Infantalising gender in anti-human trafficking policy: demand change

by Kathryn Baer and Caroline Parkes of The Trafficking Research Project
In honor of the EU Anti-Trafficking Day, which is October 18th

Included within the European Union Strategy towards the Eradication of Trafficking in Human Beings 2012-2016, announced in June of this year, are five priority areas, the second of which is: prevention of human trafficking including the reduction of demand. To its credit, the strategy attempts to include all forms of trafficking. In an effort to target “consumers and users of services, corporate social responsibility, codes of conduct, business and human rights and initiatives aimed at eliminating human trafficking from the supply chains of businesses”, it goes beyond the sex industry to include agriculture, construction and tourism.

Noticeably, several statements released by NGOs accompanying the announcement of this strategy were keen to emphasize the importance of undertaking a gender perspective by policymakers in future strategy initiatives. For instance, Equality Now “urges a strong focus on addressing the demand for trafficking which would also send a powerful message that the poor and disadvantaged are not for the exploitation of those with greater means.” While the European Women’s Lobby “has long maintained that the only effective way to counter human trafficking is to address its roots in gender inequalities, notably demand for prostitution”. Even the celebratory film festival scheduled for the EU Anti-Trafficking Day unabashedly acknowledges the focus on sex trafficking. So much for a holistic perspective on anti-trafficking initiatives.

Within the anti-trafficking field, the construct of gender has become usurped by and loaded with assumptions about the population of primary concern. In other words, incorporating a gender perspective is generally confined to and extrapolated from women who experience a very specific form of sexual exploitation. The logic embedded in many organizations follows: women are subjugated to various forms of inequality worldwide, this inequality leads to vulnerability, vulnerability leads to sexual exploitation, ending human trafficking means ending prostitution, and to end prostitution we must end the demand for sex. So, while many anti-trafficking organizations call for a holistic perspective to end trafficking, in practice this tends to exclude sex workers, other women affected by trafficking who have not been sexually exploited, men and transgender individuals. A gender perspective has subsequently absorbed mythologized constructs of women and girls who are assumed to share a united sense of victimhood and, subsequently, empowerment strategies. As Coalition Against Trafficking in Women so helpfully illustrates through the language of commodification, sex trafficking is “mainly men who buy women for purposes of sexual exploitation”. (Illogically, CATW also goes on to object to The International Organization for Migration’s Buy Responsibly campaign because “Women are not products, nor should they be bought and sold as products.”)

In any case, rather than addressing underlying issues of structural inequality that may lead to sex work, or labor exploitation largely, the focus on men demanding sex ignores and undermines the victim-centered approach many organizations claim to support. This approach must extend to prevention strategies. Ignoring the ways in which individuals make choices misses a step in facilitating creative intervention policies at the expense of vulnerable groups women’s organizations aim to protect; for instance, looking at the impact of broader social services in supporting individuals who may seek alternatives to sex work.

Even if we could relocate those assumptions and take the argument about end demand campaigns at face value, it has yet to be proven that policies to end demand actually work. As we argue in our forthcoming response to the Consultation on Proposed Changes in the Law to Tackle Human Trafficking (Northern Ireland), we believe the Swedish model is flawed. Under this model selling sex is not illegal, but buying sex is a criminal offense. However, studies have shown that criminalization has a negative impact on existing sex workers, particularly in their ability to access health and criminal justice services; this approach ignores and fails to address limitations within the criminal justice system (and other agencies) to effectively address trafficking; and it negatively influences the broader narrative of human trafficking to the detriment of other kinds of trafficking and exploitation.

Although many anti-trafficking advocates cling tightly to the beloved Swedish model, as a recent Open Society Foundations’ Reference Brief on Laws and Policies affecting Sex Work found regarding policies aimed at ending demand: “There is no evidence to suggest that abolition [of sex work] can be achieved”…and “there is no evidence from any country that eliminating demand for sex work is achievable.” A 2011 report by Susanne Dodillet and Petra Östergren also found that:

The Sex Purchase Act cannot be said to have decreased prostitution, trafficking for sexual purposes, or had a deterrent effect on clients to the extent claimed. Nor is it possible to claim that public attitudes towards prostitution have changed significantly in the desired radical feminist direction or that there has been a similar increased support of the ban. We have also found reports of serious adverse effects of the Sex Purchase Act – especially concerning the health and well-being of sex workers – in spite of the fact that the lawmakers stressed that the ban was not to have a detrimental effect on people in prostitution.

The official evaluation of the Swedish model undertaken by the Swedish Chancellor of Justice in 2010, has been routinely criticized for its reliance on estimates, sub-standard statistics, and poor evidence gathering, among other issues. Petra Ostergren noted:

 The National Police Board has also found the law an obstacle to prosecuting profiteers who exploit the sexual labour of others. Earlier legal cases against such men could sometimes be supported by the testimonies of sex-buyers. But these men are no longer willing to assist, since they themselves are now guilty of committing a crime. The Police Board report also points out that sexworkers have fallen into a difficult, constructed, in-between position with regard to the new law. The female sex worker sells sex, but this is not a criminal act. However, because purchasing sexual services is now a crime, the sexworker can be made to appear as a witness in the trial process. She therefore has neither the rights of the accused or the victim.

If the stated objective of such a campaign would be to reduce visible demand for sex work, then perhaps such policies could be considered successful. However, since anti-trafficking advocates have a difficult enough time identifying victims, this objective seems counterintuitive to anti-trafficking measures in its potential to further drive the sex trade underground and further marginalize sex workers.

Once in a while, a sensible policy decision is made in favor of sex worker safety, such as the legalization of brothels in Canada. However, assumptions embedded in the aforementioned gender perspective narrative shape ideals of victimhood. For instance, within scenarios constructed by end demand advocates, trafficked women are best embodied as deserving assistance, largely subsuming victim-centered strategies, which (should) acknowledge and enable agency. Women who experience other forms of labor exploitation and/or women in the context of voluntary sex work are relegated to the margins of anti-trafficking rhetoric, and thus, policymaking. In analyzing the process of passing the federal anti-trafficking law in the United States, Jayashri Srikantiah argues:

To obtain passage of the TVPA [Trafficking Victims Protection Act], lawmakers repeatedly referred to trafficking victims as meek, passive objects of sexual exploitation. Victims of trafficking for forced labor were largely ignored. […] Rhetoric has seeped into prosecutors’ and investigators’ identification of actual trafficking victims, with tragic consequences for victims of labor or sex trafficking who do not describe their stories consistently with it.

She goes on to argue the specific impact this has had on trafficked migrants,

Use of the stereotype creates a clear distinction between trafficking victims and unlawful economic migrants.  Whereas undocumented “smuggled” economic migrants are vilified as “illegal aliens” who willfully enter the United States without authorization, stereotypically passive trafficking victims are thought to enter under the complete control of the trafficker.

As part of its strategy, the European Commission intends to “fund research on reducing the demand for and supply of services and goods by victims of trafficking in human beings […] The research will provide material for the Commission’s 2016 report on the legal measures that some Member States have taken to criminalise the use of services of victims of trafficking in human beings.” It also intends to develop a model by 2015 in line with a victim-centered approach “for an EU Transnational Referral Mechanism which links national referral mechanisms to better identify, refer, protect and assist victims.” As these topics are discussed  among key stakeholders, keeping a broad understanding of “demand” necessitates an inclusive approach to who may constitute a victim, beyond perspectives which espouse a focus on the sexual exploitation, particularly in prevention. We can only hope that the strategy will not only incorporate existing evidence on demand for exploitation, but continue to evaluate all areas of human trafficking as policy is developed across the EU.

The Trafficking Research Project (TTRP) is a collaborative initiative currently exploring and analysing the issue of human trafficking. Utilising human rights and social policy perspectives,TTRP aims to make a positive and pragmatic contribution to the current policy and research developments on this issue internationally.   
Caroline Parkes is an independent human rights consultant with nine years work experience of human rights research, policy development and casework in Northern Ireland, Bosnia and Israel. Her areas of interest include criminal justice reform and transitional justice in post-conflict states, equality, and women’s rights. She has an LLM Human Rights Law (dist.) from Queen’s University Belfast and an MSc. Development Practice (dist.) from the Centre for Emergency and Development Practice, Oxford Brookes University.
Kathryn Baer has over six years of experience in rights-based policy research and advocacy in the US and the UK. Her areas of expertise are based in violence against women and human trafficking with interests in and primary prevention strategies. She has an MSc Social Policy from the London School of Economics.

One comment

  1. […] Human Trafficking Day, our guest appearance on the Migrationist blog with a post looking at the role of gender in anti-human trafficking policy.  Most recently, a selection of TTRP posts have been translated into German for Menschenhanelheute […]


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