A photo I saw on Facebook earlier got me thinking about a relatively new term that has captured public attention.

Sex trafficking.

The above conjures up sexual slavery, which I and everyone I know is against.

Yet the term is being used more and more in such a manner that it is indistinguishable from ordinary prostitution. I’m not the only one to notice:

“Migration, Prostitution, and Human Trafficking: The Voice of Chinese Women is an account of prostitution in the Chinese city of Shenzhen, a Special Economic Zone adjacent to Hong Kong. Author Min Liu examines the upsurge of prostitution in the context of China’s post-1978 economic reforms… Migration, Prostitution, and Human Trafficking adds to the corpus of works that explore the cultural, historical, and geographic specificity of commercial sex work and the women who engage in it… Some antitrafficking activists have been wont to conflate migration and human smuggling and to brand all prostitution as victimhood. Min Liu alerts us to the folly of such conflations… She further calls for critical scrutiny of the meanings of such terms as exploitation, coercion, forced work, agency, and choice. Some antitrafficking activists have gone further to connect prostitution to childhood experiences of sexual trauma and  maltreatment, a link that would effectively render prostitution a symptom of psychopathology. Migration, Prostitution, and Human Trafficking serves to rebut such broad-brush claims by illustrating the powerful societal, cultural, economic, and political forces that organize commercial sex work.”

—Jeanne Marecek, Contemporary Psychology, APA Review of Books

She certainly has that right.

A brand new war is being declared on prostitution thanks to a rhetorical twist-of-hand promoted by what has been called “an unlikely union of evangelical Christians with feminist campaigners

… who pursued the trafficking tale to secure their greater goal, not of regime change, but of legal change to abolish all prostitution. The sex trafficking story is a model of misinformation. It began to take shape in the mid 1990s, when the collapse of economies in the old Warsaw Pact countries saw the working flats of London flooded with young women from eastern Europe. Soon, there were rumours and media reports that attached a new word to these women. They had been “trafficked”.

And, from the outset, that word was a problem. On a strict definition, eventually expressed in international law by the 2000 Palermo protocol, sex trafficking involves the use of force, fraud or coercion to transport an unwilling victim into sexual exploitation. This image of sex slavery soon provoked real public anxiety.

But a much looser definition, subsequently adopted by the UK’s 2003 Sexual Offences Act, uses the word to describe the movement of all sex workers, including willing professionals who are simply travelling in search of a better income. This wider meaning has injected public debate with confusion and disproportionate anxiety.

One of the feminist campaigners is Michigan’s own feminist law professor Catherine MacKinnon. Best known for promoting anti-pornography legislation which declares pornography to be a civil rights violation,  she now considers pornography to be sex trafficking as well:

MacKinnon, along with feminist activist Andrea Dworkin, has been active in reforming legal postures towards pornography, framing it as a form of sex discrimination and, more recently, a form of human trafficking. She (and Dworkin) define pornography as follows:

“We define pornography as the graphic sexually explicit subordination of women through pictures and words that also includes (i) women are presented dehumanized as sexual objects, things, or commodities; or (ii) women are presented as sexual objects who enjoy humiliation or pain; or (iii) women are presented as sexual objects experiencing sexual pleasure in rape, incest or other sexual assault; or (iv) women are presented as sexual objects tied up, cut up or mutilated or bruised or physically hurt; or (v) women are presented in postures or positions of sexual submission, servility, or display; or (vi) women’s body parts — including but not limited to vaginas, breasts, or buttocks — are exhibited such that women are reduced to those parts; or (vii) women are presented being penetrated by objects or animals; or (viii) women are presented in scenarios of degradation, humiliation, injury, torture, shown as filthy or inferior, bleeding, bruised, or hurt in a context that makes these conditions sexual.”[1]

Wow. So pornography does not include images of men?

How sexist is that?

Anyway, she equates prostitution with sex trafficking, and believes that buyers should be criminalized “strongly” while “people in prostitution” (whatever she means by that) should be encouraged to get help:

Any adequate law or policy to promote the human rights of prostituted
people has three parts: decriminalizing and supporting people in prostitution,criminalizing their buyers strongly,126 and effectively criminalizing third-party profiteers.

MacKinnon believes passionately that there is no right for two people to consensually agree to a paid sexual transaction, and she is doing everything she can to blur the distinction (if indeed she thinks there is one) between sex trafficking and prostitution.

So are a lot of people. Articles like this abound, and it has become very difficult to distinguish between “sex trafficking” and prostitution.

Might that be what they want? Are people really so gullible?