Presentation to UN Special Seminar on Trafficking, Prostitution and the Global Sex Industry: PART ONE

Dorchen Leidholdt July 12, 2011 United States

Presentation to the Special Seminar on Trafficking, Prostitution and the Global Sex Industry, of the UN Working Group on Contemporary Forms of Slavery.

At the center of the seminar was a debate on whether prostitution and related forms of sexual exploitation should be considered "sex work" or violence against women and a violation of women's human rights. International Human Rights Law Group argued the "sex work" position.

The sexual exploitation of women and children by local and global sex industries violates the human rights of all women and children whose bodies are reduced to sexual commodities in this brutal and dehumanizing marketplace. While experienced as pleasure by the prostitution consumers and as lucrative sources of income by sex industry entrepreneurs, prostitution, sex trafficking, and related practices are, in fact, forms of sexual violence that leave women and children physically and psychologically devastated.

Sexually exploited women and children are the sex industry's primary casualties but not its only victims. Commercial sexual exploitation diminishes the lives of all women and girls by inculcating in men and boys profoundly misogynistic beliefs and attitudes. By teaching males that female bodies are sexual merchandise to be traded, used, and discarded, prostitution bolsters gender inequality in all areas of society. Its effects are most readily apparent, however, in acts of sexual violence against women, in the sexual harassment of women in the workplace, and in violence against women by their intimate partners.

The global sex industry merchandises women and children in a variety of ways--through prostitution, sex trafficking, sex tourism, the mail-order bride trade, and pornography. These practices of sexual exploitation are interconnected and inextricable from each other, and most sexually exploited women and children are subjected to multiple forms of sexual exploitation. For example, women and children are often recruited or sold into domestic prostitution and then trafficked into brothels overseas. While being prostituted, women and children are often pressured or coerced into posing for pornography, which increasingly is trafficked internationally. Exploitation in "sexual entertainment" (strip clubs, topless bars, etc.) often precedes or accompanies exploitation in sex trafficking or prostitution. Customers of sexually exploited women and children often buy access to them in a variety of sexually exploitative contexts, while pimps, procurers, and traffickers profit from the different practices of sexual exploitation interchangeably. Indeed, one of the motivating forces for trafficking is the demand of prostitution customers for more "exotic" and compliant sexual playthings. It is impossible, as the drafters of the 1949 Convention understood, to separate sex trafficking from the exploitation of the prostitution of others.

Just as women and children in situations of sexual exploitation are exploited in many different ways, they are systematically subjected to a wide range of abusive and violent practices. Women in prostitution describe the sex they must endure from customers as unwanted bodily invasions--painful, disgusting, humiliating, dangerous, and rape-like. They also report that male customers often subject them to abusive and dehumanizing sexual practices that non-prostituted women refuse to engage in. Research demonstrates that many sexually exploited women and girls anesthetize themselves with alcohol and drugs or enter dissociated mental states in order to endure the sex of prostitution. The consequences of both sexual exploitation and the "survival techniques" that prostituted women and children adopt to inure themselves to it are injurious to their physical and mental health. 

Sexual exploitation severely compromises the physical well being of prostituted women and children. A 1994 study of prostituted women in the United States found that only 15 percent had never contracted a sexually transmitted disease. The gynecological problems that prostituted women and girls suffer include chronic pelvic pain, pelvic inflammatory disease, unwanted pregnancy, miscarriages, high infertility rates, and increased risk of reproductive system cancers. The solution of "safe-sex" (condom usage) for prostituted women belies the inherent power dynamics of sexual exploitation. As the commodity in a transaction between buyer and seller, the sexually exploited woman or child usually must acquiesce to the customer's demands. The price of resistance is often violence. Because of the inherent power imbalance of commercial sexual exploitation--the gulf that exists between the buyer and the bought-- the prostituted woman or child is simply not in a position to demand "safe sex" practices. 

As a result, exploitation in the commercial sex industry is increasingly a death sentence. A 1998 study published in the International Journal of STDs and AIDS revealed that prostituted women and girls in many parts of the world are more likely than not to contract HIV: 58 percent of the prostituted women in Burkina Faso; 52 percent of the prostituted women in Kenya; nearly half the prostituted women in Cambodia; 34 percent of the prostituted women in Northern Thailand; and 50 percent of the prostituted women in Bombay. Fifty to 70 percent of trafficked Burmese women were infected with HIV/AIDS and of 218 girls rescued from a Bombay brothel, 65 percent were HIV positive. Prostituted women in the global West and North, where AIDS education is widespread, also show a far higher incidence of AIDS than women who have not been subjected to commercial sexual exploitation. In Italy, for example, the incidence of HIV/AIDS among prostituted women grew from 2 percent to 16 percent from 1988 to 1998. 

Research also shows that women and girls in situations of sexual exploitation are subjected to shockingly high levels of violence--beatings, rapes, torture, and homicides. "Prostitution in Five Countries," a 1998 study of 475 prostitutes in South Africa, Thailand, Turkey, the United States, and Zambia, revealed that, across countries, 73% of the subjects reported physical assault in prostitution and 62% reported having been raped in prostitution, 46% at least five times. A 1985 Canadian report on the sex industry in that country reported that women in prostitution suffer a mortality rate forty times the national average. The violence directed against sexually exploited women and children is neither accidental nor incidental: it is endemic to the sex industry, systematic, and fueled by the dehumanization and devaluation of women it normalizes.

The physical harm of sexual exploitation is at least equaled by the psychological harm it wreaks--suicidal feelings, clinical depression, dissociative disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder. In "Prostitution in Five Countries," 67 percent of the 475 prostitutes studied met criteria for a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder; 58 percent reported sexual abuse as children, with an average of four perpetrators; and 72 percent reported past or current homelessness. When asked what they needed, 92 percent wanted to leave prostitution; 72 percent wanted refuge; and 70 percent wanted job training.

Some have argued that prostitution, sex trafficking, and other forms of commercial sexual exploitation are not human rights concerns when adults enter these situations consensually and voluntarily. The reality is that many women and girls do enter prostitution voluntarily but whether that voluntariness is meaningful or of any significance is questionable when one examines the powerful social conditions that mediate this process. Vast numbers of women and girls enter prostitution to feed their children, to support their impoverished families, and to survive economically after escaping domestic violence. Others continue in prostitution in adulthood because they were sexually abused or exploited as children--indeed most adults in prostitution entered these conditions as children, and studies show that approximately two-thirds have histories of sexual abuse in childhood. For whatever reason women and children enter conditions of sexual exploitation, getting out is often impossible until they are too diseased, traumatized, and broken to continue to attract customers. The only options for most women who have managed to survive prostitution are destitution or work as madams or mamasans, controlling and exploiting the younger women who are still marketable commodities.

It is not a coincidence that the people who are sexually exploited in local and global sex industries are overwhelmingly female, young, and poor. In the global North and the West, the victims of the commercial sex trade are, with few exceptions, members of groups with histories of slavery and discrimination, women and children traumatized by sexual abuse, women who have immigrated from poor countries or have been sexually trafficked, women who are addicted to drugs, and/or women who are mentally ill. In the global South and East, victims of the sex trade are often young women and girls who are desperately poor in cultures where females are expected to sacrifice themselves for the well being of their families and communities. The global sex industry preys on this sexual, racial, and socioeconomic inequality, profits from it, and reinforces and exacerbates it. It turns the exploitation of members of groups at the bottom of gender-, race-, and socioeconomic-based hierarchies into the sexual entertainment of members of powerful groups. In short, it eroticizes inequality as it makes inequality immensely profitable. 

(continues in PART TWO)