Trafficking and The Distinction Between Forced and Voluntary Prostitution
editorial by Carol Leigh
This review refers to a document from the CONFERENCE ON TRAFFIC IN PERSONS, Utrecht and Maastricht, the Netherlands (1994) organised by the Department of the Law of International Organizations and the Netherlands Institute of Human Rights (SIM) of Utrecht University and the Centre of Human Rights of the University of Limburg.
The document attempts to address the ambivalence of an anti-trafficking perspective by putting forth a definition of trafficking which includes the element of force as follows:
'...it is important to emphasize that the element that defines traffic is force, as defined above, and not the nature of labour to be performed or the current or previous occupation or background of the person who is trafficked.'
The Utrecht document says: 'The traffic in persons is not only for purposes of prostitution, but for a range of other activities as well. Any slavery-like practice in the formal and informal sphere (e.g. domestic services and activities related to the sex industry) should be eliminated....
...While there are definitely occurrences of coercion, deceit and violence associated with prostitution, not all individuals who work as prostitutes do so as a result of trafficking practices. Where such practices are involved, they should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. However, the individual right to self-determination includes the ability and the right of the individual to decide to work as a prostitute. In order to reduce the vulnerability of prostitutes and others to trafficking in this context, prostitution and other activities in the informal sphere should be recognized as a form of work. Consequently, prostitutes and other sex workers have the right to safe working conditions through the use of occupational safety and health and other labour ordinances.'
The above redefinition may seem like a step towards recognizing the rights of those who choose to travel and engage in prostitution, however, I am concerned that the strategy of the Utrecht document to redefine trafficking to refer to forced prostitution is dangerous and basically unworkable. Although it may be convienent to redefine trafficking to include force only, that is not the common definition of this term. Trafficking, by definition, refers to any illicit or illegal transport. Voluntary travel arrangments would come under the category of trafficking as long as prostitution by immigrants is illegal (which is always the case, I believe). Those who seek to address the issue by redefining trafficking would do better to find alternative terms to distinguish forced and voluntary 'agenting' for the purposes of prostitution.
I hope that those who speak with people in Beijing about anti-trafficking efforts are able to discuss these distinctions. New terminology is essential to dismantling the age old approach to prostitution that punishes women who migrate and is ineffective in dealing with forced labor.