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  • The Political Debates on Prostitution and Trafficking of Women
  • Joyce Outshoorn (bio)

States have traditionally tried to curb prostitution for a variety of reasons, such as preserving morals, maintaining public order, containing the spread of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), or to protect women from sexual exploitation. The early 1970s witnessed the rise of a vastly expanding sex industry, and soon evidence emerged that women were being brought from developing countries to provide sexual services for male clients in the affluent Western nations. Since then—partly due to improved transportation and communication networks—migration and trafficking have grown immensely on a worldwide scale. It has led to a different composition of the sex work labor market in the West and has renewed interest in women being trafficked from the poorer countries to provide these services. By the mid-1980s, trafficking and prostitution were back on the political agenda of many states and supranational institutions, such as the United Nations (UN) and the European Union (EU).

These developments have led to widespread and often ferocious debate about the nature of prostitution and its relationship to trafficking—recruiting and transporting women across national borders for work or services by means of violence or threat or abuse of authority or other forms of coercion. Prostitution usually refers to the exchange of sex or sexual services for money or other material benefits; as feminist theorists have pointed out, it usually occurs within unequal gendered power relations (O'Connell Davidson 1998, 9). [End Page 141] Theorists and activists disagree on what should be done about prostitution: Should it be abolished, or regulated in some way, thus accepting it as sex work no different to other types of labor? Is all "trafficking" forced or is it prostitution-related migration? This article focuses on women's movement organizations' involvement in these debates. It examines the context in which the debates arose and the widely diverging positions developed by women activists and feminists in the course of those debates. It will discuss how these have been operative in the political arenas of Western democratic states, the UN, and the EU, where competing women's movement organizations have been attempting to make their discourse hegemonic and influence policy.

The Reemergence of the Issues

Prostitution and trafficking had become linked at the end of the nineteenth century in Europe and North America when industrialization, urbanization, and the unequal distribution of wealth led to increased migration, with accompanying worries about the free movement of women. It also became a major rallying point for feminism, which demanded the abolition of state regulation of brothels and an end to all prostitution. After widespread public upheaval about "white slavery"—the recruitment of white women into sexual slavery in the 1880s—the trafficking of women was outlawed in international law in 1904. It was defined as bringing women across borders for purposes of prostitution and was enacted into many national legal systems. The culmination of this trend was the UN International Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons (1949). It called on all states to suppress not only trafficking but also prostitution, regardless whether they occur with the consent of the woman involved. The Convention superseded the earlier international agreements and set the standard for the next decades, although many states did not ratify it, partly because of its abolitionist intent. There was little pressure on implementation, as trafficking faded from the public eye and prostitution ceased to be a major political issue.

With the increase in international tourism and migration (Truong 1990), the growing prosperity and liberalization of the sexual mores in the West since the mid-1970s, prostitution and the trafficking of women returned to the political agenda of most states by the mid-1980s. Evidence of trafficking started to emerge at the beginning of the 1980s. At first, trafficked women in Western Europe came from Southeast Asia (Thailand and the Philippines), but by the 1980s the supply started to come from Latin America and the Caribbean [End Page 142] (mainly Brazil, Colombia, and the Dominican Republic), as well as West Africa (Brussa 1991). After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the demise of communism in Eastern and Central Europe, the...


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