Transnational Feminism and Sex Trafficking

  • Lenore Walker
  • Giselle Gaviria


Sex trafficking is one of the most recent forms of sexual exploitation and gender violence to be studied that is known to occur all over the world. This chapter describes how it crosses borders with victims being moved from place to place and, therefore, needs a transnational approach with government cooperation to protect victims. Culture rather than nationalism is a more of a factor in helping protect further victimization. Although sex trafficking affects both women and men, it needs a feminist approach to help understand how victims are kept captive by socioeconomic backgrounds and sex role expectations as well as grooming and more coercive behaviors similar to other forms of gender violence. The authors review many of the recent government actions that have been taken and describe the impact on different theories of feminism such as those who wish to protect exploited victims and others who see women who provide sex as free-choice commercial sex workers. All agree that children need government protection together with calling for improving socioeconomic conditions.

The recent interest in human trafficking, a large percentage of which involves involuntary commercialized sex or sex trafficking, has caused a new look at what is sometimes called the oldest profession, prostitution, and created a new understanding of how people are crossing national borders around the world to support the trafficking economy. Research has suggested that the global income from sex trafficking is over $150 billion, although it varies in different sections of the world (International Labour Organization, 2017). Polaris (2015) states that trafficking has become the second most lucrative crime in the world with drugs being number one. Often called a new form of slavery, victims of sex trafficking are moved from one area of the world to another more quickly and easier than people think is possible. Building such global economies and businesses has been termed, transnationalism , as the national borders are ignored and regional groups are put together, sometimes with people that are not even geographically near one another. Perhaps the best recent example is the movement of the Syrian people from their country, through other countries in the Middle East, into Western and Eastern European countries until finally settled in a new home. Despite the eradication of the old geographic boundaries by this migration, the Syrian culture remains fairly stable where ever the Syrians live, at least during the initial transnational migration period.

Antonopoulou and Konstantinidis (2017) have studied the Syrians who have migrated through Greece and were then sent to other Western and Eastern European countries. They found a high rate of children who have disappeared into the global world of forced sex trafficking. Any attempts to rescue these children, many of whom have been orphaned by the death of their parents either under the Syrian regime or during their flight, have been difficult if not impossible (see Walker’s chapter “ Psychological Intervention with Sex-Trafficked Persons: Assessment and Survivor Therapy Empowerment Program (STEP)” in this book). A transnational approach is necessary so Greece cooperates with other countries on the trafficking route that often goes through Turkey and Bulgaria before dispersing these children to other countries.

Other transnational approaches include the attempts to locate certain cultural groups, such as Muslims, who have crossed into Western countries including the United States. Often identified by the Hijab that women wear, they are easy to trace as they migrate outside the Middle East trying to keep their culture with all its intersectionalities rather than their nationalism. In Nigeria, there is a well-known network of brothels with top-level women who take charge of the girls who are sent to Western countries to provide trafficking sex services to men who want African women (see Sarachaga-Barato & Walker’s chapter “ Victims Becoming Victimizers” on Victim to Victimizer in this book). When adding the feminist perspective to transnationalism, it includes the addition of analysis of power relationships and how the various intersections of gender, race, culture, economics, class, poverty, and histories of colonialism impact on the individual’s lifestyle and decisions made.

There is more than one feminist perspective concerning the commercial sex industry as described by Doezema (2005, 2010) classifying the views into those held around the issue of consent and choice. A dichotomy arose during the negotiations around the UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress, and Punish Trafficking in Persons (2000) where coalitions of sex workers formed, insisting prostitution is often a choice for women and, at the same time, human rights anti-sex trafficking groups made the claims that it is not voluntary given they are frequently kidnapped, held captive, coerced, and made unwilling participants being exploited by their trafficker managers in most parts of the world. Both groups held other similar feminist values despite their differences on the sex trafficking issue. While the anti-trafficking groups prevailed in the final formulation of policy, there was room for separating non-coerced or voluntary prostitution and some voluntary sex trafficking. Belle (chapter “ Defining Sex Trafficking” in this book) presents an interesting model that suggests there are stages of accommodation that those who are sex trafficked go through beginning with being kidnapped or lured, then trusting their recruiter, followed by “seasoning or breaking” them, being turned out commercially, and learning to maintain control or seek recovery. Each of these stages may produce different psychological adjustments that could make the sex worker begin to believe she has choice about her entire situation despite the fact that she may only have some levels of choice and consent. This is a complicated issue but needs greater feminist scholarship given the compelling arguments made by sex worker rights advocates Pheterson (1989), Kempadoo (2001) and Barry (1979), most recently, Truong (2014) who examined the sex workers who gained legitimacy and labor rights in the Netherlands.

The international and national governments including the US Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act (PL-106–386) (2000) reauthorized every 5 years adopted the viewpoint that many sex trafficking victims are not voluntarily providing sex. It is a feminist issue because the vast majority of those exploited are women, children, or young LGBTQ and non-gender conforming persons. Their exploiters are usually men although there are a number of women victimizers being arrested as described later in chapter “ Victims Becoming Victimizers” by Sarachaga-Barato and Walker. Both the buyers who frequent them due to their own sex role socialization about what it means to be a man and the trafficking managers get their control partly because they are male, even with both male and female victims. Some feminists, such as psychologist Farley (2004), argue that prostitutes are also held captive by their backgrounds and sex role expectations as evidenced by their severe mental health difficulties when leaving sex work although others are equally as vocal that women make a choice to engage in prostitution and it is a noble profession that has lasted for eons. We discuss the economics that trap women in the commercial sex trade elsewhere in this book, but for now, it is important to state that when women and men can earn a sustainable wage at other occupations, they do not choose prostitution. Rather, there are many commonalities with other forms of gender violence including sexual abuse, rape, sexual harassment and exploitation, child sexual abuse, and intimate partner violence (domestic violence). Trauma-focused interventions are often modified to work with survivors of sex trafficking.

After studying the transnational pathways, the US government has developed legislation and regulations to identify and prosecute the traffickers and protect the victims. So far, the third part of the triangle, the buyers, have not been as aggressively pursued, but there appears to be efforts to decrease the need for commercial sex through feminist social training. For example, young boys are being trained to think about the victims as persons with feelings and needs rather than sex objects. Although the mass media have not yet bought into this new socialization, there are groups that remain hopeful even with the new US administration that so far appears to be hostile to feminist issues as evidenced by media announcements of the dispanding of former President Obama’s White House Task Force on women’s and girl’s health issues.

The US government passed the first major comprehensive legislation to combat sex trafficking in the United States and around the world in 2000 with the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act (PL 106–386). Every 5 years since then the legislation has been reauthorized, and in 2015 in the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act (PL 114–22) (2015), the scope of the act was considerably broadened to include child pornography in the definition of trafficking as well as child abuse. It also increased penalties for both buyers and traffickers including forfeiture of property and raised the evidentiary burden for defendants who attempted to prove they had a reasonable belief that a minor was over the age of 18 from a preponderance of evidence to clear and convincing evidence. It was hoped that these changes would help prosecute more traffickers and also hold the buyers legally responsible for having a sexual relationship with a minor. In addition, the funding authorization included block grants to states and local governments for a variety of remedies including funding a new cybercrimes prosecution unit in the Department of Homeland Security. Another part of this Act broadened the definition of sex trafficking to include all forms of child prostitution. President Obama had previously appointed a Presidential Interagency Task Force to Monitor and Control Trafficking, and this Act reauthorized it to function through 2020. It remains to be seen if the Presidential Interagency Task Force will be continued under the new Presidential administration although recent publicity suggests President Trump has plans to abolish all activities around women’s rights.

In order to carry out some of the mandates in the authorizing legislation described above, the US State Department formed the Office to Monitor and Control Trafficking in Persons (TIP), which has been involved in partnering and funding activities in many international countries and transnational regions to “prevent, protect, prosecute, and partnerships” to stop trafficking. TIP is headed by a Presidential appointment at the Ambassador level giving it status in many countries around the world, necessary for the transnational approach to sex trafficking it undertakes. TIP activities are coordinated by being a member of the Presidential Interagency Task Force described above. In 2015, there were 27 projects funded by this agency around the world to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and governments to help organize responses to child trafficking and give direct services to victims of trafficking both within countries and transnationally. Several studies were commissioned and published results were distributed (US Department of State, 2016). Although many important steps have been taken to combat sex trafficking under this authorizing legislation, feminist critique suggests that the victim/survivor often gets less attention than the prosecution of the traffickers (Noyori-Corbett & Moxley, 2017).

The US Department of State estimates that at least half of the 600,000–800,000 trafficked victims taken across international borders every year are children, many of whom are sold to the trafficker for money that the rest of the family uses to survive. Like other abused children, most of them are at high risk to experience lifelong physical and mental health conditions. A recent long-term study on the impact from traumatic events including child abuse funded by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that the more adverse events in a person’s life, the more future health and other problems in living that will occur (Felitti et al., 1998; Kendell-Tackett, 2013). The younger the child is, the more likely they will have neurological deficits, learning problems, language deficits, developmental delays, and poor memory skills which can prevent them from escaping from their traffickers. It also makes it easier to lure some of these children with the false promises that cover the real life that awaits them. According to the U.S. Government Efforts to Combat Trafficking in Persons Report (2007), trafficking victims often come to the United States from Latin America, the Caribbean, Asia, Eastern Europe, and the Pacific Islands. In Europe, migration comes through Eastern European countries, Russia, the Balkans, Syria, Turkey, and the Middle East.

Obviously, child trafficking crosses all the national borders and must be dealt with in a culturally relevant transnational feminist way. Identification of a trafficked child is often difficult especially when there are large numbers of children fleeing from other forms of violence in countries. Nonetheless, both law enforcement and others in high-risk places such as airline flight attendants and truckers are being trained in identification. In the United States, over half to two thirds of trafficked victims are runaway youth, many of whom were first identified by the child protection agencies due to abuse and neglect in their own homes and/or foster care. Attention therefore is primarily on rescuing child victims even though adults are also kidnapped and trapped in the life. Nonetheless, many of those victims rescued as teenagers resulted from the US-funded and partnered programs around the world.

These efforts are encouraging especially since the funding has been distributed across various nonprofit groups and agencies that may have the capacity to continue the efforts transnationally over a longer period of time than the initial grants might require. The network is global and the mission broad enough to capture the various areas that are impacted by the buyers, suppliers, and victim/survivors of trafficking, especially children. Obviously, some of the economics that fuel the commercial sex industry including the selling and buying of children will also need to be addressed. Given the pandemic proportions of trafficking, a public health approach is critical, and prevention will not be successful unless the extreme poverty, violence, and hunger that exists worldwide, the need for migration in poor countries disrupted by violence, and the lucrative criminal activities are stopped.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Lenore Walker
    • 1
  • Giselle Gaviria
    • 2
  1. 1.Nova Southeastern University, College of PsychologyFort LauderdaleUSA
  2. 2.Walker and AssociatesFort LauderdaleUSA

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