Academic journal article Journal of Research in Gender Studies

Migrant Korean Women in the US Commercial Sex Industry: An Examination of the Causes and Dynamics of Cross-Border Sexual Exploitation

Academic journal article Journal of Research in Gender Studies

Migrant Korean Women in the US Commercial Sex Industry: An Examination of the Causes and Dynamics of Cross-Border Sexual Exploitation

Article excerpt

1. Introduction: "It's Not Just Poverty"

Women's participation - both involuntary and voluntary - in the global sex trade is often represented as a problem of the poorest countries. To be sure, severe poverty puts tremendous pressure on individuals to find alternative ways of earning a living; it also further exacerbates the economic vulner- ability of both individuals and of whole communities. This, in turn, creates an undeniable basis for severe forms of labor exploitation, including crossborder sexual exploitation, often referred to as "sex trafficking" (I discuss these terms below). Given the ostensible link between national impoverishment and cross-border sexual exploitation, it is no surprise that many researchers attribute causal significance to poverty as the key force behind the global sex trade and trafficking. Consider, on this point, what Raymond and Hughes (2001) have to say: "Trafficking is precipitated by economic conditions in sending countries. Depressed, stagnant and collapsed economies, high rates of unemployment, women being driven from jobs once held, as in Russia, and desperation to find a living somewhere push women to leave their countries and make them vulnerable to the recruiters and traffickers" (p. 90). Raymond and Hughes are far from alone. Here is a similar argument (and one that has been frequently and approvingly cited by researchers, activists, and policy makers alike1) from the US Agency for International Development (USAED): "Trafficking is inextricably linked to poverty. Wherever privation and economic hardship prevail, there will be those destitute and desperate enough to enter the fraudulent employment schemes that are the most common intake systems into the world of trafficking" (USAID Office of Women in Development 1999, p. 5).

Neither of these (and similar) accounts is wrong. Indeed, it would be foolish to ignore national poverty as a major factor in the global sex trade. However, an exclusive or extremely narrow focus on society-wide poverty is potentially dangerous in that it may lead to an oversimplified conclusion, which is that reducing poverty will automatically diminish, even largely eliminate, the basis for cross-border sexual exploitation. To repeat: I have little doubt that economic growth can be ameliorative. Yet, I also argue that it is only one of many intersecting factors - and, even more, not always the most important one. Some of these other factors are relatively easy to discern. These include: economic inequality between rich and poor, both at the intra-national and international levels (see, for example, Bamer, Okech, and Camp 2014); gender inequality and discrimination, especially in terms of gendered norms and practices that consign women to low-paid or unpaid work in the informal sector (for further discussion, see Heyzer 2002); and governance issues (i.e., decisions involving the allocation of resources and services in a community). In addition, it is fairly clear that other macrolevel factors "such as the impacts of globalization ... and conflicts and environmental disasters" (ADB 2003, p. 5) play a role in increasing vulnerabilities that feed into the global sex trade (also see Nagle 2008; Peerapeng, Chaitp, Chaiboonsr, Kovacs, and Balogh 2012; and Poulin 2003).

There are, in short, clearly a range of factors implicated in the global sex trade, but my intention is not to assess the causal significance of each or to untangle the complex linkages among these and other (macro-level) factors. Instead, I am primarily concerned with understanding the contingent and context-specific aspects of the global sex trade. The reason for this is simple, but important: cross-border sexual exploitation does not affect all countries in a uniform manner. Some poor countries are profoundly affected, others are not. Some middle-income countries are primary sources (Laczko and Danailov-Trainor 2009) while others are major destinations. And, most interesting and perplexing of all, some rich countries continue to be significant sources in the global sex trade. …

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