Human Trafficking

Soundbite: Myths of Sexual Slavery


The U.S. State Department has long claimed that between 600,000 and 800,000 women are trafficked worldwide every year. But in a 2006 report, the Government Accountability Office concluded that estimate was riddled with "methodological weaknesses, gaps in data, and numerical discrepancies," and had been "developed by one person who did not document all of his work."

The State Department also has proclaimed that there are 50,000 trafficked women in the U.S. Yet despite a $150 million search effort and 42 Justice Department task forces, the government has located nowhere near that number. Anonymous sources told The Washington Post the widely cited numbers came from a single CIA analyst who relied mainly on clippings from foreign newspapers.

In Sex at the Margins (Zed Books), the independent sociologist Laura María Agustín asks why we are so eager to believe wildly exaggerated reports of a serious but limited problem, and so eager to cast young female migrants as helpless, vulnerable, and sexualized. Contrasting the ways immigrants describe their experiences with the ways aid workers and theorists describe them, Agustín presents the radical idea that poor women who migrate are autonomous, rational beings with motivations as complex as any wealthy tourist's.

Senior Editor Kerry Howley spoke with Agustín in December.

Q: What are we missing when we assume all migrants are simply desperate?

A: It's not the most desperate, like famine sufferers, who manage to undertake a migration. In order to go abroad you have to be healthy and you have to have social capital, including a network that will get you information on how to travel and work. You need some money and some names and addresses; you have to have at least some official papers, even if they're false. People may feel under the gun, but people who end up leaving home to work abroad have mixed motives. They are normal human beings who have desires and fantasies.

Q: How are worries about migration related to the idea that women shouldn't be leaving home in the first place?

A: Women are sometimes called "boundary markers." When states feel threatened, women's bodies become symbols of home and the nation. This is a common sexist idea in patriarchal societies. The idea that women are domestic and symbolize home and hearth—but also that they should stay home and be home—is deeply entrenched all over the world. And while richer countries might favor gender equity for their own women, they often "domesticate" women from poorer contexts.

Q: What do you make of the claim that 800,000 people are trafficked each year?

A: Numbers like this are fabricated by defining trafficking in an extremely broad way to take in enormous numbers of people. The [Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons] is using the widest possible definition, which assumes that any woman who sells sex could not really want to and, if she crossed a national border, she was forced.

Q: Are anti–human trafficking activists preventing the liberalization of prostitution laws?

A: Probably. But I don't think the obsession with trafficking is solely about women and sex. It has become a cultural phenomenon up in the stratosphere with fears of terrorism. Governments are making it an issue of policing the borders, and I believe they are less concerned about women "victims" than male "perpetrators." It's the same as the terrorism story, the idea that bad guys don't respect states and will set up their own societies, go where they want, and disobey all laws. The borders will not hold; the Martians are invading. Everything is falling apart.

Q: What policies would you recommend to people concerned about genuinely coercive situations?

A: I'm trying to get people to slow down on the rush to determine a definitive policy. The diversity of experience is enormous. There isn't going to be a single social policy that will work for everyone.