Contentious Issues in Research on Trafficked Women Working in the Sex Industry: Study Design, Ethics, and Methodology

By Cwikel, Julie; Hoban, Elizabeth | The Journal of Sex Research, November 2005 | Go to article overview
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Contentious Issues in Research on Trafficked Women Working in the Sex Industry: Study Design, Ethics, and Methodology


Cwikel, Julie, Hoban, Elizabeth, The Journal of Sex Research


Trafficking of women and children for work outside their countries of origin in an increasingly globalized sex industry is a significant issue for public health professionals, international law enforcement and human rights agencies, international labor monitors, and groups concerned with women's and children's welfare (Coalition Against Trafficking Woman [CATW], 2003; Human Rights Watch, 2002; Levenkron & Dahan, 2003; Vanderberg, 1997; Watts & Zimmerman, 2002; Zimmerman & Watts, 2003). There are huge profits gained from women trafficked for sex work (WTSW): the turnover, estimated at between $7-10 billion a year, is seen as the best cost/risk-benefit ratio of all criminal activity (Levenkron & Dahan; USAID Office of Women in Development, 1999; U.S. Department of State, 2003). However, the revenues from trafficking reported are "guestimates," because they are based on estimates of the number of transactions between WTSW, clients, and traffickers. Furthermore, Interpol calls trafficking the fastest-growing crime category today (Sulavik, 2003). The profit from trafficked women is vast compared with the $54 million over two years that the U.S. government invested worldwide to try to stop trafficking (U.S. Department of State).

Moving women between countries for the purposes of work in prostitution dates back to Roman and Biblical times and was a major concern among social reformers of the late 19th century who fought against the "White slave trade." However, the nature of contemporary trafficking enterprises has changed both in volume and method. Growth of the internet has provided new methods of recruiting, procuring, and supporting this clandestine movement of people and expanding the demand for exotic or foreign women for sexual services (von Struensee, 2000). Furthermore, 21st century paraphernalia such as the internet and cell phones facilitate communication and organization between source and destination along the trafficking routes. Like fast food, name-brand soft drinks, and sporting goods, "fast sex" has taken full advantage of the nature of our cyber-world to market women's and children's sexual services by generating a supply of women, generally from economically disadvantaged countries, who work illegally in foreign countries to meet this demand. Thus, the former "White slave trade" today has a wide variety of trafficking routes from diverse source countries and to many destinations, and with various modes of transportation (plane, boat, foot, etc.).

The scope of human trafficking is hard to measure, but it is estimated that from 700,000 to 2 million women (United Nations [UN], 2000), with some estimates as high as 4 million women and children, are trafficked across borders to work in the sex industry each year (Estes & Weiner, 2001; Raymond, 2001; U.S. Department of State, 2002). Estimating the numbers of WTSW is difficult since not all of those trafficked for prostitution were recruited for this occupation. Although most of the women and children are recruited for work in prostitution, sex tourism, or the mail-order-bride business (Watts & Zimmerman, 2002), many are trafficked to work in the garment industry, to join family members, or to work in domestic services; but they may find themselves pressured to provide sexual services as part of their duties (Richard, 1999). At the destination, some women are duped into sex work, and others voluntarily leave low-paying, dead-end jobs for the lure of higher-paying opportunities in prostitution.

Despite the disparities of these estimates, no data source gives details on how these "guestimates" were derived (Kelly, 2002). Accurate estimates are difficult to obtain because the movement of people occurs almost completely in secret. For each person who comes to the attention of border police, immigration, or health or welfare services, there are probably 10 to 20 persons who do not; thus, they remain an invisible labor force.

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