We use cookies for site personalization and analytics. You can opt out of third party cookies. More info in our privacy policy.   Got it



Ordinary street, hidden horror. A trafficked woman was moved between three Cardiff brothels, one in West Bute Street, pictured above. Forced to see seven clients a day, her earnings were split between traffickers and brothel owners.

David Rose / Panos Pictures

When I was 23, I responded to an ad that read: ‘Go-Go Girl Wanted.’

To be honest, I was not altogether sure what was meant by ‘go-go girl’. But I went – got the job and started straight away.

The hours were nine-to-five – the other nine, the other five. The pay wasn’t great, but I needed the money. I was living in Athens at the time and language-teaching opportunities had dried up as the long summer began. My rent was due in a few days’ time.

All I had to do, said the disco-bar owner – a balding Greek named Ringo – was talk to customers. That’s all. Talk to them and encourage them to buy drinks. And sometimes dance with them.

If I wanted to leave the establishment with a customer before the night was up, the latter would have to buy a bottle of champagne.

I didn’t see why I should want to do that.

I’ve been thinking about this interlude in my life quite a bit recently. And it fills me with horror.

Not because the experience was gruesome or exploitative, shameful or even regrettable – it was none of these. But because many of the young women who appear in the pages of this issue of the magazine did what I did: answered an ad in a paper and went for a job that might be a bit dodgy, because they needed the money.

The advertisement that Louisiana, a 26-year-old from Lithuania, responded to was innocuous by comparison. It was for cleaning and catering jobs in Britain. She travelled to England with a man from the job agency. ‘I had my own passport. But when we arrived he took my passport away and told me I had to work as a prostitute. He said I owed him money for the travel and I would have to pay him back this way. I was shocked. I would never have chosen to do this. I did not know what to do. I don’t feel able to talk properly about what happened to me after that, not even to my support worker.’

Louisiana was eventually able to escape and found refuge at the Poppy Project, which provides shelter for trafficked women.

Her compatriot Danielle, now aged 18, was just 15 when she was trafficked. Her friend had been offered a summer job in London and Danielle decided to accompany her. ‘At the airport we were met by some men who handed £3,500 [$7,000] to a guy who travelled with me. To my horror I realized I’d been sold. I was taken to Birmingham by the man who bought me. He raped me, then took me to a brothel and said I had to have sex with customers. I was too terrified to refuse. One of the other girls working there said: “Don’t even think about trying to escape – wherever you run they will find you.” I worked in the brothel for several months before I escaped. Clients could see that I was distressed, but none of them offered to help me. I’m trying to rebuild my life. But what they did has changed me forever.’^1^

A modern epidemic

There’s nothing new about slavery. But since the mid-1990s there has been an alarming upsurge in human trafficking – defined as ‘the recruitment, habouring, transportation, provision or obtaining of a person or services through force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjugation to involuntary servitude, debt bondage, or slavery.’

Due to its clandestine and illegal nature, statistics are notoriously contentious but the UN has settled on the figure of 2.4 million currently trafficked for all kinds of purposes. Something between 40 and 80 per cent – depending on which UN agency’s figures you take – are trafficked into the global sex industry.^2,3^

The mode of trafficking varies enormously; ditto the degrees of trickery and exploitation. Some women and girls haven’t a clue what they have let themselves in for; others expect to be working in the commercial sex or entertainment industry, but not in conditions of slavery.

Testimonies of girls and women – and the small minority of boys – who are survivors of sex trafficking are enough to break your heart and make your blood boil. Many are held captive, repeatedly assaulted and horribly violated. Others are less abused physically, but are psychologically tormented and live in fear of harm to themselves and their family members.

Human trafficking represents the most hideous incarnation of globalization

A report on the physical and psychological impacts on 200 women and adolescents trafficked into Europe from more than 20 countries found effects similar to torture. Some 95 per cent had been physically assaulted or coerced into a sexual act while being trafficked. Women described being kicked while pregnant, burned with cigarettes, having their heads slammed against floors and walls, being hit with bats, threatened with knives, dragged by the hair and punched in the face.

The report, published by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, explains: ‘Traffickers maintained control over women by creating an unpredictable and unsafe environment to keep the women continually “on edge”.’

One woman reports: ‘They told me they would cut me into pieces and send me back like that.’

Survivors were left with many physical health problems. But the mental effects – depression, anxiety, hostility and post-traumatic stress – persist long after being rescued and receiving counselling.

‘I am scared for no reason,’ says one woman. ‘I think someone is behind my door, window. Someone will find me, pick me up, beat me and kill me. I have run off and they are looking for me. My mood changes all the time. I cannot control my mind.’ ^4^

Globalized sex

The prime motive for such outrageous abuse is simple: money. In this $12 billion global business just one woman trafficked into the industrialized world can net her captors an average $67,000 a year.^2^

Predictably, the flow of the traffick is from poorer to richer countries. From Latin America to the US and Western Europe; from Eastern Europe to Western Europe, the Middle East, Japan, North America; from Africa to Europe; from Nepal to India; from Burma, Cambodia and Vietnam to Thailand; from Thailand to Japan and Australia – and so on.

Former communist states feature prominently. The move to capitalism presented opportunities for rapacious wealth creation for some, privation for others. Jobs melted into thin air, as did free healthcare, education, cheap housing and affordable food. Vulnerability was produced on a massive, marketable scale, not only in the former Soviet states but in countries like Vietnam and Cambodia too.

Working abroad increasingly emerged as the way to survive and support your loved ones. Families with a member sending money home were able to keep their heads above water. Economic globalization and the triumph of capitalism provided both the need to migrate and the opportunities do so – either legally or illegally. In Albania – a country now heavily implicated in sex trafficking – accession to the World Trade Organization led to a collapse in farm prices, in a economy dependent on agriculture. There were few alternatives.

Change was happening at a cultural level too. From Moscow, Katherine Avgerinos describes how the transition to capitalism was accompanied by the ‘eroticization’ of Russian culture. The West was associated with sex and glamour. The ‘new Russians’ who obtained fabulous wealth through cronyism and corruption created the spirit and conditions for a commercial sex boom.

‘Prostitution was fully incorporated into both the public and private life of the post-Soviet élites, who were often to be found in expensive night clubs surrounded by call girls... Buying love was now the most desirable way to attract the opposite sex,’ she says.

Popular culture reflected these new realities. The film _Intergirl_, which told the story of a young woman who worked as a nurse by day and high-class ‘escort’ by night, was a blockbusting hit.

Trafficked into the sex trade, this Cambodian 16-year-old escaped a Thai brothel and found refuge in a shelter run by the Cambodian Women’s Crisis Centre.

MIKKEL OSTERGAARD / panos pictures

A 1990s’ survey ranked prostitution eighth out of the top twenty most common jobs in the country. A poll of Moscow high-school girls had 60 per cent stating that they would consider exchanging sex for hard currency.

None of this need lead to the slavery that is trafficking. But factor in the existence of some 9,000 criminal organizations operating in Russia and it’s not hard to see how it has become both a major source of – and destination for – trafficked women and girls.^5^

In other parts of the world, too, women and children are viewed as valuable sexual commodities. Though deep poverty is often a key factor, it is not always so. In Northern Thailand, reports Louise Brown, families are pressing their daughters into the sex trade not out of despair but to meet consumer aspirations for a car, a new house, the latest TV. There is almost a ‘cottage industry’ of raising girls for prostitution in some parts of Asia.^6^

From Montreal to Melbourne, London to LA, the rich world has seen an explosion of diverse sexual services available to the consumer in a range of different venues – provided in large part by girls and women from abroad. Today more than three-quarters of those working in the sex industry in the Netherlands, Italy and Britain, for example, are foreigners. A visit to a lap-dancing club has become a common way to end an evening of corporate entertainment. Stag nights often culminate in the purchase of sex. The internet is abuzz with commercial sex sites, some of which enable clients to exchange ‘consumer’ information, rate particular sex workers and the levels of ‘service’ provided.^7^

There used to be something desperate about men who bought sex. But a British survey shows that within a decade the number of men who admit to buying sex has doubled to around one in ten. Most of the clients or ‘punters’ are married or have partners and are middle-aged.^8^

Maybe, if Sven-Axel Mansson is right, these men are reacting to feminism. ‘For many European and North American men, the extension of equal rights to women is experienced as a loss of male supremacy. Some react strongly to this development, showing strong regressive and anti-feminist attitudes. They cannot accept the changes; instead they cling to old notions of men’s dominance over women.’^9^

But it could also be that the consumer culture dominating the world today is very good at teaching people to imagine that they want, deserve, _need_ a certain product or service.

‘Human beings are not born wishing to buy commercial sex services or to visit lap-dance clubs,’ observes Julia O’Connell Davidson, ‘any more than they are born with specific desires to play the lottery or drink Coca-Cola. They have to learn to imagine that it would be pleasurable to pay a stranger to dance naked before them; they have to be taught that consuming such services is a signifier of the fact that they are “having fun”, a marker of their social identity and status as “a real man”, “adult”, “not gay” or whatever.’^10^

As markets have expanded – with more and more women from poorer countries coming to richer countries, either voluntarily or forced – the price of such services has fallen.


Every now and again the ugly reality of sex trafficking bursts in on all this ‘having fun’. An undercover documentary is shown on television. A brothel is raided, arrests made. Suspected traffickers and their victims are thrust into the spotlight, albeit with their faces pixillated or their heads covered.

One reaction, which has been gathering force in recent years, is to call for a clamp-down on the sex industry. Liberalism has not delivered on its promises. Policies adopted in the Netherlands, Germany, Canada and parts of Australia, that treated sex work like any other form of employment and sought to regulate it as such, have not broken its link with the criminal underworld. In October 2003 Amsterdam City Council took the decision to close down the ‘street tolerance zone’. Mayor Job Cohen noted that ‘it appeared impossible to create a safe and controllable zone for women that was not open to exploitation to abuse by organized crime.’^11^

In Australia, too, the legalization of brothels has not driven out illegal operators, which in Sydney outnumber legal brothels by four to one. Australian anti-prostitution campaigners Mary Sullivan and Sheila Jeffreys state: ‘Legalization has brought with it an explosion in the trafficking of women into prostitution by organized crime.’^9^

In the past, abolitionist policies targeted sex workers and criminalized them. Prostitution persisted. Today, abolitionists are taking a different tack and drawing inspiration from Sweden. In 1998 the Government introduced a law that made buying sex a criminal offence. This is based on a radical feminist view that all prostitution is exploitation, a gender crime akin to rape. Hungary has adopted similar legislation to tackle the demand side of prostitution, while the Scottish city of Glasgow now prosecutes ‘kerb-crawlers’. ‘John Schools’ have sprung up in the US, Canada and Britain to re-educate men caught kerb-crawling.

This has a simple, logical appeal – except that anti-prostitution laws don’t stop trafficking. If anyone can get round laws it’s a trafficker. The US, Japan, Pakistan, Philippines, China and most countries of the Middle East have anti-prostitution laws – and they all have high levels of trafficking. And although the Swedish model is popular with voters, experts say that it has made the situation more dangerous for sex workers by pushing business underground. The ‘punter’ law also scotches the chance of clients reporting abusive situations they encounter. It has certainly alienated sex workers and their organizations, which have been fighting hard to combat stigma and achieve safer labour conditions.^12^

Trying to abolish sex work in order to get rid of trafficking has been likened to trying to abolish carpets in order to stop child labour in the textiles industry. The sex industry is extremely diverse, ranging from the total exploitation of bonded labour at one extreme to zero exploitation of the entirely independent sex worker at the other. For many sex workers, the ‘victim’ label is stigmatizing, damaging and wholly inappropriate.


More damaging still is the common response of most rich-world governments which treat trafficking as an illegal immigration issue, with swift deportation as the solution. This has resulted in trafficked women and children being rescued and almost immediately deported to their countries of origin – where criminal gangs are waiting to traffick them all over again. It has also meant that violent, dangerous traffickers who are foreign nationals have been punished with little more than a deportation order.

The UN Trafficking Protocol, which came into force in 2003, is an attempt to create an international response. But it, too, is preoccupied with illegal immigration rather than the human rights of migrants.

‘All migrants deserve protection,’ says Richard Danziger, head of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) counter-trafficking programme. ‘By ensuring their rights and enabling them to earn decent pay and enjoy decent working conditions, their productivity will contribute to the host country, and their own country too. And it will erode the power of traffickers.’^13^

But richer nations are treating traumatized people as criminals, often failing to recognize the signs of trafficking. There are exceptions. Italy, with its 200 shelters, has possibly the best programme in the world when it comes to protecting victims. As a result, there have been 3,000 prosecutions involving approximately 8,000 traffickers in a four-year period.^14^

In another positive development, the European Convention Against Trafficking has guaranteed a ‘reflection period’ of at least 30 days, during which trafficked people can receive support to aid their recovery, including safe housing and medical support. They can also receive temporary residence permits, if returning to their country of origin might put them in danger and/or to enable them to assist with criminal proceedings. While welcoming the move, campaigners say that, given the trauma, the reflection period should be 90 days and residence permits should not be dependent on willingness to testify. They also call for adequate funding of womens’ refuges.

Human trafficking represents the most hideous incarnation of globalization. It’s not surprising that there are no simple solutions to the ugly cluster of conditions that produce it. But there are many creative means of resistance and many groups trying to make a difference.

The causes of sex trafficking are deep-rooted: poverty, greed, exploitation, and a misogyny that normalizes the most appalling violence against women. There’s the obvious, egregious violence of the trafficker, of course. But also the casual, self-centred cruelty of the client who does not care; the violence of all the men who paid to have sex with 15-year-old Danielle, who saw her distress and did nothing about it.

  1. Karen Robinson, Panos, 2007.
  2. International Labour Organization, _A Global Alliance Against Forced Labour_, 2005.
  3. UN Office on Drugs and Crime, _Trafficking in Persons, Global patterns_, 2006.
  4. Cathy Zimmerman et al, _Stolen Smiles: a summary report on the physical and psychological health consequences of women and adolescents trafficked in Europe_, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, 2006.
  5. Katherine Avgerinos, ‘The Sensationalization and Normalization of Prostitution in Post-Soviet Russia,’ pinko.net, 2007
  6. Louise Brown, _Sex Slaves_, Virago, 2001.
  7. Punternet, for example.
  8. Diane Taylor, ‘The deadly force of zero tolerance,’ _The Guardian_, 18 January 2006.
  9. Julie Bindel and Liz Kelly, _A Critical Examination of Responses to Prostitution in Four Countries: Victoria, Australia; Ireland; the Netherlands; and Sweden_, London Metropolitan University, 2003.
  10. Julia O’Connell Davidson, ‘Men, Middlemen, and Migrants: the demand side of sex trafficking’, _Eurozine_, 27 July 2006.
  11. _Het Parool_, editorial, 2003.
  12. Petra Östergren, ‘Sexworkers’ Critique of Swedish Prostitution Policy’, 2004, www.libertarias.com
  13. Interviewed by Louisa Waugh.
  14. Amnesty International, ‘Briefing – People Trafficking into the UK, and the European Convention Against Trafficking’, 2007.

Richer nations are treating traumatized people as criminals, often failing to recognize the signs...

New Internationalist issue 404 magazine cover This article is from the September 2007 issue of New Internationalist.
You can access the entire archive of over 500 issues with a digital subscription. Subscribe today »


Help us produce more like this

Editor Portrait Patreon is a platform that enables us to offer more to our readership. With a new podcast, eBooks, tote bags and magazine subscriptions on offer, as well as early access to video and articles, we’re very excited about our Patreon! If you’re not on board yet then check it out here.

Support us »

Subscribe   Ethical Shop