* This is a post in my ongoing series around the topic of human trafficking and Christian engagement on the issue (other articles I’ve written on the topic & interviews can be found, here). Having completed a doctorate that involved several years of human trafficking field research in the U.S and India, this next part of the series will be drawing from both topics found in my dissertation, data that was set aside for other venues, as well as dispelling myths we believe about trafficking.
I think I’ve probably heard this more times than I could ever count: “Pornography is what’s fueling human trafficking.”
I’ve spoken on the topic of human trafficking at events, and heard other speakers make this claim. I’ve read countless opinion pieces that make this argument as well, and was shocked with how many there were when I googled the term.
It’s an argument that’s common and is literally everywhere.
The main problem? Well, it’s not actually true.
First, let me say, I’m not a fan of porn. But even though I have my own feelings and beliefs regarding porn, as a trafficking scholar I think it’s important that we deal in facts– not baseless or unprovable claims.
When we say things that are untrue, it affects our credibility and at times can actually harm trafficking victims themselves.
So let me quickly explain why this claim is untrue:
First, human trafficking is an issue of forced labor. It’s always an issue of forced labor, and must meet the definition of being conducted through “force, fraud, or coercion.” Without one of these criteria, a situation can never be considered human trafficking. A great way to summarize the three criteria is to ask: Are they choosing to do this work, or is someone making them? If someone isn’t making them do it, it’s not trafficking (even if they are exploited in some way– exploitation and trafficking are different words).
This forced labor may be blue collar in nature, such as forced labor harvesting shrimp in Thailand, or it may be forced sexual labor, which is where we get the term “sex trafficking.”
When folks say pornography is what’s causing or fueling human trafficking, they really mean forced sexual labor in particular. Their argument is that people are being forced into sex work because of the cultural impact of pornography. (The assumption being that watching pornography is the chief cause behind people wanting to pay for sex, and that this eventually leads to the girl next door getting kidnapped and sold to traffickers– assumptions that would both be wrong.)
So here’s the problem: The era where pornography is available at your fingertips is relatively new. When I was a kid, if you wanted pornography you had to actually go to a store and buy a magazine. And while some forms of pornographic imagery existed prior to that magazine era (such as erotic depictions well into ancient history), it certainly was not porn in the form or prevalence we have today. Thus, we can say that the proliferation of pornography is a relatively modern issue that came in the internet era.
To be true, the facts would need to flow like this: If pornography is the causation behind sex trafficking, and if the wide-spread existence of pornography is relatively new in history, one would also find that the phenomenon of forced sexual labor is new as well.
Except, it’s not. (One would also expect to find a low incidence of trafficking in cultures with low access to porn, which isn’t true either.)
We have evidence of forced labor stemming back thousands of years (including some cave drawings dated at circa 4000 BCE). We also have times in history when combating forced sexual labor was on the radar of folks—including early American Evangelicals who dealt with the issue of trafficking long before pornography became prevalent.
There’s nothing about forced labor that’s new—and nothing about forced sexual labor that’s new, either.
Thus, it cannot be said that pornography is the causation behind human trafficking. Even if you eradicate porn, you do not eradicate human trafficking– as history and other cultures bear witness.
So if not porn, what is causing it? The causation of all human trafficking is the same: Greed. Trafficking is about forced labor. Forced labor is done at the hands of those who want a higher profit, and who realize that the quickest way to unlimited profit is to force people to work for you, and to not pay them for it.
In the realm of sex trafficking, we recognize that sex is a basic human need and that there will always be a demand for sex. In response to this demand, some have always participated in a system of either buying or selling sex. This system of trading sex has existed as far back in history as one wants to look, as the demand for sex is not fueled by pornography, but our own God-given biology as human beings. (And this is why you cannot “end demand” as some activists claim– you cannot end the demand for sex any more than you can end demand for food or water.)
As with any system that involves the sale of labor and the exchange of money, there will always be some people who seek to collect a profit without doing the work themselves– and that’s what gives birth to trafficking in any form.
This exists in all systems, which is why we find trafficking everywhere– from the sale of sex, to the making of carpets, or the harvesting in diamonds or chocolate or… I could go on forever, because trafficking happens in every industry imaginable. It is not unique to the sex industry because it’s not really about sex—it’s about greed. (In fact, the vast majority of human trafficking world-wide is not actually the trafficking of sexual labor at all, but other labor trafficking to ensure we in the West can buy our day-to-day products at the cheapest price imaginable.)
None of this has a root cause in pornography. Rid the world of porn, and you’ll still have a world where there’s forced labor—including sexual labor, as sex will always be in demand and doesn’t need help from pornography. (You know what they say– a good product sells itself.)
In most other industries (see agriculture, fisheries, manufacturing, etc.) we address trafficking through regulation, oversight, and ensuring worker’s rights, but strangely enough when it comes to sex work we think that pushing it deeper into the dark corners of society (abolition, Nordic Model, et al.) will make trafficking end– when it actually makes it worse. (Which is why Amnesty International and others, such as myself, are calling for a full decriminalization of sex work.)
In the world of trafficking, porn is just a low hanging fruit that becomes an easy scapegoat.
Even if one has their own moral or ethical objections to pornography, it’s still critically important to deal in facts when we try to address the causation of human trafficking.
And the fact is, pornography is not the cause behind human trafficking– greed is.
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Thanks for highlighting this. Would it be appropriate to say “The relative ubiquitousness of pornography and type of pornography available today helps to fuel sex trafficking?” or is there no relation at all?
I agree that we can’t stem the demand or desire for sex; it’s a natural, innate human desire. But I think we can stem the demand for sex that involves sex trafficking. For example, I have, what I think is a relatively natural desire for sex. But I have zero desire for sex with a woman that doesn’t want to have sex with me. The desire to want to have sex with someone who you have to pay or is being forced into it has to be learned, I think. Something is fueling this desire beyond a mere desire for sex. Is it control? Power? The desire to demean women? I’ve got to think this is being learned or picked up somewhere.
Also, please research the case of Sweden which has effectively ended demand, and thus, radically decreased trafficking. Of course, we can end the demand for paid sex, especially by actually doing more research on the negative impact of prostitution. [NOTE: Majority of women in prostitution in 9-country study, 2003, Journal of Trauma Studies, suffer from PTSD at the same rate as combat veterans] How can you, as a Christian, advocate USING women as sperm receptacles, as orifices, without acknowledging their God-given dignity? You are advocating the commodification of women’s bodies! Do you want this fate for your sister, Mother, daughter, wife? I doubt it. Don’t promote activity you would loath for your own people.
Unfortunately, for a “scholar of trafficking” you are spreading some serious disinformation. Please reread the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000* where you will find the definitions of trafficking falling into two main categories: labor trafficking and sex trafficking. Sex trafficking is further divided into sex trafficking of minors (no requirement to prove force/fraud/coercion; people under age 18 are considered per se victims of sex trafficking if they are in the commercial sex industry) and sex trafficking of people over 18, which turns on proving force, fraud or coercion compelled someone into the sex industry. Congress never intended sex trafficking to be conflated with labor. I’ve worked in Congress and the federal government. Now I’m with a group providing services to survivors of sex trafficking. The survivors ALL say: Sex buyers OFTEN want to imitate violent acts viewed on porn. So porn is fueling the demand for prostitution, and prostitution is so inherently degrading, few women will choose to do it. That’s creating the perverse” market-driven “need” to traffic a supply of women (often vulnerable, poor, homeless, drug addicted etc) to satisfy this demand. And it is also why local Law Enforcement needs to further criminalize sex buyers who cause massive harm.
I appreciate your insight. It’s a complicated problem. I guess I’ve been falsely making a different assumption about the relationship between porn and trafficking, that “performers” in some pornography are themselves forced sex workers. Did your research give any indication that this is happening?