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  • Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery
  • Sealing Cheng
Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery. By Siddarth Kara. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008. 320 pp. $24.95 (cloth); $16.95 (paper).

Siddarth Kara's book is best read as a personal narrative of a young American businessman with an MBA who opted to leave his comfort [End Page 363] zone and ventured to understand the alien underworld of prostitution and sex trafficking. Kara took three trips and traveled to twelve different countries from 2000 onward, not only doing interviews but also entering brothels to see for himself what "sex trafficking" was. He concludes by suggesting that heavy penalization and higher prosecution and conviction rates are critical to invert the low risk–high reward relationship that has characterized the profitability of "sex trafficking." In spite of his use of economics terminology and compilation of statistical estimates, Kara's analysis is better considered as a set of speculations drawn from his preconceived notions of prostitution—and sex trafficking—and his belief in a criminal justice solution ("arrest the bad guys")—rather than insights from grounded research.

Sexual labor came to be understood as slavery at a particular historical moment. Following the abolition of slavery in Britain and the United States at the end of the nineteenth century, concerns about women engaging in prostitution incited the "new abolitionist" movement. Campaigners battled "white slavery," meaning prostitution in general and the movement of white European women into brothels in other parts of the world (mainly Latin America). Though historians have documented that most of these working-class women were migrating for better livelihoods overseas, and that accusations of trafficking were largely unfounded, the 1904 International Agreement for the Suppression of White Slave Traffic and subsequent international documents continued to equate prostitution with trafficking.1

At the turn of the twenty-first century, "human trafficking" has come to capture global attention and efforts once again. Concerns about transnational organized crime as well as human rights abuses of mobile [End Page 364] populations led to the adoption of the United Nations Optional Protocol to Prevent, Suppress, and Punish Trafficking in Human Beings, Especially Women and Children in 2000. This time, significantly, trafficking is defined as the exploitation of coerced labor. This new definition recognizes that migrant workers are highly vulnerable to human rights violations in their movement across borders as well as in their work environments—whether factory work, farm work, domestic work, or sex work. However, prostitution has continued to be equated as trafficking in some quarters, and "sex trafficking" has come to dominate current understanding of trafficking and efforts to address it.

Kara's book replicates this preoccupation with sex. Even though Kara has interviewed more victims of nonsex trafficking (more than 200) than victims of sex trafficking (150), he chooses to focus on "sex trafficking" as a distinct problem throughout the book. "Sex slavery is the profit-maximizing version of prostitution" (p. 33), a summary statement that Kara claims is the most important theme of his book. Yet by the same logic, one could also claim that "slavery is the profit-maximizing version of labor." Kara fails to draw parallels between sex trafficking and other forms of labor trafficking in his analysis and proposed solutions. In spite of his cogent critique of neoliberal economic policies that accentuate global inequalities and displace masses of people who become easy targets of traffickers, Kara fails to even mention the need for state protection of migrants' or labor rights. In highlighting sex trafficking as a special evil, Kara misses the opportunity to bring his findings into a more holistic framework of understanding human trafficking as coerced labor, and to come up with solutions that may go beyond the elimination of "sex slavery" alone.

Readers learn about Kara's diagnosis of and proposed solution to "sex slavery" in the introduction. Using the concept of elasticity of demand, he speculated from interviews with four regular patrons to a brothel in India that elevating the costs of doing business for a "sex-slave retailer" would therefore lead to a drop in demand for "sex slaves." In the next six chapters, Kara interweaves the tragic stories...


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pp. 363-368
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