Guest post by Megan Rivers-Moore, Assistant Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies, Carleton University, Canada. Megan has a PhD in Sociology from the University of Cambridge, and is currently working on a book about the sex tourism industry in Costa Rica.
“We would like to invite you to come and give a talk about sex trafficking. This is an issue of great interest and concern to our students.”
“I am planning to write my research essay on women’s sexual slavery. Millions of women are sold into the sex industry every year, and this is a very important problem for feminists to address.”
“But what about trafficking? The women who are forced into selling sex against their will? I would like to hear about that aspect of your work.”
Despite the fact that my academic work is not about trafficking, I get these kinds of invitations, student papers, and questions regularly. As a sex work researcher, I’m frequently confronted with the very frustrating assumption that sex work and sex trafficking are one and the same. While I’ve occasionally addressed this issue in the past, I continue to think about what can explain the preoccupation with this topic? What does the interest in sex trafficking reveal about the complicated relationship between feminism, racism, immigration, and border control?
Labour migration isn’t new: there have always been national, regional, and international migration networks. So, too, there have always been those who take advantage of the desperation that often accompanies migrants. Given this, we must ask why there’s so much interest in the traffic in women at the moment? Why does everyone want to talk about sex trafficking?
One of the reasons that my women’s and gender studies students are interested in writing their research papers on trafficking is that feminist organizations have lobbied very effectively in national and international policy circles to get sex trafficking onto the political agenda. Many of these organizations argue that no woman could possibly consent to sell sexual services. If consent is impossible, then all migrant women in sex work are sex slaves, trafficking victims, and therefore deserving of protection and assistance.
If feminist organizations have often perceived migrant sex workers as victims in need of assistance, politicians, policy makers, police, and immigration officials tend to be more selective in who they define as a victim and how they will be dealt with. Due to concerns over irregular immigration, state anti-trafficking efforts frequently focus on crime, punishment, and immigration control. Those victims who are unwilling to inform on others to the police risk being treated as illegal immigrants and criminals, and face prompt deportation. To be very clear, then: one of the consequences of defining all migrant sex workers as trafficking victims is their deportation, and more generally the stricter control of women’s mobility.
We must pay attention to how victims get used. By whom? And to what ends? Trafficking is not a discursively neutral terrain: when we talk about trafficking, we’re talking about belonging, space, mobility, gender, and migration control.
In the Costa Rican context, which is the focus of my own research, I’ve seen the emergence of immigration raids on sex tourism businesses in San José (the capital city) during the last five years. Supposedly under the guise of finding and helping trafficking victims, sex workers are searched and many are detained. Migrants who are in Costa Rica on student, domestic worker, or tourist visas are deported under the argument that they’re not supposed to be working. While the sale of sex in Costa Rica is not criminalized, it’s neither regulated nor accepted as a form of labour, so there is some irony in deporting migrants for doing work that the state doesn’t recognize.
The migrant sex workers whom I interviewed in Costa Rica came from a variety of places and had diverse stories of how and why they ended up in the Costa Rican sex industry. They were all singularly focused on sending money home to their families, and avoiding detention by, or ‘help’ from, the immigration police. When I interviewed a high-level representative of the International Organization for Migration in Costa Rica, she told me that it was important to ‘catch them early,’ when they can still see themselves as victims. If women migrants work undetected in the sex industry too long, she worried, they’d choose to stay in the country.
Focusing on saving victims casts trafficking as a relatively simple matter of identifying poor women and bad men, which is to say deviant individuals, rather than taking on institutions and structural factors like global inequalities in the distribution of wealth, health care, and social security that make people vulnerable to poor working conditions and exploitative immigration processes in the first place. Solutions to trafficking are focused on criminal justice, and police and the state are reconfigured as women’s allies.The role that feminist organizations have played in this process is what Elizabeth Bernstein calls ‘carceral feminism.’
Such an approach has a number of costs, obscuring the important and complex relationship between migration and trafficking. It also creates a dichotomy between deserving and undeserving victims: it means that the many, many migrants who work in deplorable conditions in the sex industry can’t be defined as victims. There is a strict division between victims of trafficking, who should be helped (although we might question how helpful deportation is), and undocumented migrants, who should shut up.
This is not to say that trafficking does not happen. It does, and it is an egregious violation of human and labour rights. But a great deal of trafficking takes place outside the sex industry, in less titillating segments of the labour market. Quite a lot of the time, trafficking victims are men in jeans bent over in fields picking strawberries, or wearing hard hats and nailing support beams onto a building. Farm workers and construction workers don’t fit as easily into a narrative of needing to be saved by earnest white people. They also make for less interesting posters: less exciting, and definitely less sexy.
Like other sex work researchers, it has become clear to me over the years that my research is actually less about sexuality and more about the sociology of labour. Labour migration takes place is a huge variety of unfree contexts, but we need to recognize that there are degrees of unfreedom. We also might argue that work under capitalism is never free. Migration, controlled by nation-states, is certainly not free. The unfreedoms of Canada’s live-in care giver program and various temporary worker programs start to sound quite a lot like trafficking, or at least profoundly exploitative debt bondage. Yet advocates for the rights of care workers, for example, don’t call for the elimination of the work itself, or for saving care workers by deporting them. Instead, they argue for changes in the terms of their employment and general improvements in their working and living conditions. The point is to focus on the rights of workers and migrants in practical and pragmatic ways.
For more on this topic on the Border Criminologies blog, see Dancing in a Dangerous Time: Canada's Treatment of Foreign Strippers.