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The connection between prostitution and sex trafficking

Meghan: I’ve noticed that in the U.S. in particular, some of those who might identify as “sex worker rights advocates” will criticize abolitionists for conflating trafficking and prostitution. I wonder if you can talk a bit about that – are prostitution and trafficking connected? Is there a difference between the two?
Kajsa: Basically trafficking is the answer to the question of demand and supply and the problem of supply. Trafficking comes in when there isn’t a large enough supply of prostitutes for the demand that exists — if you’re talking in market terms. In the Western world there are never enough women who enter the sex industry voluntarily — there’s always a shortage, to put it that way. The people who do enter the trade are worn out pretty fast and the clients always want “fresh meat” to put it crudely. They want younger women and women who’ve just started. They don’t want the old prostitutes who’ve been in prostitution for fifty years.

On top of that, the high mortality rate and the way it wears on your body makes life in prostitution pretty short. So there’s always demand for more and more people in prostitution. If there were women coming by the millions to the sex industry you wouldn’t need to drag them out of Eastern Europe. I mean, why would you do that? It’s not logical. If there were thousands of women lining up outside brothels saying “Please, let me in to work!” why would the mafia need to drag them across Europe or across the world — there’d be no point. Trafficking exists because there simply aren’t enough women who will go into prostitution willingly. If you want a prostitution industry without trafficking it would have to be a very small industry.You can’t separate prostitution from trafficking. You would have to decrease demand to such an extent that very few men were actually buying sex. Then you could perhaps be certain that women were there “voluntarily.”

Meghan: I wonder if you could talk a little bit more about the Swedish model or the “Nordic model,” as it’s sometimes called, and what that entails.

Kajsa: What a lot of people don’t know is that this model is the result of thirty years of work and research. People think it’s just a bunch of feminists and social workers who decided to wage a war against men or something. No — they started doing research back in the 1970s and looking into the reality of prostitution. This was the first time anyone interviewed people in prostitution on a large scale. The focus was shifting from prostitution being a case of deviance and instead were starting to understand this as a huge social tragedy involving gendered social relationships, poverty, the way women are raised, incest, etc.

After this research was done, the question of what to do came. The answer they came up with was to criminalize the client and legislation went into effect in 1999. It’s been 14 years since then and you can no longer even attempt to pay for sexual services. The law has been very successful not only in that demand has decreased but in that the majority of the population now understands prostitution as a product of gender inequality. Eighty percent of the Swedish population supports the law, which you don’t hear about very much.

What happened then was that traffickers started finding it difficult to establish in Sweden and moved to Norway. Oslo, the capital of Norway, became flooded with Nigerian mafia and all these Norwegian men started paying for sex, which led Norway to adopt the same law. The traffickers proceeded to move to Denmark, which is why Denmark is currently considering adopting the same law.

Meghan: Do exiting services and other supports for people who want to leave the industry exist? What happens to women who lose their income when they leave prostitution?

Kajsa: That’s something I want to stress — if you want to adopt a law like this you can’t just implement it and then do nothing. You have to ensure the law is accompanied by appropriate support services. In Sweden we have something called the prostitution units and they aren’t just exiting programs — they are much more. If you have been in the industry you have access to free therapy, help finding housing and employment, and dealing with things like debt, for example.

— Being and Being Bought: An Interview with Kajsa Ekis Ekman
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