Sex Trafficking, etc.

For this week, I am going to focus on sex trafficking. Specifically I am going to discuss sex tourism, Cambodia, and girlhood. (Photographs are by Colin Summers, “Cambodia Taxi Girls.”)

Some definitions to get you started:

Human trafficking: A form of modern day slavery, in which women, men, & children are targeted for sexual or other forms of economic exploitation.

Sex trafficking: A business venture in which traffickers trade the sexualized bodies of others for money. These sexualized bodies are commodified and sold from one party to another (Farr 2).

Kathryn Farr, in her book Sex Trafficking: The Global Market in Women and Children, points out that, “Sex trafficking is one of a number of structured forms of violence against women and girls that is systematic and universal” (xvii).  She goes on to argue that, “because the sources of sex trafficking are economic and patriarchal, and are rooted in traditions that legitimate the exploitation and sexual use of women, the demise of the industry will require social change at many levels” (xviii). Thus, the practice of sex trafficking is imbued with questions of power. Furthermore, Farr demonstrates that globalization and capitalism have allowed sex trafficking to “expand and take on new dimensions” (139).

Sex trafficking (and child sex trafficking) is thus linked to: oppressive and unequal power structures, which produce poverty for certain (mostly Global South or CEE/NIS) populations; an overarching patriarchal system where women and girls are denied agency and justifiably objectified; a racist and ethnocentric worldview and society, where (especially) children and women of the Global South are portrayed as “sexual beings” and less than human; and globalization/capitalism, where the ease of travel and commodification of services/people is normalized and encouraged.  (Note: These are not all of the things that are linked to sex trafficking, but I just thought these were some of the key things that I think of when I think about sex trafficking. If you have any more ideas, let me know!).

Here is a video where a Cambodian young woman, Chantha, discusses the horrible abuses that she suffered as a prostitute and sex trafficking victim. While I do believe that the ending of this short video uses some problematic rhetoric, and it was produced by a Christian organization, the beginning is really powerful:

So now that I’ve talked a little bit about sex trafficking, I want to focus in on a specific practice and place: Sex Tourism & Cambodia.

Some more definitions:

Sex Tourism: Tourism where the main purpose or motivation of at least part of the trip is to consummate sexual relations.

Femmigration: The increasing migration of women/girls through trafficking and prostitution.

The definition of sex tourism implies a premeditated plan to travel and have sex, but it is misleading. Unplanned and opportunistic sex also falls into “sex tourism.” The biggest problem is the definition suggests a consensual encounter between adults, and this is usually not the case. Serious exploitation can occur as a result of sex tourism, and many encounters are between adult men from the Global North, and young girls from the Global South.

(Click this picture to view a larger version. Same goes for the remaining pictures in my post.)

Sex tourism is nothing new, but it has emerged as an important type of economic activity. The globalization of sex tourism as an important type of economic activity is due to the ease and scale of foreign travel, migration, and patterns of consumption where there is demand for ‘new’ commodities such as sexual services. Many websites cater to the sex tourist, advising (mostly) men on how much to pay and how to engage in sexual activities without using a condom.

Specifically in Cambodia, sex trafficking, and the market for sexual services in general, grew with the arrival of UN peacekeepers after the fall of Pol Pot. Currently, Cambodia, and the capital Phnom Penh, is portrayed in the media as a destination for sex tourists, especially pedophiles.

In Feburary of 2008, “the Cambodian government began enforcing the new ‘Law on the Suppression of Human-Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation” after years of U.S. pressure to crack down on sex trafficking” (Radio Free Asia). However, this law has penalized the women and girls that it purports to help. Now prostitutes that are caught in police raids are fined up to $200 (US) for their release. According to an interview with one of the girls that has been arrested in a raid: “They take us to district police headquarters and take our money. If we don’t have the money, we will be kept in custody for two or three days. So we have to run for our lives when we see police approaching us. Police arrest us in the hope that the brothel owners will pay, but if we don’t have anyone to pay for our release we will be sent to one of the nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). It’s o.k. to live at the NGOs, but then our families have nothing to eat,” she said. If [the NGOs] want to help me, they should also help my family. Otherwise I can’t quit” (Radio Free Asia). Thus this law is essentially ineffective and detrimental to the prostitutes that are being “helped.”

In 2009, Operation Twisted Traveler was introduced by the US. This is an effort by US immigration and customs enforcement to identify and prosecute American sex tourists in Cambodia. One of the more publicized “sting” operations in 2009 resulted in three arrests: “The suspects — Jack Sporich, 74, Erik Peeters, 41, and Ronald “John” Boyajian, 59 — are all convicted child sex offenders who have served time in U.S. prisons” (Lajeunesse). These three men face charges under the “Protect Act,” which is a 2003 law that “provides life terms for child sex offenders with prior convictions, a much longer sentence than offenders would get abroad” (Lajeunesse). Although this is an actual attempt made by the US to prosecute some of its citizens that take part in this system—is it enough? This effort was only publicized in 2009, and I haven’t been able to find any information about how effective it was/is.

Sex tourism has a multitude of implications, and I am going to go over several:

The commodification and subsequent exploitation of female bodies. In Colleen E. Vasconcellos’ piece, “From Chattel to “Breeding Wenches”: Abolition, Girlhood, and Jamaican Slavery,”  she explores the interplay of the institutions of slavery and girlhood. During the time of abolition of the slave trade on the island of Jamaica, the practice of purchasing young African slaves for the purpose of “breeding wenches” was increasingly common. Because the plantation owners would not be able to purchase any “new” slaves in the near future, they began to only purchase African girls for the purpose of “breeding.” Thus they were commodified and purchased by virtue of their girlhood. Although this example isn’t totally the same as these Cambodian girl prostitutes, in both cases these girls’ bodies are being consumed and purchased by the virtue of their girlhood.

Instrumentalizing Girls/Children. Although there is a need for awareness in regards to sex tourism, sex trafficking, and child prostitution, there is a line that is often crossed by the media dividing “awareness” and “sensationalism.” For example, there are often “specials” on the news that briefly address the problem of sex trafficking, or there is a 60 minutes occasionally that addresses the problem. The way that child sex trafficking/prostitution/tourism is portrayed in the media almost verges on “poverty porn,” which verges on voyeuristic and exploitative. This “poverty porn” portrays girls as victims without agency. Furthermore, many NGO’s such as UNICEF and Save the Children, and Not-for-profits such as “Ethical Traveler” use rhetoric that instrumentalists these girls. Language such as “they are a threat to a developing nation” and “welcome responsible tourists,” frame the whole problem as just a threat to a growing economy. There is no mention of the idea that these girls should be “helped” (I don’t like using that word, but I am making an exception), and that there are larger structural issues that can’t be fixed with a monetary band-aid.

Capitalism/Neocolonialism (post UN peacekeeping). This implication follows nicely from the second one that I was just discussing. Because of the burgeoning capitalist system in Cambodia, it is much easier to have a “front” and many more people can open a business (without having governmental permission). So we see a lot more “indirect” prostitution in the form of massage parlors, karaoke bars, etc. So it becomes even harder to figure out how many girls are being exploited. On another note, because many girls and their families don’t have the economic means to “make it,” they search for other methods to become economically sustainable. Families do not have enough money–>girls go to “work”–>there are not enough jobs, so girls either get tricked into prostitution, or chose to prostitute themselves–>girls are then making a menial wage–>girls must prostitute for a long time–>families still don’t have enough money because the system hasn’t changed at all. 

How can we change this system? Did the US finally get something right with their attempt, “Operation Twisted Traveler”? Or could we have done/do something more effective? What do you think about the pictures that I posted, do you think they deny the girls agency?

Farr, Kathyrn. Sex Trafficking: The Global Market in Women and Children. Worth Publishing: 2004.

Lajeunesse, William, Pedophiles Nabbed in Cambodia Sex Tourist Sting, 1 September 2009, available at: [accessed 14 February 2012]

Radio Free Asia, Cambodian girls driven to prostitution, 27 January 2009, available at: %5Baccessed 14 February 2012]

Vasconcellos, Colleen E. “From Chattel to “Breeding Wenches”: Abolition, Girlhood, and Slavery.”  Girlhood: A Global History. Rutgers University Press: 2009.

2 thoughts on “Sex Trafficking, etc.

  1. Nick says:

    Thank you for your blog! You have summarized the key issues related to the grave issue of sex trafficking very well.
    To your question about what can be done to bring about change, I believe three factors are important: (a) reducing inequalities in the society – government interventions are necessary, (b) strict enforcement of the law that protects adults and children from any form of abuse, and (c) education, which includes changing the mind-sets of people, especially with the help of positive role models such as in this “Real Men don’t buy girls” campaign: I guess that all three points apply to both the ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ countries, but are more easily achieved in the wealthier countries, where stronger democratic institutions exist.

  2. valopez says:

    I also think we need to push for international laws that are enforced. This Operation Twisted Traveler seems like a step in the right direction, but I wonder how those three convicted child sex offenders were allowed to leave the U.S. in the first place? I always thought international travel was prohibited for convicted child sex offenders. If not, then it should be.

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