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The Perfect Business?

Anti-Trafficking and the Sex Trade along the Mekong

Sverre Molland

Publication Year: 2012

For those at the high end of the trafficking chain, the sex trade is an alluring and lucrative business: the supply of girls is constant, the costs of operations are low, and interference from law enforcement is weak to non-existent. Anti-trafficking organizations and governments commonly appropriate such market metaphors of supply and demand as they struggle with the moral-political dimensions of a business involving trade, labor, prostitution, migration, and national borders. But how apt are they? Is the sex trade really the perfect business? This provocative new book examines the social worlds and interrelationships of traffickers, victims, and trafficking activists along the Thai-Lao border. It explores local efforts to reconcile international legal concepts, the bureaucratic prescriptions of aid organizations, and global development ideologies with on-the-ground realities of sexual commerce.

Author Sverre Molland provides an insider’s view of recruitment and sex commerce gleaned from countless conversations and interviews in bars and brothels—a view that complicates popular stereotypes of women forced or duped into prostitution by organized crime. Molland’s fine-grained ethnography shows a much more varied picture of friends recruiting friends, and families helping relatives. A recruiter rationalizes her act as a benefit or favor to a village friend; relationships between prostitutes and bar owners are cloaked in kin terms and familial metaphors. Sex work in the Mekong region follows patron-client cultural scripts about mutual help and obligation, which makes distinguishing the victims from the traffickers difficult. Molland’s research illuminates the methods and motivations of recruiters as well as the economic incentives and predicaments of victims.

The Perfect Business? is the first book to go beyond the usual focus on migrants and sex commerce to explore the institutional context of anti-trafficking. Its author, himself a former advisor for a United Nations anti-trafficking project, raises crucial questions about how an increasingly globalized development aid sector responds to what might more accurately be described as an extraterritorial development challenge of human mobility. His book will offer insights to students and scholars in anthropology, gender studies, and human geography, as well as anyone interested in one of the most controversial issues of development policy.

Published by: University of Hawai'i Press

Series: Southeast Asia: Politics, Meaning, and Memory

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This book would never have materialized if it were not for the invaluable support from several individuals and institutions. First and foremost, I carry an eternal debt of gratitude to my dear wife, Samorn, and my two daughters, Stella and Astrid, for being extremely patient and supportive throughout this research project...

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1. Introduction: The Perfect Business?

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pp. 1-29

It is early morning. I am sitting with a group of project officers in a small office in Vientiane. All the participants work in aid programs that seek to combat trafficking in persons in the Lao Peoples’ Democratic Republic (PDR). I have previously proposed that one project manager, Tom, arrange an informal workshop where...

Part I: Global Perfections: The Idealized Discourse of Trafficking

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2. Do Traffickers Have Navels?

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pp. 33-49

The term “human trafficking” appeared in the New York Times for the first time in 1976, in an article regarding trafficking in persons out of East Germany. The same topic resurfaced in a 1978 story. Not before 1999 did the term “human trafficking” reappear in Times’ pages. Since then, reporting on the topic has increased...

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3. The Market Metaphor

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pp. 50-70

The anti-trafficking sector represents a tremendously diverse constellation of actors that include Christians and feminist groups who seek to abolish prostitution, state officials who are concerned with controlling borders, activists who seek to legalize migration and sex work, and aid workers who frame trafficking in terms of...

Part II: Local Imperfections: On-the-Ground Realities and Ambiguities

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4. Teens Trading Teens

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pp. 73-109

Legal definitions of trafficking presuppose a dyadic conception of agency. Determining whether trafficking has occurred is primarily a question of whether a third party has applied deception or force in an active way with the intent to exploit a migrant. Whereas trafficking literature commonly implies that recruitment...

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5. Hot Spots and Flows

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pp. 110-141

Nort is the only one of my informants who I know, with some certainty, worked in both Vientiane and Nong Kai. Nort is therefore far from typical, yet her story does touch on several conundrums in regard to how a cross-border sex market supposedly operates: Why does Nort choose to cross the border to Thailand to sell sex for...

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6. Profitable Bodies?

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pp. 142-176

It is early evening. Distant thunderclouds darken the horizon over the Isaan plains. The sound of drumming raindrops fills the air. The local market has just closed down for the day, and the streets are gradually emptied of people. The mechanical sound of mopeds and cars is less intense. A barking dog and the squeaky noise...

Part III: Betwixt and Between: The Anti-traffickers

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7. Combating Trafficking, Mekong Style: Tales of Fishponds and Mushrooms

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pp. 179-203

In 2004 a trafficking project held a meeting in Vientiane with its stakeholders to carry out a mapping exercise. UNIAP had in its first phase implemented several anti-trafficking programs, such as income generation and awareness raising in rural areas of Laos. However, due to the increasing numbers of anti-trafficking...

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8. The Drifters: Anti-traffickers in Practice

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pp. 204-227

When I met with John, I was hoping to get a better understanding of how anti-traffickers would deal with some of my own case studies. He is after all a legal expert involved with trafficking programming in Laos and, one would have thought, well acquainted with the local trafficking situation. I was therefore surprised to learn...

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Conclusion: The Tenacity of the Market Metaphor

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pp. 228-236

I am on the top floor of one of the most expensive hotels in Vientiane— it is situated on the bank of the Mekong River. I am nearing the end of my fieldwork, and an anti-trafficking organization has invited me to attend a large planning workshop. I am sitting with many other anti-traffickers, some of them former...


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pp. 237-247


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pp. 249-270


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pp. 271-276

E-ISBN-13: 9780824865825
Print-ISBN-13: 9780824836108

Publication Year: 2012

Series Title: Southeast Asia: Politics, Meaning, and Memory