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Sex Trafficking as a Capitalist System: Part 2

Part 1 discussed the connection between sex trafficking andbrothel neo-liberal capitalism. Because capitalism is inherently amoral, the capitalistic mechanisms of sex trafficking cannot be fought by appealing to moralisms or justice. Rather, capitalistic principles themselves must be used to reduce sex trafficking. “For criminals – whether individual and simply opportunist, or organized and highly coercive – it is a rational economic decision to enter and stay in this market. The aim, therefore, must be to change this calculation – both to create serious risks and to distribute them in such a way that the safe havens for the traffickers are removed” (Newman and Cameron 2008:153). Risk increase and profit reduction motivate different economic decisions by capitalists, and this is true in the sex industry as well.

If making the global sex trade less profitable is the cornerstone to the dismantling of the industry itself, it is important to know where the best place is to focus those efforts. As noted in part 1, the supply chain of the sex industry has four parts: the product, the wholesalers, the retailers, and the buyers. In the sex trafficking supply chain, the first two parts are the most resistant to intervention.

The supply of women and children is enormous, and while there should be work done to reduce the risk factors for entry, the sheer numbers of vulnerable people worldwide make it difficult to reduce the supply in any significant way. Likewise, traffickers involved in wholesale are difficult targets. The recruitment and transfer of victims is done largely underground and largely by sophisticated networks and organized crime rings (ibid:139). “[Criminal n]etworks are highly flexible and adaptable: they can disperse and reassemble with speed and ease and thereby avoid offering a static and easy target for law enforcement; they can exhibit significant levels of redundancy so that even when attacked and degraded they can regenerate themselves; and they can extend and truncate as needed” (ibid:139). Combating trafficking at this point in the supply chain requires the same expensive and complex operations as any other law enforcement initiative to infiltrate and dismantle organized crime (ibid:154). It also requires extensive intra-governmental cooperation, so it can be painstakingly slow and difficult work.

In contrast, the two most vulnerable points in the sex trafficking supply chain are the demand areas – the retailers and the buyers (Kara 2010:202). They are vulnerable because they must operate out in the open. Retailers must market their product and make it as easy to access as possible, and buyers must interface with retailers through those access points. Risk increase is key for attacking both of parts of the demand line.

Increasing Retailer Risk

Creating risks for retailers which cause the trafficker’s profits to decrease puts the trafficker in position to make one of two choices, both resulting in a decrease in victims. The first option is to maintain current operation costs which will decrease profitability making it impossible to supply as many “products.” The second option is to increase costs to the consumer which will reduce the customer base (the elasticity of demand), which also decreases the amount of “product” (ibid:204). A significant way to increase risk for an illegal enterprise like human trafficking is by increasing the potential price for being caught and prosecuted. Kara explains,

Legitimate companies know that they will be sued for one issue or another, and in their financial planning they allocate a certain amount of money each year for attorney fees, negative judgments, and other economic penalties. Slave retailers are no different. They know that slavery is illegal and quantify the costs of running and illegal business (mostly bribes) as part of their overall operations. In doing so, they know that only a miniscule percentage of slave retailers will be prosecuted and convicted in a any given year, and that even if they are convicted, the fines are minor compared to the potential economic benefits of sexual slavery (ibid:205-206).

For most of the world’s countries, this does not mean better laws are needed against those who commercially exploit others for sex – though there is some room for important change, especially in terms of fines[1]. Most countries have laws against human trafficking, but simply do not enforce them (Newman and Cameron 2008:102-103). What is needed is arrest and prosecution under those laws which would lead to sex trafficking retailers running the risks of having their businesses shut down, being sentenced to jail, incurring heavy fines, and having their assets seized (Kara 2010:207).  “Laws are what they are: they mean nothing without strong consistent enforcement. Weak governance, be it the result of an ill equipped public sector, corruption, or conflict, is a major facilitator of human trafficking” (Newman and Cameron 2008:103). Unfortunately, trafficking offenses are still extremely unlikely to be investigated and traffickers are highly unlikely to be brought to justice.

Increasing Consumer Risk

For consumers of sex, what is needed is actual accountability for the sexual exploitation of sex slaves. To put it most simply, sex slaves are not consenting to sex with the consumer because the ability to consent has been taken from them. Therefore every commercial sexual act with a sex trafficking victim, regardless of how it came about or how the victim was acting, is rape. Most laws around the world have yet to recognize that even unintended rape on the part of the consumer is rape from a victim-centered perspective and should be treated as such.

Unfortunately, it is nearly impossible to distinguish a buyer of sex with a consenting prostitute from a buyer of sex from a slave unless the victim is a child, so there is a necessary relationship between addressing prostitution in general and addressing sex trafficking in regards to holding buyers accountable (Meshkovska et al. 2015:388). As observed, currently most buyers are not subject to any kind of consequences for their part in the sexual exploitation of a sex trafficking victim, and the reasons for this are heavily tied to a cultural perspective on prostitution. While women do not have the right in every country to sell sex, only a few countries have questioned the right of men to purchase sex[2].

Sweden was the first country to question the right of men to purchase sex, and the country took the lead globally when, after extensive research, its government passed a law in 1999 which decriminalized the sale of sex while making pimping and buying sex criminal offenses. Norway, Iceland, Canada, Northern Ireland, and France have since adopted similar laws (Nordic Model). The Nordic Model, as it came to be called, had the goal of protecting exploited women from prosecution, allowing ample government and private services to help them, while at the same time reducing the demand for prostitution by making it riskier for men to purchase sex. The ideological motivation of the Swedes was that human bodies should never be viewed as commodities. So while there was sympathy for the plights of women who felt prostitution was their best alternative, there was little sympathy for the men who preyed on those vulnerabilities.

Initial indicators were that prostitution declined fairly quickly after the Nordic Model was in place. One police investigation generated a recording of a conversation between traffickers who complained that the new law was interfering with their business as it required them to take their victims into hiding (an expensive reality) and because Swedish men seemed far more disinclined to purchase out of fear of arrest (Jakobsson and Kotsadam 2013:15-16). While there is a pro-prostitution lobby in Sweden that maintains that the 2/3 reduction in prostitution is overstated because prostitution has been driven underground, statistical research has shown that the countries with harsher laws against prostitution (as opposed to legalized prostitution[3] which they advocate) also have less trafficking (Jakobsson and Kotsadam 2013:12). The Nordic Law places the burden of risk on the consumer. As one Swedish police officer stated in 2013, “My job is to arrest as many men buying sex as possible and I think I have arrested about 700 men since 2007. [They] should know that they are taking a huge risk: they are considering going out into the central parts of Stockholm and actually buying another human being. We will go after them” (Thompson 2013). This reduction of demand has decreased the supply of trafficking victims in Sweden exactly as one would expect in any market economy supply chain.

Put most simply, “[t]raffickers will only sell persons for sexual exploitation when market conditions make it profitable” (UNODC 2006). Just as the modern era has brought human societies together for trade, the exchange of technology, and the transfer of knowledge, we can work together for the purpose of eradicating the unintended and unanticipated commercial sex trafficking industry. Kara is right when he notes that “only a global coalition, with sufficient unity, expertise, and influence will be able to pressure the countries of the world into adopting effective measures” (Kara 2010:216). As a global force, society must work with wisdom, creativity, and energy to see sex trafficking lose its profitability in today’s interconnected world.

[1] The disparity between the amount of money, law enforcement effort, and advocacy against drug trafficking as compared to human trafficking in most countries world-wide is telling. This is not to say that we should reduce our efforts to deal with drug trafficking, but to say that we should be trying equally as hard to reduce human trafficking. (Kara 2010:40)

[2] I use “women” and “men” in this section only to  note that this is the general trend of female prostitution and male purchasing. There are male (and transgendered) prostitutes, and women also make up a section of consumers of commercial sex.

[3] Legalized prostitution is different from decriminalized prostitution. Decriminalized prostitution views sex workers as victims who need assistance and better options, and thus does not penalize them for engaging in sex work (this is Sweden’s perspective). Legalized prostitution insists that sex work is a legitimate work choice in which sex workers pay taxes, form unions, and are protected under worker’s laws. This was the view of the Netherlands, and according to Jakobsson and Kotsadam, their legalization of prostitution in 2000 has resulted in more prostitution and sex trafficking.


References Cited

Jakobsson, Niklas, and Andreas Kotsadam. The Law and Economics of International Sex Slavery: Prostitution Laws and Trafficking for Sexual Exploitation . Working paper no. 458. School of Business, Economics, and Law, University of Gothenburg. 2013.

Kara, Siddharth. Sex trafficking: inside the business of modern slavery. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010.

Meshkovska, Biljana, Melissa Siegel, Sarah E. Stutterheim, and Arjan E. R. Bos. “Female Sex Trafficking: Conceptual Issues, Current Debates, and Future Directions.” The Journal of Sex Research 52, no. 4 (2015): 380-95.

Newman, Edward, and Sally Cameron. Trafficking in humans: social, cultural and political  dimensions. Tokyo: United Nations University Press, 2008.

“Nordic Model.” Scandinavian Human Rights Lawyers. Accessed August 14, 2017.   

Thompson, Hazel. “Prostitution: why Swedes believe they got it right.” The Guardian.     December 11, 2013. Accessed August 14, 2017.   development/2013/dec/11/prostitution-sweden-model-reform-men-pay-sex.

United Nations Office On Drugs, Crime (UNODC). Trafficking in Persons: Global Patterns. Vienna: UNODC. 2006.

One Comment (Add Yours)

  1. This is such an important article. Taking an economic perspective is essential to this fight. So many organizations here in the U.S. are focused solely on reducing victimization (supply) or prosecuting traffickers, but what we need (and what we at PACT are dedicated to focusing on) is a focus on the buyers. Thank you for these great articles!

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