Home News ‘Good Intentions,” Bad Results: The International Impact of USA’s Anti-Trafficking Efforts

‘Good Intentions,” Bad Results: The International Impact of USA’s Anti-Trafficking Efforts

South Korean sex workers protest police harassment.

It was over a month ago when we first noted that South Korean sex workers are becoming increasingly desperate to defend their right to work. Today, they are still stocking their places of work with gasoline and signs warning the police that they’re prepared to light their buildings and themselves on fire if they continue to experience harassment. All of  this is the result of a particularly vicious police crackdown.

Meanwhile, the recently released US Trafficking in Persons Report accuses South Korea of being lax on trafficking. According to the US, South Korea needs more laws and more enforcement because right now there is a dearth of “stern punishments.” South Korean officials find this confusing because they’ve been relentlessly exterminating brothels since 2004 and, clearly, they’re still hard at it.

Bookmark all that for a minute. I want to show you something else. 

A little backstory: In 2001, after the passage of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons was formed. Every year, this office releases its Trafficking in Persons report, which assigns other countries tiers, 1 being the best, as a way to rank their efforts to prevent and respond to trafficking. If a country ranks at three or below, they can lose US aid. It was only at the suggestion of Secretary of State Clinton that this year, for the first time, the US was also ranked. (Tier Number One, baby! Woot Woot. In your face, other countries.)

Many politicos and non-profit folks seem to think this ranking system is a pretty great idea. (After all, it’s remained in place for 10 years despite measured international criticism, so someone important is a fan.) The VP of International Justice Mission, for one, has lauded its impact in Nigeria and Indonesia. But what’s life in these countries actually like for sex workers?

In Nigeria 

Sex work in Nigeria is currently illegal. Education and “rehabilitation” programs are sanctioned by the government but they charge sex workers for participation and many prefer to stay in sex work. (Unsurprisingly, it’s a “let us ‘help’ you or we hate you” situation: “When the police get information about a prostitution brothel, they arrest and try to rehabilitate them. The officer says that anyone who refuses to comply will be charged in court with prostitution.”) Just this week, a local NGO helpfully shamed working women for their clothing choices and then pressed them to submit to rehabilitation. They also—I am not making this up—told beggars to have some dignity and get a real job.

Some universities use prayer sessions as a deterrent to precocious female undergrads. Meanwhile, some states are using Sharia law to round up and “supervise” sex workers. Nevertheless, the domestic industry is often described as “thriving,” though sometimes terrorist attacks targeting sex workers put a dent in business.

Sex workers march for their rights and to draw attention to how they have been “brutalized and violated” by police.

Some clients especially the uniformed men/policemen take us for granted by gang-raping and sometimes having sex and refusing to fulfill their financial obligations. (source)

They also attempted to speak with their local United Nations branch, but “authorities at UNIC refused to have anything with the group.”

Last year, a two-year study of 400 different police stations found that “[The police] rely on torture as a principal means of investigation; commit rape of both sexes, with a particular focus on sex workers; and engage in extortion at nearly every opportunity.” One policeman described the opportunity to rape prostitutes as a “fringe benefit” of his job.

In Indonesia

Turns out these guys are not so great at respecting the rights of people they're supposed to arrest. Who knew?

I’ll keep it brief this time since you can probably guess what’s coming. Police abuse is rampant. Sharia law is also at play here, and women can be harassed or punished for not dressing in a way that’s deemed appropriate. Crackdowns drive sex workers underground, making them more vulnerable and less likely to access resources designed to improve their quality of life. Not so long ago, sex workers feared carrying condoms because police could, as they sometimes do here at home, use condoms as evidence of prostitution. Sex worker activists, including this fascinating guy, organize, and, to no avail, ask the United Nations to look at the importance of decriminalizing sex work in order to prevent HIV infections. Female students enter the industry in spite of its illegality. Indonesian authorities enact raids, of course, because it’s the go-toaq anti-trafficking tool, and in those raids they sometimes turn up what may be an American Marine.

That brings us back to South Korea, a place where sex work has profited largely because of the US military presence. In fact, South Korean sex workers have explicitly accused their government of being a “pimp” for the US military. Coincidentally (or not,) another country the US has pressured with regards to sex trafficking is the Philippines, which is, like South Korea, an island with a considerable US armed forced presence.

So what’s it all mean? Are the lives of sex trafficked and sex working people—an intimately connected group thanks to the muddled anti-trafficking approaches that dominate—improved by US pressure abroad? I would argue that the lives of sex workers are obviously damaged by these efforts, and the effect on trafficked people is much harder (if not impossible) to ascertain, particularly since the TIP report ranks effort rather than quantifiable successes. That means if a country puts on a big show, with lots of raids and crackdowns and round-ups, the United States takes their commitment to ending trafficking seriously and will probably reward them with a high (or at least higher than previous years) ranking. Oh yeah, and with financial assistance, i.e. monetary reward. On top of all this, there’s the US’s own guilt and involvement in the sex trade of the countries it’s criticizing. A little harder to see the good intentions underneath all the self-serving and destructive posturing, isn’t it?

Police are the key instrument of many states when it comes to “combatting” sex trafficking but across the globe, police have a terrible track record of respecting the rights of sex workers (trafficked or voluntary) or indeed even recognizing that sex workers have rights since, legally, they usually don’t. Furthermore, most states laws and law enforcement personnel seem incapable of making the distinction between voluntary sex workers and trafficking victims, perhaps because that distinction is not often cut and dried. Arrest first, ask questions later (if at all) is the policy. Raids are assumed to be appropriate methods of locating trafficking victims, though they really aren’t. Therefore, the United States’s internationally encouraged response to trafficking results in serious harm to sex workers including those who have been coerced.

Here’s hoping South Korea’s fierce sex working men and women continue to show their defiance and assert their rights, without resorting to self-harm. We need their voices and their courage here with us because these “good intentions” aren’t going away any time soon.


  1. Ohhhh…god…. When I start to feel overwhelmed by everything happening in this country, I can always look at other parts of the world that have it much, much worse. Thanks for the perspective.

  2. Hi Charlotte,

    I’ve been reading a lot of your articles here and your lucid explanations have turned me around on quite a few issues. I’m having a harder time with this one. I absolutely believe that crackdowns are making life worse for sex workers the world over – clearly. But I also think (child, in particular) sex trafficking is a pretty horrific. So what’s the solution? If everyone’s doing it wrong, what is the right way to combat forced prostitution? Or are you saying this is akin to the war on drugs, and there will never be a workable solution.

    I’ve read a lot of Nick Kristof’s articles on brothel raids in India, and the girls he spoke with there were both traumatized and relieved to be free – to be reunited with their families (some of whom had sold them to to the brothels in the first place.)

    I think all you have to do is look at Canada to say that prostitution could and should be legal. I am completely over that part of the argument. But there is a massive, massive world of difference between consensual anything and forced anything. So what is the activist / political route here — I would like to argue for a solution, but I don’t know what that solution is. I’m at a loss, but it seems pretty awful to just leave it at that.

    • I didn’t say that everyone’s doing it wrong. I said the United States dangles financial aid over countries to encourage destructive grandstanding that makes life miserable and more hazardous for sex workers in all varieties of situations.

      It is not awful to say: the starting point can be stopping bad policies. There’s hope in that alone. We are doing damage worldwide and here at home, and we have the power to stop doing damage. That’s exciting; there is already a way to make things better! Halting those harms doesn’t mean giving up on helping those who want help. It means getting rid of horrible practices that are, quite arguably, not helping those they’re designed to help anyway, in addition to having the appalling collateral damage of gang rapes and traumatic deportation and police violence. I think clearing the weeds is a good first step to finding the perfect path.

      Raids are traumatizing and ineffective, but many countries (including the US) are wedded to them and are apparently unwilling to entertain the idea that other options might be better. One of the suggestions I’ve seen is encouraging clients to call police if they believe they visited a prostitute who is underage and/or in fear, physically abused, etc. A campaign publicizing a number where people could report anonymously might go a long way, although it would probably be hampered if the country is aggressively prosecuting clients indiscriminately (as opposed to those who purposefully seek out a child, for instance.)

      What also commonly comes up is criticism of the reliance on law enforcement, because they are trained to use force and to deal with criminals, not to counsel and identify victims. And the focus on LE is often to the exclusion of more qualified resource providers and outreach programs. Decriminalization would mean that those who’ve been forced to work wouldn’t have to be so terrified of conviction when/if they encounter police. As it is often pointed out, no country has outlawed making sneakers or farming, in spite of the fact that these are also areas in which people are trafficked.

      The pervasive moral condemnation around sex work as an institution (regardless of the participants’ age or consent level) is a serious obstacle to helping sex trafficked people. I don’t think that’s discussed baldly enough or frequently enough.

      I linked to quite a few articles in the piece that testify to all this, but here’s a few more, including one that discusses Kristoff:

      In the second link above, which is the same report I embedded in my post, albeit with a different title, there is an extensive list of recommendations for both governments and law enforcement that were derived from conversations with trafficked women. You can use that as a cheat sheet for your arguments as to what will work better.

      • One interesting point–your suggestion in the third paragraph, of an anonymous hotline–could be seen as confusing by LE if, say, they receive a large number of calls that aren’t related at all to trafficking.

        Even if, say, prostitution were legal, we’d still have large numbers of “well-intentioned (cough-rightwingnuts-cough) people” calling about girls that choose to be in the industry, solely because the caller disagrees with the choice; there could be many calls from spiteful exes, parents, and the like, as well. It could get difficult to wade through calls for LE.

        I’m not saying it’s not worth pursuing. It’s certainly better than one alternative of raid/arrest/criminalize. And what-ifs aren’t my cup of tea for not doing something better than what isn’t working. But it’s one point to consider, along with funding, which seems to be in short order at the moment for anything related to actual human beings.

        A helpful article for me on more than just the general information fed to me previously. Thanks!


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.