The scholarship on sex trafficking portrays a much more complex picture of the sex industry. Pointing to this complexity is not a rationalization of human rights abuses. But it is necessary both for understanding what the problem of the sex industry is (presumably there are lots of very different sex industries, but this is an oversimplification), and for recognizing the humanity of the people within it.
This is very, very true. I would also add that Augustin’s worry about the ideological foundations of ‘rescuers’ is a reasonable one. There’s a good long history of moral panics over sexual slavery producing action and responses in response that do very little to address the actual problem but produce other, less than ideal outcomes. Worrying about the ideology behind the rescue is valuable even if the act of rescue itself remains a net positive.
100 years ago our country was in the throes of a moral panic about “white slavery,” which was largely (but not entirely) fictional and deeply bound up with a host of anxieties associated with white middle class masculine identity at the time. In particular it was bound up with anxieties about immigrants, and could be read as a precursor to the dramatic and draconian immigration restrictions that would arrive in the coming years. From a popular tract at the time, Ernest Bell (Secretary of the Illinois Vigilence Association) described the crisis in exactly these terms:
Unless we make energetic and successful war upon the red light districts and all that pertains to them, we shall have Oriental brothel slavery thrust upon us from China and Japan, and Parisian white slavery, with all its unnatural and abominable practices, established among us by French traders. Jew traders, too, will people our “levees” with Polish Jewesses and any others who make money for them. Shall we defend our American civilization, or lower our flag to the most despicable foreigners—French, Irish, Italians, Jews and Mongolians? (source)
The attempted rescue was a piece of legislation called the White-Slave Traffic Act, popularly known as the Mann act. This piece of legislation didn’t do much to actually rescue or prevent slavery, but it turned out to be a handy tool for the legal persecution of prominent black men whose status allowed them the ability to openly defy the sexual racial order of the day.
But things are different today, of course. For one thing, the trafficking in sexual slaves is an actual, real phenomenon. But there are still similarities worth noting. For one, the problem is exaggerated. I’ve talked to a number of students who think victims of sex trafficking is essentially synonymous with ‘modern slavery’. But it’s a
trivial very small part of the larger problem of slavery, comprising 2-3% of the world’s slave population. Furthermore, it’s drawn the attention of the world of both NGOs and States in a way that no other form of slavery has. But the international effort to fight sex trafficking has resulting in significant state action, namely, the Trafficking Protocol to the UN convention on organized crime, signed by Clinton in 2000 and ratified by the Senate in 2005. It is often praised by its advocates as a blow against ‘slavery’, despite explicitly ignoring 97% of the world’s slaves. Another salient feature of the trafficking protocol is the (intentional) conflation of trafficked persons and smuggled persons. In other words, the enthusiasm for doing ‘something’ about sex trafficking was in large part co-opted by another goal shared by states but often contrary to the interests of human freedom; the ongoing sisyphean effort to “secure” borders against unwanted migrants. One can grant broad legitimacy to this desire without conceding that it lacks the moral imperative of fighting sex trafficking.
In part because the principle legal instrument to fight sex trafficking was co-opted by a desire to secure borders, the line between trafficked women and smuggled unauthorized migrant, already blurred in practice by unscrupulous smugglers (who owe their lucrative trade to the desire ‘control’ borders), is now blurred in theory and law as well. The result is a good deal of the agency of impoverished migrant women gets erased in the process.
While individual acts of rescue are (usually) a net good, it would be a mistake to infer that that goodness renders the ideological motivations and general attitude behind rescue unworthy of critical examination. In general, this issue is sufficiently and thoroughly fraught with complications; the kind of confident moral outrage about the right way to think about these things (and I think Agustin and many of her critics in the thread below are potentially guilty here) is almost certainly misplaced.
Recommended reading: Hathaway, The Human Rights Quagmire of “Human Trafficking”; Quirk, The Anti-Slavery project, ch. 8. On White Slavery and the Mann act, I recommend Grittner’s White Slavery: Myth Ideology and American Law.