and beat women. Men do.” From this, we might conclude that changing the law is pointless because what makes women vulnerable is simply men. This may feel true for women who do not have to contend with immigration law, police, or the constant fear of deportation, but we can see from the results of tied visas that the legal context—including migration law—is heavily implicated in producing vulnerability and harm.

The criminalization of undocumented migration has directly created the market for people smuggling.

For undocumented migrant workers looking to challenge bad workplace conditions, penalties do not stop at deportation; instead, these workers face criminalization if they are discovered. In the UK, someone convicted of “illegal working” can face up to fifty-one weeks in prison, an unlimited fine, and the prospect of their earnings being confiscated as the “proceeds of crime.” This increases undocumented people’s justified fear of state authorities and makes them even less able to report labor abuses. Such laws therefore heighten their vulnerability and directly push them into exploitative working environments, thereby creating a supply of highly vulnerable, ripe-for-abuse workers.

Increasingly, border enforcement is infiltrating new areas of civic life. Landlords are now expected to check tenants’ immigration status before renting to them; proposals have been floated to freeze or close the bank accounts of undocumented people, and a documentation check was introduced in England when accessing both healthcare and education, as part of an explicit “hostile environment” policy (although both have been challenged by migrants’ rights organizers, including in court). The UK devotes far more resources to policing migration than it does to preventing the exploitation of workers. Researcher Bridget Anderson notes that “the [National Minimum Wage] had ninety-three compliance officers in 2009 and the Gangmasters Licensing Authority [which works to protect vulnerable and exploited workers] had twenty-five inspectors . . . The proposed number of UK Border Agency Staff for Local Immigration teams . . . is 7,500.”

This is the context in which commercial sex frequently occurs. Undocumented or insecurely documented people are enmeshed within a punitive, state-enforced infrastructure of deportability, disposability, and precarity. Any work they do—whether it is at a restaurant, construction site, cannabis farm, nail bar, or brothel—carries a risk of being detained, jailed, or deported. Even renting a home or accessing healthcare can be difficult. All this makes undocumented people more dependent on those who can help them—such as the people they paid to helped them cross the border, or an unscrupulous employer. It should therefore be no surprise that some undocumented migrants are pushed into sex work by those they rely on, or that some enter into it even if the working conditions are exploitative or abusive.

To locate the problem in the existence of prostitution renders invisible the material things that made them vulnerable to harm. Europe’s border regime meant they had to pay exploitative people huge sums of money in order to be smuggled in, and that once in, they had zero access to labor rights as their discovery by the state risked them being prosecuted. These two factors combined to produce a situation wherein they could be horribly exploited by their employers. None of this is to downplay what happened to them—instead, it is to highlight the inadequacy of a carceral “anti-trafficking” response to their situation. Such an approach actively obscures the role of the border in producing the harms they suffered, and compounds these harms by rendering it prosaic that they face deportation and potential prosecution.


From Revolting Prostitutes (Verso 2018) by Juno Mac and Molly Smith.