Trafficking Policy Should Focus on Empowerment, Not Coercion

Screen shot 2015-04-10 at 10.37.30 AMI have been studying the sex industry for nearly 25 years and been a feminist for even longer. Over this period I have seen many changes in the sex industry as well as how feminists and others talk about it. But for many Americans, feminists included, one point has remained steady: the belief that sexual intimacy should not be bought or sold.

Even Pretty Woman—that iconic film released 25 years ago, which is a popular whipping post for anti-prostitution activists based on the accusation that the film “glamorizes” prostitution—suggests that a sex worker’s highest dream is to have a client fall in love with her, and then track her down in order to “rescue” her into a loving (but not explicitly paid) sexual relationship.

Given the persistence of anti-sex-work beliefs and storylines, it makes sense that since the first Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) was passed in 2000, many Americans have focused on “saving” women and girls from prostitution.

The problem is that anti-prostitution efforts (offered under the guise of anti-trafficking efforts) are increasingly driving in the opposite direction of advice from leading health and human rights experts. They also threaten basic principles of sexual rights and freedom for consenting adults, conflate commercial sex with human trafficking, direct public funds to police rather than to victim prevention and support, and make sex work more stigmatized, criminalized and dangerous for everyone.

Human trafficking—defined by the State Department as labor induced by force, fraud, or coercion —occurs in numerous industries and is most prevalent in domestic work and agriculture. Human trafficking does occur in the sex industry, but a vast number of individuals who sell sex do not fit the definition of trafficking victims. They are also not all female born. Nor do they all want to be “rescued.”

Fifteen years after the first TVPA was passed, the assumption that all sex workers are female trafficking victims who need to be rescued has led to many harmful policies, including several new bills coming from an “End Demand” approach (a.k.a. the “Nordic Model”) recently considered in Washington state.

“End Demand” logic maintains the old notion that all women and girls who sell sex must be “rescued.” But it also emphasizes that all men who buy sex must be punished. The hope of End Demanders is that the fear and shame of punishment will ultimately curb men’s desire for purchasing sexual services. (For the record, it doesn’t).

The bills in Washington are part of a national initiative waged by a core of anti-prostitution activists who promote “End Demand” policies. The details vary by jurisdiction, but what unites these policy efforts are assertions that all men clients are predators or traffickers, that the solution to sexual predation and human trafficking is to criminalize and stigmatize clients of sex workers and that police should focus their energy on capturing potential clients. Even when this includes posting fake internet sex ads using photos of women without their consent. And even when this deploys the same exploitative tactics such as civil forfeiture that Attorney General Eric Holder has condemned when used in the name of the war on drugs.

The main problem with End Demand logic is that criminalization and stigma actually increase harm for individuals in the sex trade. This includes increased rates of child coercion, violence and rates of HIV/AIDS. Because of this, leading AIDs scholars and the World Health Organization have called for the complete de-criminalization of prostitution. Advocates for sex workers around the globe have also shown that criminalization, aggressive policing and forced “rescues” harm the well-being and human rights of individuals in the sex industry as well as their children and families.

The logic of End Demand is also mismatched with anti-human-trafficking efforts in other industries. Imagine attempting to save children and adults who are coerced into domestic labor by shaming and criminalizing all customers of house cleaners. Or rescuing individuals from “the life” of migrant apple picking by waging campaigns against the apple industry and sending apple eaters to jail.

End Demand efforts are not about empowering people to gain better control over their work and life conditions, nor do they increase health and safety protections for workers, their families or their clients. They also fail to offer more safe housing options, health care, or alternative work opportunities for vulnerable youth and adults.

Because of the harms of criminalization, local sex-worker advocates from the Sex Workers Outreach Program (SWOP–Seattle) and Gender Justice League have spent the past several weeks lobbying against six proposed End Demand policies in Washington state. For now, it looks like their efforts are starting to pay off, as five out of six bills have stalled. While sex worker advocates including myself are tentatively cheering this victory, we are also bracing ourselves for the next round of misguided attacks against individuals who engage in commercial sex.

Justice for individuals in the sex trade, including those who are coerced or trafficked, cannot be achieved through top-down police-orchestrated rescue/punish methods like those increasingly enacted in Washington and nationwide. Anti-trafficking policies should be held to the same principles by which they are fighting: they should not use force in the name of capturing non-violent individuals, fraud in the name of luring people into police traps, or coercion in the name of “rescue.” Instead, true justice is built with and by individuals and communities defining for themselves what they need in order to lead lives free of force, fraud and coercion. Even when this includes life choices that diverge from one’s own personal preferences.

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Photo via SWOP-Seattle

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Kari Lerum is an associate professor in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences at University of Washington Bothell, and adjunct professor in Gender, Women, & Sexuality Studies at University of Washington Seattle. 


  1. While I respect the fact that not all sex workers are victims in need of rescue, for too long their clients have gotten away with illegal acts with no repercussions or a slap on the wrist while the workers suffer the real consequences. And there are potentially dangerous people out there looking to harm, demean or exploit workers, yet no responsibility is ever put on the demand side. I think it is good that some attention is being paid here instead of always blaming the victim. I think there needs to be a multi pronged approach as with any problem rather than one size fits all.

    Also we can’t really compare this to apple farmers/consumers. Sex is the most vulnerable intimate thing you can do with another person. An apple is just an apple. No chance of being taken advantage of and traumatized. While we cant regulate every interaction nor should we necessarily try, we need to make sure people (adults only of course, obviously we all agree children and teens should never be involved) are interacting in safe and consensual ways. I don’t think there is anything wrong with simultaneously trying to run an end demand type of campaign if its focused on unhealthy attitudes towards sex, women and other concerns since it is such a risk filled industry.

    Thank you for the article!

  2. There was a time when most of the women who called themselves feminists actually knew what feminism was – activism founded on a bold, uncompromising political analysis of systems of power that advantage men at women’s expense. These feminists understood that men’s oppression of women is real, historically consistent, and pervasive and they were not afraid to confront the weapons men use to maintain it.
    That was then. This is now after the meaning of feminism has been successfully subverted by a generation or more of backlash spearheaded by media dominated by men and their handmaidens in academia. The sad result is epitomized by the MS editorial decision to embrace and publish a piece on prostitution that reads like a “sex” industry handout, every paragraph of which is a glaring lie.
    Targeting women’s unique reproductive organs through prostitution, pornography, and pregnancy harassment is the perfect form of misogyny, leaving men untouched. It is evidence of the success of the backlash that MS editors seem ignorant of this cruel fact or its implications for all women, even as they feel free to selectively deplore FGM.
    MS magazine’s refusal to acknowledge the damage done to the dignity, security, and status of women by prostitution, pornography, and pregnancy harassment is stunning. Such aggressive denial in the face of overwhelming evidence of misogyny acted out on the bodies of women is a phenomenon of the culture of institutionalized sexism that feminism must confront honestly if it is ever to achieve genuine equality for women. Sally Kempton* fearlessly identified both sides of the problem long ago when she wrote “It is hard to fight an enemy who has outposts in your head.”
    Twiss Butler
    *Sally Kempton, “Cutting Loose,” Esquire, July, 1970.

    • karen3224 says:

      Very well said. I live in Canada, and we always had pretty good relationships with the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, the former socialist countries. It was well known that even though they had numerous gains for women, that the sex trade still existed. To me, this just says that the problem is not totally economic. And even if it is totally economic, that doesn’t excuse the abuse of women.

  3. So Ms is promoting the pimp lobby now? This looks like 25 years of brain-washing not studying.
    Try a new book:
    And try listening to survivors of prostitution. We are enduring the relentless and sickening vilification of the “stigma” brigade now, (as if the johns aren’t bad enough!) Feel free to contact me for some truth.

  4. Inge Reed says:

    It’s one of the countless articles telling us that all that is wrong with prostitution is how it is being presented, that all it takes is a better language, a new approach, and the violence will disappear just like that or become a minor problem that is not at all related to prostitution as such.
    If you manage to get this approach into the legal system of a country it actually works, all it takes is to legalize pimping and trafficking (unless when it’s “exploitative”) and your statistics are fantastic, would you believe that in Germany pimping has gone down by 99% since they legalized it (figures proudly presented in 2013 by the parties responsible). Of course, “exploitation” was never clearly defined, and in a business where the street level means cash, can hardly be proven. And anyway, if an empowered sex worker gives her money to a good friend, why would anyone question this? In case law in Germany, some judges decided there might be exploitation involved if a pimp (but you probably call them agents) keeps more than 50% of her money, after she has paid the brothel fees and rent, of course, or the fee exacted by some German cities for her free and empowering right to stand on the streets for men to buy sexual access to her. But I suppose these judges are only denying the women’s agency, or in neo-liberal speak, their “limited agency” which the prostitution industry and the pimps help her make use of.
    Legal does not make it safe, and sanitizing the language only serves to make it impossible to speak about the violence.
    All you do is legalize the huge profits and brush off the costs in violence, lost futures and broken pasts. They won’t disappear just because an academic likes this area as a playfield.
    For those who want to know what legalization and “empowering” means, here’s a link. I draw your kind and enlightened attention especially to the “Teenie Tina Gang Bang Party Film Report” as an example of how happy and empowering all of this is.
    If any links have ceased to function, let me know, I have screen shots.

  5. The Coalition Against Trafficking in Women recently posted some research from Trauma experts in Germany which shows that prosituion is extremely damaging for those involved:

    ‘The Effects of Legalization: Prominent Trauma Experts Make the Case on the Harms of Prostitution in Germany

    ‘Over a decade after its decision to legalize the industry of prostitution, Germany is now known as a world capital for the commercial sex industry. What began as a short-sighted experiment to regulate harmful conditions for women in prostitution is now fostering a booming sex trade, including sex tourism and sex trafficking, generating profits at a reported €15 billion (roughly $19 billion). With a population of approximately 400,000 individuals – overwhelmingly women – in prostitution, Germany must reassess its decriminalization framework.

    Germany’s leading feminist magazine, EMMA, continues to examine the situation in its September/October 2014 issue as the government is yet again coming under pressure by sex industry lobbyists to deregulate prostitution even further. Among the pieces published by EMMA is a petition calling for the abolition of prostitution written and signed by prominent trauma experts who have worked with women bought and sold in prostitution. These mental health providers are convinced, through the counseling of their patients, that prostitution cannot be considered a “normal” occupation. According to Dr. Michaela Huber, Head of the German Society for Trauma and Dissociation, “prostitution is in no way a job like any other. It is degrading, torturous, exploitative.”

    These mental health and trauma counselors are advocating for awareness of the realities of sex trafficking and legalized prostitution in Germany and its devastating effects on women. They have initiated the “Stopp Sexkauf” (Stop the Purchase of Sex) initiative, composed of a coalition of advocates and experts demanding that “johns,” or buyers of commercial sex, be held accountable. The trauma experts are also calling for prevention measures against commercial sexual exploitation, including abolishing prostitution. In addition, they are urging Germany to enact the Nordic Model – a legal framework that penalizes the demand for commercial sex and the pipeline fueling the industry, while simultaneously decriminalizing persons in prostitution. Initiated in Sweden in 1999, the Nordic Model was adopted by Iceland and Norway with documented positive results, including tackling sex trafficking.

  6. ‘The logic of End Demand is also mismatched with anti-human-trafficking efforts in other industries. Imagine attempting to save children and adults who are coerced into domestic labor by shaming and criminalizing all customers of house cleaners. Or rescuing individuals from “the life” of migrant apple picking by waging campaigns against the apple industry and sending apple eaters to jail.’

    Unfortunately, this is where supporters of the decriminalisation of prostitution drift away from any sort of logical course. Coercing children and adults into domestic labour is reprehensible, and as far as I know, those who engage in such activities are prosecuted. Those who support decriminalisation of prostitution insist, however that all those who use prostitutes – whether the prostitutes are coerced, or trafficked or working in the sex industry by choice – should be subject to NO sanctions whatsoever. The interests of those who profess to have chosen prostitution are put squarely ahead of the suffering of those who are coerced or trafficked.

    How is that fair? To use your analogy, perhaps all those who exploit domestic workers should be permitted to continue to do so, in order to protect the interests of those working as domestics by choice.

    And comparing sex work to fruit picking is absurd. Fruit picking can be low paid, back breaking work, and workers can undoubtedly be exploited, but such exploitation is dealt with by the law when reported, and you can’t get pregnant, or pick up an STD or get raped or assaulted simply by picking fruit.

    In fact, comparing prostitution to any other potentially exploitative occupation is nothing but an intellectually crude diversion.

    And why don’t we ever hear publicly from the men (and sometimes women) who manage prostitutes and earn a comfortable living from their work – the brothel and escort agency and massage parlour owners. Why aren’t they poster people for the ‘sex work is just work’ lobby, alongside their ‘happy hooker’ workers?

  7. Clearly Ms. has taken a pro prostitution stand. What galls me about the article is that it does not articulate or understand the concept of coercion, does not acknowledge that prostitution is a demand driven market that targets the most vulnerable women and children, and defines offering women a real choice to leave prostitution as a “rescue mission.” In Other words, it’s yet another apology for the sex industry.

  8. Trafficking policy should focus on trafficking. And not some vague and diversionary, denialist concept like “empowerment”. Trafficking policy must focus on the men who buy women’s bodies. What is so frightening about that? That men will be held responsible for their behavior? That their violence will be linked back to them — and not diverted into some vaporous stratosphere known as “sexism”?

  9. The real no brainer in the broader context of globally escalating domestic violenc against women that writers such as Kari Lerum and others supporting the multi billion dollar sex trade……….is the lack of ability to join the dots between the objectification, commodification and commercial exploitation of womens bodies, pornography, the sexualisation of girls and growing violence to women. No better example of how neo-liberalism has gone tragically awry that we are confronted with in our daily news broadcasts and via advertising.

  10. karen3224 says:

    A large section of the women’s movement is not aggressively fighting sexual exploitation (prostitution, pornography, strip clubs and general sexual exploitation such as in commercials or Hollywood films or music industry). I see no difference between women from North America “willingly choosing” prostitution and women from impoverished countries being “trafficked.” I also see no difference between white middle-class women who were sexually abused as children/teenagers/young adults becoming drug-addicted or alcohol-addicted and then becoming prostitutes and low-income women from very-low income or poverty backgrounds who wind up in the sex trade. It’s just a class difference. No one defends domestic violence because Elizabeth Taylor was a battered wife. Why a class distinction with the so-called sex trade? Prostitution existed in the former communist countries – this clearly suggests the problem is not totally economic. Many male prostitutes are white and middle-class. Does this mean they deserve to be exploited? Ms Magazine is missing an important point: A prostitute or stripper or porn star does not have to be punched in the face or beaten up or sexually assaulted to be exploited – the very act of prostitution/pornography/stripping is in itself sexual abuse. Just as animals often appear to enjoy being exploited in circuses and entertainment, women can appear to enjoy being exploited. Christie Brinkley has talked about this in her photo shoots for Sports Illustrated. I don’t support the sexual exploitation of women any more than I support the exploitation of animals. No one is saying feminists have to solve all the issues of sexual exploitation – I don’t have any solutions either, but I don’t go around supporting the sex trade industry.

  11. karen3224 says:

    I also find it interesting that, with the exception of PETA, the animal rights movement seems to be more in agreement that sexual exploitation of women is wrong. Maybe because they understand the linkage between exploitation of animals and exploitation of women OR maybe just because they don’t believe in abuse.

  12. C Jackson says:

    This is a great piece- it is straightforward in its explanation of how end-demand models harm sex workers. This is something I will use when I teach. My students, like many people, only know about trafficking and sex work from sensationalist media stories and movies, “junk-science” “facts” and moral panic fears about trauma and abuse. They are surprised to learn that sex workers organize for themselves, that sex workers are fighting against violence and oppression–not by calling for an end to what they do, but by calling for people to see sex workers as humans, to implement laws and practices that sex workers themselves ask for. SWOP, Red Umbrella Project, SWP, Desiree Alliance, HIPS in D.C., and so many other organizations are doing great work, from legal aid and political work to outreach and direct services, that actually helps sex workers.

  13. Stephanie says:

    The comments on this piece are so all over the board, I don’t even know where to begin… so rather than engage any particular commenter in a dialogue, I’ll just say that Dr. Lerum’s argument is grounded in empirical research on trafficking which has repeatedly shown, a) far less trafficking in sex work than other industries, and what the rhetoric on sex trafficking would predict, and b) when you actually ask people who exchange sex for money about what they want, some want to keep doing what they are doing, some want to do something else, many want better working conditions, a few feel trapped in sex work, and hardly anyone wants their customers criminalized. As for the findings on the effects of legalization on sex trafficking, I’m only aware of one study that has collected data BEFORE legalization took effect, and so all these claims about the effects of decriminalization and legalization from various studies don’t have the research design to even address the question. That one study was conducted in New Zealand, and it didn’t find that legalization increased consensual sex work or trafficking. But if you are operating under the assumption that no one can consent to exchanging sex for money, you’ll see trafficking everywhere.

  14. Standard problematic responses here: “But prostitition is bad!” (No it isn’t -*trafficking* is bad – those aren’t the same things) and “you can’t be a feminist if you support women doing survival sex” (I’m very much a feminist and I believe that people should be safe to leave or stay in any industry they choose to work, not isolated and criminalized) and “sex work is worse than anything else, even coerced unpaid debilitating farm work”… I know which job I’d choose. And, NO, of course not everyone chooses it. That’s not what’s being debated. What’s being debated is how we approach the real issues of trafficking without a) making the conversation about demonizing consenting adults who buy and sell sexual services, b) diverting funds from people who are *actually* trafficked because the Christian Right and anti-sex feminists can’t actually imagine women choosing to work in the sex industry – so all the money goes towards ‘rescuing’ consenting adults in the industry (they exist, I promise), and c) perpetuating the narrative that sexual labor is dirtier and more vile than *any* other form of labor – because that just continues to support the justification to socially and emotionally police female sexuality under the guise of protecting the poor helpless wymenz.

  15. Great, short piece on why/how “end demand” approaches are misguided and have profound consequences for people in the sex trade (who have their own analyses, agendas, wishes and hopes that should not be mistaken as identical to those profiting from and emotionally aligned with the rescue industry). Here’s hoping Ms. magazine can continue to publish research from respected scholars, activists and sex workers on commercial sex cultures and economies, instead of relying on the ressentiment laden impulses of its more reactionary readers.

  16. Granted, consenting adults who prefer to buy and sell sex is not the same as trafficking, which by definition requires ‘force, fraud and coercion’ as you have pointed out. But this does not occur in a vacuum, but rather in a cultural environment where trafficking has risen to compete for the top spot as the most lucrative criminal industry in the world. A fair assessment of prostitution can only be made in light of it’s interrelationship with trafficking, requiring study of the impact one has upon the other. Germany is a good place to start.

  17. As a follow up to my first comment, I left out a critical item for further consideration: trafficking in children. The national standard for legal language makes clear that ‘force, fraud and coercion’ do not need to be proven when a minor is being sol2d for sex. The average child in the U.S. being trafficked is 12 years, with eight year olds being victimized. A basic understanding of psychology reveals this horrific practice can set these children up for selling themselves as adults. Are they truly consenting, or doing what they know? Assuming they survived the barbaric abuses suffered in childhood.

  18. Kari Lerum says:

    TF: You are right that in the US people under the age of 18 are not deemed capable of legally consenting to sex work, and hence they are all legally defined as victims. However the US has many laws against sexual connections across the boundaries of 18 *without* pay. Sexual coercion of minors certainly happens when money is not involved as well as when it is. But the statistic that you cited about the “average age” has been thoroughly debunked by respected researchers (actually the claim of age 12 is even lower than what is usually stated by anti-prostitution groups). In the words of Maggie McNeal, such claims of statistical truths are one of the many cases of “statistical malpractice” that happens when folks refer to “research” about prostitution. Here is one accessible overview of the issue published in the Atlantic … a

  19. Susan Nunes says:

    This article is distinctly sick in the head. You cannot be a feminist and support the human rights violations of women. Being used as a human garbage can is NOT empowering but merely gives license for men to RAPE women.

    You are a liar, and any “feminist” who supports human rights violations of women is NOT a feminist. Ms. Magazine should not be a forum for neoliberal b.s.

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