As Obama knows, slavery and work are not the same thing

Regular readers of the New York Times are used to columnist Nicholas Kristof banging the drum against sex slavery, especially in Cambodia. This time, he’s making an argument that sounds like it might have come from The Wisdom: hit traffickers in the pocket and they’ll stop doing it. He’s both right and wrong.

I believe we can come pretty close to wiping out trafficking into prostitution, sexual slavery and torture, and we can do it in part by raising the cost of slavery as Kristof suggests. But we can only do that if we make a clear distinction between sexual slavery and prostitution. Kristof acknowledges that there’s a spectrum, but every fibre of his prose yearns to make it a continuum: however much autonomy you now have, you started selling sex because you were physically, mentally or financially enslaved. The hunger to sympathise with the girls who really have been enslaved — and let’s be clear that slavery does exist in the sex trade — clouds his thinking.

“Sexual slavery is like any other business: raise the operating costs, create a risk of jail, and the human traffickers will quite sensibly shift to some other trade,” says Kristof, suggesting motorcycle theft as a respectable alternative. But the examples he gives in his column raise the costs not just of trafficking, but of prostitution across the board. That’s like cracking down on slavery in the American south by taking measures against all farming, regardless of who’s working the fields and how much they get paid: it turns the outcome on its head. The cost of running an establishment which provides decent health and safety standards for sex workers increases disproportionately, leaving the field to the more abusive businesses. What we need is to manipulate incentives in the other direction — to support regulation of businesses that allow women to sell sex when they want to, to clients they are willing to serve, at a price they’re willing to work for, and in conditons that protect their health and their safety. That makes it much easier to crack down on businesses that don’t meet these standards.

Kristof urges the Obama administration to crack down on slavery, and I support that. But in these troubled economic times, I don’t think anyone thinks that the new president should crack down on employment.

Thanks to Kim Lee for prodding me on this issue.

This post was published on 14/01/09 in The sex trade.

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  1. Comment by Rather not say, 16/01/09, 12:03:

    Outside of a few highly-regulated or unionised environments, how the heck does a punter know if the specific prostitute he/she’s considering has been trafficked or has an abusive pimp/madam etc.? It’s primarily for this reason (although also the fear of embarassment, etc.) that I’ve never considered paying for sex. Unless or until prostitution becomes a really open and accountable industry without the opportunities for abuse that its partially below-ground nature provides, I can’t see how things are going to change.

  2. Comment by Agent X, 23/01/09, 12:19:

    You could always ask. “Are you controlled for gain?” usually gets a laugh.

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