Views of Sex Trafficking and Prostitution Sarah Eisele

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Views of Sex Trafficking and Prostitution

Sarah Eisele

        In trying to understand the varied views of prostitution and female sex trafficking, it is important to recognize that the two opposing sides of the issue, those opposed to prostitution and those in support of it, come at the issue with a different question in mind. To those opposed to prostitution, the belief is: a woman’s body is not a commodity for men’s pleasure. To those in favor of prostitution, the belief is: no one should interfere with a woman utilizing her body as a resource for financial gain.

This discussion is a synthesis of ten articles in opposition to, and two articles in support of various aspect of what some call the sex industry. One common view within these readings is the feminist perspective that declares that women deserve equal treatment with men in all societies simply because they are human beings. Though not all of the authors of these papers identify as feminists, many of them contain elements of feminist thought and are working to address the inequities between men and women. Most of the articles do not explicitly indicate the perspective from which they approach the issue. This article seeks to compare and contrast these differing views of how to look at this contentious issue.

As a social worker, the view that I believe is most important is that of survivors of trafficking and prostitution. In a press release titled Survivors of Prostitution and Trafficking Manifesto (2005), women who consider themselves victims of prostitution and human trafficking ask for the sake of their own lives and the lives of women in similar situations, not to legalize or condone the prostituting of women or children. These women do not represent every woman who has been a prostitute or victim of human trafficking, but based on the growing amount of work on this subject, it would seem that they may represent a vast majority of victims. We will see later in another article that there is a movement in Europe, where this manifesto was released, to expand the legalization of prostitution. They are asking that their experiences be considered when policies are being developed. Some people choose to ignore the anguished voices of these women and women like them, and choose instead to believe that the polished view of what are sometimes called “high-powered call girls,” such as those who were interviewed after the Eliot Spitzer scandal in New York, is the norm. Sarah Bromberg, in a speech at the International Conference on Prostitution, who is in support of women choosing prostitution as a profession, points out that the women who enter prostitution have many different stories. She views these types of stories as true experiences, but believes this reality for some women should not determine the way we view the entire issue (Bromberg, 1997).

In a speech titled A Christian Perspective on Sex Trafficking, Thompson (2002) argues that each person is created with inherent dignity, therefore each person, including women, should be respected because of this inherent dignity. In her perspective, sex trafficking is a degredation of a woman’s body and therefore should not be legalized. She does not give a specfic solution, but presents an ideological basis to contribute to the discussion of the issue.

Many of the authors indicate a feminist perspective, either outright or implied through the ideas that women should not be devalued as they believe women are in the sex industry. Others advocate for women’s rights by assering their right to make their own decisions regarding their bodies. Hence, advocacy for women is not uni-dimensional. In Not Sex Work, Marinelli points out that women gain financially in some way from pornography, and that powerful women have a vested interest in creating pornography. Congruent with some critiques of feminism in the past, she comments on the elitism of feminism that only fights for issues that are of immediate concern to what she sees as their privileged lives. “…[C]omfortable women can be stupid enough to think prostitutes go willingly and also make a lot of money” (Marinelli, 1999). The view that prostitution is a choice for all prostitutes seems to be a prevalent view, even among those that oppose prostitution on religious moral terms.

Some feminists defend pornography, prostitution, and other aspects of the sex industry as women taking back their bodies and using it for their own advantage, rather than being used by men. However, in a speech she gave titled Prostitution and Male Supremacy, Dworkin (1992) views this so-called feminism as theoretical feminism that is not informed by the reality of the lives of those involved. She begins her speech by saying that she is not going to talk about theory, and instead she discusses the very basic, dirty, disturbing aspect of prostitution that she thinks have been covered up by theory. She does not think that prostitution allows women to take back their bodies, but uses women for the only purpose society deems valuable: their bodies. Dworkin views prostitution as stripping women of their dignity, as opposed to Thompson, who believes each person has inherent dignity, a given reason to respect the body. Some point out that women’s bodies should be a resource to rise above poverty, but Dworkin would disagree and say that prostitution only reinforces male dominance, and reflects male dominance in other aspects of our society. There are those who would consider both Thompson’s and Dworkin’s positions radical even though they disagree.

Sweden has decriminalized prostitution, but has kept the solicitation of prostitution illegal. Ekberg writes about this poly, the reasoning behind the policy, and its effects. Her ideas are similar to Dworkin’s and also reflect a feminist perspective, but her language is more clearly based in human rights. She claims that “…any society that claims to defend principles of legal, political, economic, and social equality for women and girls must reject the idea that women and children, mostly girls, are commodities that can be bought, sold, and sexually exploited by men” (Ekberg, 2004, pp. 1187-89). Another European writer, Agustín argues that decriminalizing prostitution while criminalizing solicitation of prostitution takes away the right of women who legitimately want to be prostitutes to support themselves. However, Ekberg points out that prostitution and human trafficking are “intrinsically linked” ( 2004, p. 1189). In her view, it is the right of even woman and child not to be sexually exploited and abused, and that prostitution inherently does both. The solution to prostitution and human trafficking in Sweden, to decriminalize prostitution, reflects a societal value of gender equality and a desire to rid themselves of institutions that reinforce female submission and male dominance (Ekberg, 2004).

In Men Create the Demand, Women are the Supply (2000), Hughes argues many of the points that Dworkin did in her presentation. The argument Hughes makes is that societies have accepted the idea that men need sex, in part because our culture is created by men through laws made by men, businesses owned by men, and educational institutions run by men. The accepted norms in most societies are norms imposed by men, such as the expectation in the workplace in the U.S. that a person should be able to work countless hours without the interference of the needs of ones children. Hughes makes the argument that

prostitution is not natural or inevitable; it is abuse and exploitation of women and girls that results from structural inequality between women and men on a world scale. Prostitution commodifies women and girls and markets their bodies for whatever acts men have sexualized and want to buy. Rarely are adult men treated this way” (Hughes, 2000, p. 2).

This lays out her theoretical framework for why prostitution is inherently degrading, and as she points out later, always leads to victimization and objectification, not empowerment. Hughes points out that the problem is the way in which women are viewed or devalued, and the solution involves a societal change of values. As a social work student focusing on policy practice, I recognize that policy change in itself is difficult, but a change of values is even more difficult and takes much longer. The most difficult aspect of the issue of prostitution and sex trafficking, based on what Ekberg, Dworkin, and Hughes say, is not the passage of policy, but the transformation of societal values which accept the devaluation and objectification of women as valid cultural expressions.

        Bromberg, who identifies herself as a liberal feminist, counters the views of Dworkin and Hughes with a different perspective on the nature of prostitution. To Dworkin, she points out that there are many different types of prostitutes, that people enter this profession for many different reasons. She acknowledges that there are people who are abused and suffer, but she points to the choices that those individuals have made, that they “often voluntarily lead themselves into danger” (Bromberg, 1997). Later, she clearly states that prostitutes are not victims, even if their choices lead this into abuse. This is a clear example of blaming the victims, that for women who do make the choice, regardless of their potential histories of abuse and neglect, they should have known better. Regarding the view of Hughes, that prostitution is by nature degrading to women, she views the abuses within as issues of immorality. There are men who act immorally, and there are women who act immorally, but that does not mean all prostitution is immoral for all people (Bromberg, 1997).

Another view is that prostitution is a type of abuse through different professions in the social science field. Giobbe, in Comparison of Tactics of Power and Control, makes the comparison between domestic violence and prostitution. She places domestic violence and prostitution on the same spectrum, with pimping and soliciting prostitutes as more extreme forms of violence against the victims.

Parker, in Between the Hammer and the Anvil, conceptualizes prostitution as a more extreme type of violence than domestic violence. He deals with the consequences of prostitution in terms of treatment, and expands upon it in How Prostitution Works and discusses its cost to the larger community. In his experience, many prostitutes develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He compares the PTSD experienced of these women and men as similar to the PTSD experienced by people who have been tortured by the government yet remain in that country. Soldiers who suffer from PTSD leave the environment in which they developed their illness, so they are able to enter a society in which there are fewer stimuli for flashbacks. For women who are trying to recover from the trauma induced by prostitution, material that can trigger flashbacks is unavoidable in some cultures. Leaving the situation in which a person was prostituted is only one part of the recovery process for victims. Once they leave, they have a difficult journey ahead through recovery. But Parker’s point seems to be that societies that use women’s bodies to sell products, for example, make the recovery process much less likely to be successful (Parker, J., n.d.). Similar to Hughes, his solution is a societal change in values.

Another relevant article is based on a testimony before the United States Congress by Mary Ann Layden (1999) on the subject of prostitution. She argues from the psychological perspective based on research regarding the viewing of pornography. She makes a case for the criminalization of certain aspects of pornography. While she does not come from the experiential perspective of Marinelli, she opposes pornography based on the effects of its creation as well as viewing it, and its involvement in human trafficking. Her testimony is in line with the perspectives of Parker and Hughes, that in many cultures women are degraded and objectified, and the sex industry contributes to or even fuels that devaluation. This objectification, she says, is harmful to women on a variety of levels, from abuse in interpersonal relationships to the prostituting of women.

The remaining articles deal with the subject from the practical standpoint of what actually happens in prostitution. In How Prostitution Works, Parker focuses on the types of abuse that occur within prostitution. He identifies different types of customers (users, sadists, necrophiles, child molesters), different types of pimps (media pimps, business pimps, street pimps), and how people are introduced to prostitution (slave taking, domestic violence, grooming) (Parker J., 1998). Parker seems to say that societies allows this system to function and flourish because of the view that prostitution is a “lifestyle choice” or “addiction,” rather than a form of violence against women (p. 7).

Agustín (2000) writes about the sex industry in Europe, mainly in regard to the trafficking of immigrants into European countries. She argues that people choose to enter prostitution or other aspects of the sex industry, and that they should not be prohibited from doing so. Some people, she points out, might find prostitution less disturbing or disgusting than cleaning toilets. Many of the authors I have cited to believe sex trafficking is a problem as often it involves deceiving a person with the promise of a certain type of benign work, but instead makes them enter prostitution. In Agustín’s view, people who claim to be sex trafficked know what they are entering into, but just have second thoughts when they arrive and have to start working. For a mother, she argues that prostitution might be a good solution because of its flexible schedule, and she could even gain valuable skills while in prostitution. Bromberg would likely agree with many of these arguments and support the idea that prostitution should be considered a viable vocational option.

While there are many ways to view prostitution, sex work, or whichever term one chooses to use, as social workers we must seek to view the issue through the lens of our common values and ethics. But the issue is far from simple. It involves real people who may be suffering from systemic oppression that also affects many others who are also our clients. The human rights and dignity of all the people involved necessitates our wrestling with its inherent complexities.


Agustín, L. (2000). Working in the European sex industry: Migrant possibilities. Madrid, Spain: OFRIM/Suplementos.

Bromberg, S. (1997). Feminist issues in prostitution. Retrieved June 14, 2008, from

Coalition Against Trafficking in Women: Survivors of Prostitution and Trafficking Manifesto. (2005, October 17). Retrieved June 14, 2008, from Coalition Against Trafficking in Women:

Dworkin, A. (1992, October 31). Prostitution and Male Supermacy. Symposium-Prostitution: From Academia to Activism .

Ekberg, G. (2004). The Swedish law the prohibits the purchase of sexual services: Best practices for prevention of prostitution and trafficking in human beings. Violence Against Women , 10 (10), 1187-1218.

Giobbe, E. (1990). Comparison of tactics of power and control. In E. Giobbe, A facilitator's guide to prostitution: A matter of violence against women. MN: WHISPER.

Hughes, D. M. (2000). Men create the demand; Women are the supply: Lecture on sexual exploitation. Valencia.

Hughes, D. M. (2005). The demand for victims of sex trafficking. U.S. Department of State.

Layden, M.A. (1999). Testimony of Mary Anne Layden, Ph.D.: Hearing before the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, Senate, 106th Congress. Washington, DC.

Marinelli, V. (1999). Not sex work. In D. M. Hughes, & C. Roche (Eds.), Making harm visible: Global sexual exploitation of women and girls, speaking out and providing services.

Parker, J. (1998, August 4). How prosittution works. Portland, OR.

Parker, J. (n.d.). Lola Green Baldwin Foundation: Between the hammer and the anvil: Working with complex post-traumatic stress disorder in a hostile environment. Retrieved from Lola Green Baldwin Foundation:

Thompson, L. L. (2002, November 14). A Christian perspective on sexual trafficking. The Human Rights Challenges of Globalization in Asia-Pacific-US: The Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children . Honolulu, HI, USA.

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