Framing the debate: we need to understand sex trafficking and exploitation better

Framing the debate: we need to understand sex trafficking and exploitation better

Sarah Kyambi, University of Edinburgh
17 February 2015

Sex Trafficking was very prominent in the news last week with Newsweek dedicating its cover to Sex Slaves in the US.  The weekly newspaper’s report on the conditions and treatment of women providing sexual services to men working on farms was graphic.  It feels easy to come away from reading such reports convinced that trafficking is a heinous crime that subjects its victims to relentless, exceptionally violent abuse and coercion that requires urgent action to stamp it out.  This helps explain why the call to fight what is being called ‘modern slavery’ appears to unite people and politicians of all stripes. Yet, with such urgent unity, why is it that when we try to decide what is to be done about trafficking discord and acrimony are never far away?

I would argue that luridness of such reports on trafficking, and the emotional responses they provoke, should caution researchers and policy-makers to pause and reflect.  The hyperbole that is often used leads to simplistic and misleading conception of trafficking as a straightforward crime involving purely innocent victims and monstrously evil villains. At Open Democracy Quirk and O’Connell-Davidson discuss how these popular representations of trafficking, while effective at securing public attention, prove obstructive in framing and addressing the exploitation at the heart of trafficking.  Much of how we see trafficking depends on the lens we adopt to see it through and the extent of trafficking varies wildly depending on the definitions and the methods used to quantify it. In point of fact The Economist recently held up the trafficking indices - TIP and GSI - as examples of using data as instruments of soft power, rather than as tools to inform policy. In our urgency to do something about trafficking we are neglecting the accuracy and insight needed to actually tackle the problem.

On a local scale here in Edinburgh, the run up to the Scottish Parliament Justice Committee’s hearing evidence for the Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Scotland) Bill was marked by just such discord in the last week. In a letter to the Scottish First Minister the Scottish Churches Anti-Human Trafficking group was joined by other groups asking for the purchase of sex to be outlawed in Scotland. They stated that this “effectively curbs demand and consequently reduces the trafficking for sexual exploitation.” However, in response, a sex workers' charity Scot-Pep, argued that the proposed criminalisation of clients would make sex workers more vulnerable to violence and exploitation not less. With such vastly divergent ideas for how trafficking should be approached there is much at stake in how we frame our analysis and understanding of trafficking and what drives it so that we have a chance of devising laws and policies that actually have the effect desired.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily express the views of the DemandAT project consortium as whole.