Legalizing Sex Work - Eradicate Sex Trafficking

Overs (2002) defines sex work as “the provision of sexual services for money or goods” (p. 2). According to a report from Fondation Scelles, there are an estimated 40 to 42 million sex workers in the world, 75% of them are between the age of 13 and 25, and 80% of them are female (Lubin, 2012). The report also estimated one million sex workers working and living in the US, despite it only being legal in the state of Nevada (ibid, 2012). This suggests that around the world, most sex workers are considered illegal. The most common reason for illegitimate sex work usually arises from the fact that these women are trafficked into the industry.

Kara (2010) argues that thousands of women and children get trafficked into prostitution every year, especially in the global south. The United Nations Trafficking Protocol (2000) defines trafficking as recruiting, transporting, transferring or harbouring of person, by the means of threat or use of unlawful force to achieve consent of a person having control of another, for the purpose of exploitation. In their terms, exploitation minimally includes prostitution and slavery, or a similar equivalent. However, in terms of understanding sex work and trafficking, it is important to note that not all sex workers are victims of trafficking, and that not all victims of trafficking are exploited for sex work (Cameron, 2008; Weitzer and Ditmore, 2010). This paper will discuss sex work and its relationship with sex trafficking.

Gerassi (2015) suggests that most theoretical frameworks regarding violence against women are derived from feminist theories. Miriam (2005, cited in Gerassi, 2015) defines feminist theory as a broad, interdisciplinary perspective that seeks to understand roles, experiences and values of individuals on the basis of gender. Feminists have long been involved in the debate surrounding legalizing sex work, with most of them arguing on the abolitionist perspective (Bindel, 2017).

The abolitionist perspective stems from a radical feminist perspective, arguing that society is inherently patriarchal, and that sex work further perpetuates male privilege and continued domination over women (Gerassi, 2015). On the other hands, liberal feminists have argued that sex work remains as an avenue for women’s empowerment and to explore their sexuality, with abuse usually resulting from a “failure of industry standards and regulation” (Cameron, 2008, p. 83). This position by the liberal feminists remind us that in terms of understanding sex work and its relationship with sex workers, it is important to note that not all sex workers are victims of trafficking, since there are women who voluntarily enter the sex trade (Weitzer and Ditmore, 2010).

Furthermore, due to the sensitive and secretive nature of the sex and trafficking industry, it is usually difficult to have an accurate number of how many persons are trafficked into sex work (Weitzer and Ditmore, 2010). As such, most figures provided are usually estimates.

Southeast Asia remains a largely conservative region with traditional conservative values taking precedence (Chacko and Jayasuriya, 2018). These values provide a basis for understanding the prevalence of prostitution and sex trafficking in the region, as well as the lack of policies in place for anti-trafficking (Asis, 2008). In Thailand, the sex industry continues to flourish despite prostitution supposedly being illegal and a lack of progressive efforts made to decriminalize sex work remains (Rojanaphruk, 2018).

Rojanaphurk (2018) argues that this lack of progress stems from a conservative population that view prostitution as immoral as well as the state’s lack of resources or concern to combat trafficking. This lack of resources and concern seems to be a common factor in most of the Mekong region, since it has been identified to be the main cluster of sex trafficking due to their well-established network for trafficking which includes family and friends, local crime syndicates as well as various governmental officials (Cameron, 2008). This prevalence of government officials being involved in the trafficking process also suggests the existence of a corrupt government which is evident in the Mekong region (Stuart-fox, 2006).

Cameron (2008) further argues that a prevalent awareness of a “relative poverty” (p. 87) in the Mekong region has sparked desire for many to migrate for work. Poverty is a dangerous factor when it comes to sex trafficking, as it has been argued to be a key factor for increased vulnerability in individuals and communities (Cameron 2008; Barner, Okech and Camp, 2014). This vulnerability has been capitalized by traffickers to lure women into sex work abroad under the premise of a decent paying job. However, after arriving at their destination, these women find themselves sold into prostitution or other similar exploitative sexual situations.

Furthermore, familial pressure is also prevalent in these areas, as Weitzer and Ditmore (2010) cites a study from USAID that revealed majority of the Vietnamese women working in Cambodian brothels are often recruited by their mothers and aunts, rather than professional traffickers. Even in countries where the government remains anti-corrupt and prostitution is heavily regulated, sex trafficking remains rampant. In Singapore, prostitution is technically legal despite most activities associated with it remains illegal (Koh, 2017). Under government regulations, sex workers and brothels are required to hold a license to practice in the Singapore sex industry. Despite the tough regulations in place, Singapore still sees a steady stream of trafficked sex workers. In 2018, results of a police raid revealed 144 Chinese women who were clearly trafficked into Singapore for prostitution (Chen, 2018).

Earlier, in 2015, a 14-year-old Indonesian girl was trafficked into Singapore under the premise of employment as a babysitter or café waitress, but ended up being forced into prostitution (Yong, 2017). Such corruption in the government, coupled with the fact that some traffickers may be blood related to the trafficked women creates an environment that is difficult to decriminalize sex work, since the industry for trafficking remains lucrative for all parties involved. Given that if sex work is legalized, demand for sex workers may increase since buyers are no longer at risk of prosecution. If the demand is not met legally, pimps may still continue to source for sex workers through traffickers which then perpetuates the existence of the trafficking industry. Traffickers are also able to capitalize on the legality of sex work to recruit women but force them into an abusive work environment or keep them in harsher conditions due to the regulations in place (Lee and Persson, 2018). Thus, in Southeast Asia, it will be difficult to eradicate sex trafficking even if sex work becomes legalized.

Previously, it was mentioned that majority of radical feminists were of the abolitionist perspective with regards to legalizing sex work, arguing that sex work perpetuates the notion of a patriarchal society where male power remains dominant over a woman. However, Bindel (2017) notes that the global perspective is increasingly becoming in favour of legalizing sex work. This perspective is also particularly favoured by liberal feminists as they consider sex work to be an avenue for empowerment and exploration of sexuality (Cameron, 2008). Decriminalizing sex work also means that sex workers are able to be protected by unions and regulations which would make it safer for those involved in the trade (Bindel, 2017).

By legalizing sex work, society is effectively allowing sex workers to come forward when they face violent or abusive situations at work.

Albright and D’Adamo (2017) argues that due to the criminal nature of their work, sex workers are vulnerable targets for abusive and exploitative activities such as trafficking. Lee and Persson (2018) provides an economic insight onto the various models of prostitution globally and argues that the Dutch model of licensed prostitution provides an example of how decriminalized prostitution can lead to reduced trafficking. In the Dutch model, only unlicensed sale of sex is illegal; thus, allowing licensed sex workers to continue providing sexual services for material benefits.

Voluntary sex workers can obtain a license at a small cost, but trafficked sex workers are unable to pass the licensing test. Thus, Lee and Persson (2018) argues that the Dutch model of licensing prostitutes and criminalizing unlicensed ones is able to minimize trafficking, as long there remains a steady supply of voluntary sex workers. However, it was also acknowledged that while the number of trafficked sex workers decreased under the Dutch model, those who remains are then forced into a harsher environment (ibid, 2018). Despite this criticism, the Dutch model currently poses the best solution for attempting to eradicate sex trafficking as a result of legalized sex work.

Feminism has long influenced the debate surrounding sex work and sex trafficking, with most feminists arguing on the abolitionist perspective. The abolitionist perspective argues that sex work remains inherently abusive and remains as a legacy of male privilege. However, liberal feminists believe that sex work should be considered employment and have argued that abuse in the sex trade is a result of a lack of industry standards and inconsistent regulations. Furthermore, distinctions should be made between sex workers as some of them enter the sex trade voluntarily.

Southeast Asia, and especially the Mekong region, remains as a regional hotspot for sex trafficking due to corruption in the government and economic inequality. Poverty remains a major socioeconomic problem in those regions, and sex trafficking remains widely rampant due to its lucrative nature for all parties involved. Even in regions where sex work is heavily regulated, sex trafficking remains. The Dutch model of licensed prostitution also proved that while sex trafficking decreased, remaining victims of trafficking are forced into harsher and more secretive environments to evade prosecution (Lee and Persson, 2018). Therefore, there is no absolute resolution to this debate, for sex trafficking will continue to exist so long there is a demand for sex workers. The only possible resolution is to advocate for harsher punishments to deter potential traffickers which may decrease the number of trafficked victims.


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10 October 2020
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