“Prostitution” and Trafficking

The conflation of prostitution/sex work and trafficking is a huge problem in anti-trafficking discourse. Central to the issue is the fact that whether or not sex work can ever be voluntary is hotly contested. Some “feminists” (moral of this link: Donna Hughes is insane) have teamed up with religious conservatives to condemn all forms of prostitution as abuse against women, while other feminists advocate that sex work is a legitimate form of work and the rights of women who choose to engage in such work need to be protected. Because I believe in a woman’s right to choose what happens to her body, I tend to sympathize with the latter group.

Discussing trafficking with students at a school in Kathmandu.

This week I’ve had a number of conversations with people about my project, many of which have touched on the issue of prostitution/sex work v. trafficking. Last week I gave a presentation about my project at a school in Kathmandu. Originally I was supposed to give the presentation to a group of tenth graders, but ended up giving it to eighth graders instead, and I think the material went a little over their heads. Afterwards, two students came up to ask me a pretty simple question: What is “girls trafficking?” I was a little stumped since I had just given a presentation on the subject and wasn’t sure which part they didn’t understand. Did they know about sex work? Did they even know about sex? And how could I explain it without compromising my own feelings about how complex the definition is? After a few questions they confirmed that they did, in fact, know what sex and “prostitution” were, but just didn’t understand trafficking. (Afterwards I realized that I was probably naive to assume that they wouldn’t know what sex was, considering they were 13-year-old boys.) I ended up leaving them with an answer that wasn’t very satisfying (something along the lines of, “it’s when those girls get forced into doing work they don’t want to do”) because the beginning of the conversation had linked trafficking with prostitution. I realized that I too struggle with this conflation.

Later in the week I met a young Nepali man who asked me about my project. I told him that I was studying “girls trafficking” (another problematic term, but that’s what people call it here), and he responded, “Oh, you mean prostitution?” “No,” I said, “I mean girls trafficking.” The man looked completely befuddled until his girlfriend explained to him that girls trafficking is a big problem in Nepal, and that many girls are “taken from Nepal to work in brothels in India.” I nodded hesitantly, accepting this as a better explanation for what I was studying but also knowing that it was exactly the kind of simplistic portrayal of trafficking that I often criticize. I wasn’t really sure what else to say. I didn’t really want to start lecturing people on the ins and outs of trafficking and I wasn’t really sure they were interested in hearing it, so I left it at that.

Then, the other night at a friend’s birthday celebration, I ended up talking to a Nepali man who works for a US funded HIV/AIDS intervention organization that works with female sex workers in Nepal. I told him about my project and mentioned that I had visited his organization to learn more about the sex worker population in Nepal. He responded by saying that his organization didn’t really work on trafficking. I’ve heard this many times from organizations who work with populations of which trafficked populations are a sub-group, but I was surprised to hear it from someone who worked with female sex worker populations because trafficking is so often conflated with prostitution. It was interesting – I liked the assertion that sex work was not the same as trafficking, but I was concerned by the implication that women who engage in sex work in Nepal do not ever face violence or coercion in their jobs. It reminded me of something that a Nepali friend had told me: before she accompanied a Western researcher on trips to brothels in India, she had always thought that girls who went alone to India (who in Nepal are often assumed to engage in sex work there, even if they don’t) were bad girls. After her experience at the brothels, she realized how much many of them had been traumatized and how little their choice was in coming there. I am sure that many Nepalis (and people around the world) who are not exposed to intimate experiences with trafficking issues conflate prostitution and trafficking in a way that erases the hardship that brought women to sex work and instead casts only a negative moral judgment on them. I’m not sure that this was how this man felt, but I’m not sure it wasn’t either.

All of these encounters were interesting in terms of the prostitution/sex work v. trafficking dichotomy, which turns out to be a lot more complex and difficult to navigate than it would first appear.

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~ by emmainnepal on November 29, 2009.

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