Presentation to UN Special Seminar on Trafficking, Prostitution and the Global Sex Industry - PART THREE

Dorchen A. Leidholdt July 12, 2011 United States

(continued from PART TWO)

To start, we must recognize that trafficking, prostitution, and other practices of sexual exploitation are interrelated practices of gender-, race-, and socioeconomic-based domination that reinforce gender-, race- and socioeconomic-based hierarchies. We must recognize that everyone has a fundamental right to be free from sexual exploitation. At the same time, we must repudiate all attempts to legitimize prostitution as “work.”

We must strengthen and enforce the two international human rights instruments that address this human rights crisis: the 1949 Convention on the Traffic in Persons and the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others and the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. The 1949 Convention establishes vitally important human rights norms and remains a potential wedge against pimps, procurers, and traffickers. But it is under attack. Some would like to see the 1949 Convention supplanted by a convention that addresses only forced trafficking. These critics of the 1949 Convention are correct when they point out that it has no enforcement mechanisms and has been ratified by relatively few countries. But their motivation is not to strengthen the attack against the sex industry but to limit it so that organized commercial sexual exploitation is off limits unless there is proof of deception and force.

There are many problems with this approach. First, as discussed above, some women and children who are horribly exploited by the sex industry enter it voluntarily and consensually and as the result of powerful social inequities, like poverty, discrimination, and violence. Those who pimp, traffic, procure, and profit from their exploitation would be shielded from prosecution and accountability while their victims would be denied protection and relief. Second, even victims who are forced and deceived would not be protected and their abusers held accountable unless the force and deceit could be proven. Anyone who has worked with sex trade victims knows how difficult it would be to meet such a proof requirement, as traffickers and pimps control the evidence as well as the women. Sex industry profiteers can easily conceal evidence of coercion and manufacture evidence of consent, e.g., by making their victims pose smilingly for pornography. Moreover, the unfortunate reality is that the credibility of sexually exploited women is likely to be suspect in any legal forum. Why then should the prosecutions of their pimps and traffickers hinge on such determinations as they undoubtedly would if proof of coercion were a legal requirement. Third, basing legal definitions on distinctions between sex industry survivors who are forced and those who volunteer reinforces deeply rooted misogynistic stereotypes of “good girls and bad girls,” “victims and whores.” Ironically, in the name of prostitutes’ rights, the promoters of such definitions turn their backs on vast numbers of prostituted women–especially those who consent to sexual exploitation and those unable to prove that they were forced and are thereby deserving of protection and relief.

The solution then is not to supplant the 1949 Convention but to strengthen it with a protocol that establishes a monitoring committee and enables complaints to be brought before that body. The 1949 Convention must be reevaluated and amended to ensure that it addresses contemporary practices of sexual exploitation, and all states parties must be urged to ratify it or withdraw their reservations. It must be stressed that the human rights norms at the core of the 1949 Convention are more important now than ever before, especially the recognition that “prostitution and the accompanying evil of the traffic in persons for the purposes of prostitution are incompatible with the dignity and worth of the human person. . . .”

We must revolutionize the approach of the criminal justice system to prostitution and sex trafficking. Most criminal justice systems either tolerate sexual exploitation, often as the result of bribes paid by the exploiters, or punish the victims while ignoring the perpetrators. Rarely do they acknowledge the role of customer in the exploitation of victims and the growth of the industry.

Justice requires that women and children exploited by the sex industry be protected, not persecuted. Moreover, they are essential to successful prosecutions of pimps and traffickers. Laws and enforcement strategies that target the sex industry’s victims must be eliminated and victims must be accorded the highest degree of protection–through witness protection programs if they choose to testify against their abusers, and through grants of asylum and refugee status if they are immigrants.

Existing criminal and civil penalties against pimps, traffickers, and other sex industry profiteers must be enforced, and new legislation must be passed if such penalties do not exist or are inadequate. Such laws must define sexual exploitation broadly, so that they address the full spectrum of sexually exploitative practices, including prostitution and the bride trade, and must be fully implemented. Sufficient resources must be allocated to investigations, and investigations must not be confined within the borders of countries but must be international in scope. Criminal justice efforts against sex exploiters must be given priority within each criminal justice system. Cooperation of governments across local, national, and regional boundaries is essential to the successful prosecution of perpetrators and profiteers.

Criminal justice efforts against sexual exploitation must acknowledge the responsibility of the prostitution customer. Men who buy the bodies of women and children for purposes of prostitution are sex exploiters as surely as are pimps and traffickers. Their demand fuels the growth and expansion of the sex industry. While they may not be as culpable as sex industry profiteers, they must be held accountable, criminally and civilly. Governments must enforce existing laws against sex industry customers, adopt laws that penalize their acts of exploitation, and carry out prevention campaigns educating the public about the harm of sexual exploitation.

Finally, we must demand that governments and the private sector develop and expand the same kind of services for sex industry victims and survivors that in many places are offered victims of domestic violence. In order to leave conditions of sexual exploitation, prostituted women and children need refuge, counseling, free and confidential medical care, lawyers to fight for legal protections and rights, substance abuse programs, income assistance, child care, education and job training programs, and permanent housing. Survivors of the sex industry need the financial support and technical assistance to build organizations to fight for their rights and to assist others. Existing nongovernmental organizations providing services to victims of violence must adapt their programs and open their doors to sexually exploited women and children. All over the world there are model programs working to offer women and children freedom from sexual exploitation: the Cambodian Women’s Crisis Center, which equally serves women who have escaped from brothels and battering husbands; the Buklod Center, which offers hope to sexually exploited Philippinas; CERSO, which offers homes and education to girls from the streets of Chile; and S.A.G.E., where U.S. prostitution survivors educate first offender “johns” about the reality of the sex trade.

The sex industry and its defenders have succeeded in persuading many that the global sex trade cannot be eliminated; that it can only be regulated and organized. They insist that the sexual exploitation of new generations and populations of women and children is something to be accepted and valorized. They are wrong. The sexual exploitation of women and children is no more inevitable than the race-based slavery it resembles. The global sex industry can be challenged and its destruction of the human rights of women and children stopped–but only if there is the political will. Advocates for battered women have campaigned for zero tolerance of domestic violence, and while domestic violence has not been stopped, they have seen remarkable progress. It is high time for a campaign of zero tolerance of sexual exploitation if the promise of universal human rights is to be realized.