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Making the Harm Visible
Global Sexual Exploitation of Women and Girls
Speaking Out and Providing Services


Prostitution - A Modern Form of Slavery, Dorchen Leidholdt









The Coalition is an international non-governmental organization with regional headquarters and networks in Asia, Latin America, North America, Europe, Africa, and Australia. The Coalition works against all practices of sexual violence and exploitation, including but not limited to rape, incest, intimate violence, prostitution, sex trafficking, sex tourism, mail order bride markets, sexual harassment, pornography, involuntary sterilization and childbearing, female genital mutilation, and temporary marriage or marriage of convenience for the purpose of sexual exploitation.

The focus of our work is on sexual exploitation, which we define as the sexual violation of a person's human dignity, equality, and physical or mental integrity and as a practice by which some people (primarily men) achieve power and domination over others (primarily women and children) for the purpose of sexual gratification, financial gain, and/or advancement. The Coalition recognizes that, in order to carry out their practices and achieve their goals, sexual exploiters are facilitated by and make use of long standing social hierarchies, especially the domination of men over women, of adults over children, of rich over poor, of racial and ethnic majorities over racial and ethnic minorities, and of and so called "First World "over so-called "Third World" countries.

We believe that all of the practices I have just described are proper areas of inquiry for the Working Group on Contemporary Forms of Slavery. We define slavery as the domination and control by an individual or group over other individuals or groups through violence, the threat of violence, or a history of violence. Slavers are motivated by a desire for sexual gratification, economic gain, or power and domination, or a combination of these factors. We reference the definition of slavery in the Convention on Slavery, Forced Labor, and Similar Institutions and Practices: "Slavery is the status or condition of a person over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised." All of the practices addressed by the Coalition emerge from the historical reality of the chattel status of women and children and represent an attempt to revive and maintain it. Moreover, as Professor Bales pointed out, unlike traditional forms of slave ownership in which the person enslaved was regarded as a capital investment, to be maintained and guarded over a long period of time, contemporary forms of slavery often reflect a valuation of the enslaved as a temporary, disposable commodity, to be consumed and discarded.

For example, prostitution, in the vast majority of cases, represents the ownership of women and children by pimps, brothel owners, and sometimes even customers for the purpose of financial gain, sexual gratification, and/or power and domination. Of those women who appear to work in prostitution voluntarily, many if not most endured situations of enslavement as children, in thrall to sexually abusive adults, or as adolescents or young women subjected to the violent subjugation of abusive husbands or boyfriends. That subjugation is continued in prostitution, whether over the long term by the pimp, who controls her every movement and confiscates her earnings, or, for a shorter duration by the customer, who buys her body for a night or week and requires total compliance with his sexual demands. Female genital mutilation, though not a form of slavery in itself, is closely tied to slavery-like practices: it is a method by which a male dominated society ensures the subordination of women and girls to their fathers and husbands; it is a strategy to destroy a woman's experience of her sexuality and thus the ownership of her body.

The Coalition urges the Working Group on Contemporary Forms of Slavery to encourage research and study on the way these different practices work together, albeit differently in different cultures, to perpetuate the chattel status of women and children. The Coalition also urges the Working Group to continue to address slavery and slavery-like practices that affect primarily women and children. The Coalition notes that the practices of slavery affecting these groups may be characterized by different forms, dynamics, and motivations from the practices of slavery directly primarily against men for purposes of forced labor. Any definition of slavery that excludes those practices directed against women and children is overly narrow and is a product of gender bias.

The subject of my remarks concerns the context into which we place and understand the trafficking of women and girls for the purposes of sexual exploitation. Over the last five years, many organizations have addressed the issue of trafficking in women but ignored its relationship to other practices of sexual violence and exploitation, specifically sex tourism, military prostitution, sexual exploitation on the internet, and organized prostitution. Similar distinctions have been made between adult and child sexual exploitation and between so-called forced and so-called voluntary prostitution. Although there are many motivations for making these distinctions, the cumulative effect is organizing efforts and analyses that address only the most severe and obvious abuses while ignoring the institutionalized sexual exploitation and abuse that is the economic foundation of the sex industry. Although these distinctions are sometimes made in the name of the victim, in fact they serve to protect the industry and its customers at the expense of the victim.

The first distinction that is made is that between sex trafficking and other practices of sexual exploitation, most notably organized prostitution. This is a distinction that the drafters of the 1949 Convention considered and rejected, uniting in both title and text the trafficking in persons with the exploitation of the prostitution of others. The connections between trafficking and organized prostitution, evident in 1949, are even more pronounced in the global sex industry of 1998. The fact is that organized prostitution is the economic and structural foundation of sex trafficking. Although it is not often recognized, many of the women and girls who are trafficked start out being prostituted to local men by local pimps and brothel owners. Often when they are deported back to their countries of origin, they are prostituted again, locally. Coalition representatives have met with many such women during site visits to the Philippines and Thailand. The survivor of sex trafficking who testified before the United Nations General Assembly in 1996 started out in child prostitution in Puerto Rico before being trafficked through Honduras, only to end up back in prostitution in the United States. Sex tourism, a form of prostitution controlled by local or global economic interests, is often the launching pad for sex trafficking, but is not considered such as it involves sexual exploitation of local women in their country of origin.

The fact is that sex trafficking and organized prostitution are inextricably connected and share fundamental characteristics. The victims who are targeted are the same--poor, minority, or so-called Third World women and children, frequently with histories of physical and sexual abuse. The customers are the same-- men with disposable income who achieve sexual gratification by purchasing and invading the body of a woman or child. The dynamics of power and control employed by the sex industry profiteers are the same, whether they take the form of violence and threats of violence, debt bondage, torture, imprisonment, and/or brainwashing. The harm to the victims is the same--trauma, sexually transmitted diseases, drug and alcohol addiction, the physical toll of repeated beatings by customers and pimps, the psychological and physical toll of repeated and unwanted sex, and the destruction of the sense of self, identity, and sexuality. The harm to society is the same--the reification of sex- and race-based hierarchies. Whether they purchase women who are trafficked or those who are otherwise prostituted, sex industry consumers move from the brothel into the world, that experience coloring their relations to women and girls in the rest society. Some American men stationed in South East Asia during the Vietnam War have talked about how their immersion in military prostitution profoundly damaged their ability to relate to women and girls back home. A few former sex industry consumers, who have become leaders in the movement against sexual exploitation, have discussed similar effects of participating as customers of the sex trade. Certainly, the injuries to their sense of self and sexuality are mild compared to those of the young women who are reduced to sexual merchandise by the industry. Nevertheless, we must acknowledge that the sex industry also harms men, impairing their ability to experience sexual relations that are premised on mutual respect and equality.

The second distinction that is frequently made, to the detriment of victims and the benefit of the sex industry, is that between the sexual exploitation of children and of adults. The problem with this position is that by failing to criticize the sexual exploitation of adults, it legitimizes it. For example, to decry the prostitution of a fifteen year old girl but to fail to speak out against the prostitution of her seventeen year old sister is to tacitly sanction the sexual exploitation of the older girl. Many organizations have organized to end the sexual exploitation of children, a laudable goal, but have failed to see that the sexual exploitation of children is inextricably connected to that of adults. Studies show that in the West, at least 70 percent of the adults exploited by the sex industry were sexually abused as children. They also show that the average age of entry into prostitution is 16 or younger. It is clear that the sexually exploited children of today are the prostituted adults of tomorrow, and, as the French abolitionist organization, Le Nid, declares, "In every whore, there is a little girl murdered. "Although some sex industry consumers are fixated on sex with young children, many sexually exploit young girls and young women interchangeably. We will not be able to end the sexual exploitation of children until we take a stand and develop strategies against sexual exploitation of all human beings.

The third and most problematic distinction that has recently emerged is that between so called forced and so called voluntary prostitution. By limiting the pool of people who can be identified as victims while simultaneously protecting large segments of the sex industry, this is the best gift that pimps and traffickers could have received. This distinction creates a vision of prostitution that is freely chosen; a vision that can be maintained only by ignoring all of the social conditions that force women and girls into conditions of sexual exploitation. The proponents of this distinction are sending the following message: "Don't pay attention to the poverty, the familial pressure, the incest she survived, the battering by her boyfriend, the lack of employment options available to her. Just ask whether there is a gun pointed at her head or whether she is being overtly deceived. No gun, no deceit; then no problem; not only is she voluntarily in the sex industry, she is a 'sex worker.'" Under this analysis, the pimp who recruited her, the brothel owner who reaps profits by selling her to sex tourists, and the trafficker who sends her abroad are rehabilitated as so-called "third-party managers."

What are the consequences of conceptualizing prostitution as free or forced, and the legitimization of prostitution as "sex work" that inevitably follows? There are many. First, governments, especially those of poor countries, realize that they can reduce their unemployment rate and increase their gross national product by moving unemployed women and girls into organized prostitution. This is most likely to happen in countries with strong internal sex industries fueled by the profits of sex tourists. In Belize, for example, the government touts prostitution as work for poor women. Not only does it feel no shame at doing so, but proudly reports on this approach in its 1996 report to CEDAW, stating, "Recognized prostitution in Belize is a gender-specific form of migrant labor that serves the same economic function for women as agricultural work offers to men and often for better pay." When governments recognizes prostitution as sex work for poor women, organized prostitution, sex tourism and sex trafficking increase.

Second, when prostitution is accepted by a society as sex work, it becomes even more difficult for poor women and girls, socialized into an ethos of self-sacrifice, to resist economic and familial pressures to enter prostitution. As the numbers of prostituted women and girls expand, growing numbers become infected with HIV and die of AIDS while a smaller but still significant percentage are murdered by pimps or customers. Those women fortunate enough to survive sexual exploitation emerge, usually in their 30's, when they are no longer marketable commodities, with no job skills, traumatized from years of enduring unwanted sex and violence, and physically debilitated from sexually transmitted diseases and the substance abuse necessary to endure the sex of prostitution. What is available to these women? Destitution or a career as a madam or mama san, helping the pimps control the younger women who are marketable commodities.

Third, when prostitution is recognized as "sex work," legalization follows; pimps, sex industry cartels, and sex businesses openly flourish, regulated only by the demands of the marketplace. Fourth, when prostitution is legitimized as sex work, men and boys are sent the message that purchasing the body of a woman or girl for sex is no different from buying a pack of cigarettes. With no social stigma attached to buying prostitutes, the demand for prostitution escalates. At the same time, women and girls internalize the message that the female body is a marketable commodity. Girls begin to see prostitution as a career option, unaware that sex work is a trap that will deprive them of control over their lives..Fifth, when prostitution is legitimized as sex work, the values and dynamics of prostitution spill over into other areas of society, influencing the valuation and treatment of women and girls and lowering their status.

Some have argued that since criminal sanctions have clearly not slowed the growth of the sex industry or lessened the exploitation of victims, the only recourse is to recognize prostitution as sex work and legalize the sex industry. Criminal sanctions have not worked it is true, but that is because in most instances they have been directed against the victims. Few countries invest law enforcement resources in the investigation and prosecution of sex industry profiteers and fewer still address criminal sanctions against the customers, who fuel the demand side of the industry. And while some countries have conducted effective and well funded campaigns against domestic violence and rape, building networks of shelters for victims and offering counseling and legal services, women and girls in conditions of sexual exploitation have been deprived of the support systems and advocacy provided other victims of male violence.

To begin to address the enslavement of women and girls by local and global sex industries, we must take the following steps:

Recognize that sex trafficking, sex tourism, military prostitution, sexual exploitation on the internet, and organized prostitution are interrelated practices of gender-based domination and control that constitute contemporary forms of slavery.

Commission a preparatory group to address the need for an optional protocol to strengthen the application of the 1949 Convention and explore the need for a new Convention Against All Forms of Sexual Exploitation.

Call for local, national, regional, and international law enforcement strategies that depenalize the victims of sexual exploitation while penalizing sex industry profiteers and customers.

Urge countries to expand and develop shelters and counseling services, medical care providers, and legal services for all victims of male violence against women, including sex industry victims and survivors.


Dorchen A. Leidholdt is the Director of the Center for Battered Women's Legal Services at Sanctuary for Families in New York City, USA. The Center provides legal representation to battered women in family law, criminal, and immigration matters and advocates for policy and legislative changes that further the rights of battered women. Ms. Leidholdt also serves as Co-Executive Director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women. She has been an activist and leader in the feminist movement against violence against women for over twenty years, counseling and advocating for rape victims, organizing against pornography, serving on the legal team for the plaintiff in a precedent-setting sexual harassment case, and representing hundreds of victims of domestic violence and prostitution. Ms. Leidholdt teaches law as an adjunct professor at City University of New York School of Law and Columbia Law School. Ms. Leidholdt holds a law degree from New York University School of Law, where she was a Root-Tilden Scholar.







Published by
The Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, February 1999
Donna M. Hughes and Claire M. Roche, Editors
ISBN 0-9670857-0-50
Donna M. Hughes, dhughes@uri.edu