Traffic in Women from the 20th Century to the 21st Century

Traffic in Women from the 20th Century to the 21st Century

Traffic in Women by Emma Goldman is an impressive statement, for a woman of her era, with respect to prostitution and the effects of legislation in managing this social issue. Goldman writes, “There is not a single modern writer on the subject who does not refer to the utter futility of legislative methods in coping with the issue” (19). Today, there are many established organizations that fight against such legislations that continue to harm sex workers’ right to work safely and autonomously. For example, there is the Sex-Workers Outreach Project (SWOP), who supports sex workers with a focus on ending violence and stigmatization, with various chapters throughout the United States. Goldman’s work, as impressive as it is, can be paralleled with Leslie Ann Jeffrey’s Canada and Migrant Sex-Work: Challenging the ‘Foreign’ in Foreign Policy (Canada and Migrant Sex-Work). For instance, in detailing Canada’s response to migrant sex-work, Jeffrey highlights, “new immigration legislation was widely criticized for its focus on security measures over concerns about human rights” (37). While Goldman’s Traffic in Women and Jeffrey’s Canada and Migrant Sex-Work address the same topic from different viewpoints, their main premise to focus on legislation and workers’ rights is comparable. In contrast, Goldman’s essay adopts a radical feminist perspective stressing the importance of eradicating prostitution all together, as opposed to Jeffrey’s decriminalization of prostitution and inclusion of sex workers’ rights, like human rights, into Canadian society. This paper will discuss this argument through a simultaneous analysis of Goldman’s Traffic in Women and Jeffrey’s Canada and Migrant Sex-Work, and will conclude with my own reflections on sex work and how to move forward in a positive direction within a present day context.

In Traffic in Women and Canada and Migrant Sex-Work, even though discussing the same topic, the way Goldman and Jeffrey respectively define prostitution vary significantly. On one hand, Goldman defines prostitution as “a widespread evil that our industrial system leaves most women no alternative except prostitution” (10). However, she does not limit her definition of prostitution to the milieu of the industrial system. Goldman also credits the faults of society for failure to protect young women who engage in sex outside the institution of marriage. Goldman states, “It is altogether the fault of society especially it is the criminal fault of our moralists, who condemn a girl because her first sex experience has taken place without the sanction of the Church” (15). Goldman’s approach to prostitution is a perspective that is expected at the time of publication in the early 1900s since women who were beginning to assert their own rights within society at this time. On the other hand, Jeffrey advocates an entirely different perspective when it comes to defining prostitution. Jeffrey calls attention to the fact that “debates over the issue of prostitution are rarely about prostitutes” (33) and “policy decisions on prostitution, therefore, most commonly reflect concerns to construct and discipline particular identities” (33). With this statement, Jeffrey avoids defining prostitution altogether to eschew socially typing the already marginalized groups by espousing a post-colonial approach. Jeffrey writes, “Instead, I frame the issues [of prostitution] within post-colonial approaches to understanding the construction and maintenance of gendered, racial, and national borders” (33). By framing the issue of prostitution around the construction of gendered, racial, and national borders, Jeffrey is considerate of the fact that sex-workers who are often marginalized are those who are racialized women from non-Western, or underdeveloped countries seeking refuge in the West. As such, the population groups involved in the sex trade that Goldman and Jeffrey draw attention to can be contrasted. Goldman addresses the issue of the sudden emergence of white slave traffic within the States. Meanwhile, Jeffrey focuses on migrant sex workers from the global South. Goldman writes, “Our reformers have suddenly made a great discovery – the white slave traffic” (10). In contrast, while describing the landscape of migrant sex work in Canada, Jeffrey discusses the Westernized image of sex workers in the south. Jeffrey states the following: Some feminists are willing to accept that women from the global North may be choosing to enter prostitution [but] there has been widespread resistance to the idea that women from the South may also be choosing to enter into the sex-trade as the best paid option available to them. (34)

Jeffrey’s approach to sex work introduces the idea that some women are actually deciding to enter the sex trade on their own. This is where Goldman and Jeffrey also differ in addressing the issue of prostitution. While Goldman focuses on the causes of prostitution from a radical feminist perspective, Jeffrey tends to focus on sex workers’ right to work safely and with agency.

From the radical feminist perspective, Goldman tends to focus on the patriarchal structures and institutions as the causes of prostitution thereby removing agency from sex-workers. Goldman asks, “What is really the cause of the trade in women?” (10). For Goldman, the answer is simply exploitation (10). However, it is not the exploitation of women and their bodies but women and their underpaid labour. Goldman writes, “Exploitation, of course; the merciless Moloch of capitalism that fattens on underpaid labour, thus driving thousands of women and girls into prostitution” (10). By adopting this radical feminist perspective and placing blame on patriarchal structures and institutions, Goldman removes agency from sex-workers and focuses on the victimist approach. The victimist approach is defined by Jeffrey as “part of a binary discourse of victim/perpetrator that makes it impossible to talk about migrant sex-workers as rights-bearing individuals who deserve to have those rights respected” (39). Subsequently, in her post-colonial framework, Jeffrey draws attention to sex workers’ right to work safely and autonomously. Jeffrey argues, “trafficking, understood as exploitation within sex-work, occurs because of ignoring sex-workers’ rights to decriminalized and safe working conditions” (34). Thus, there is a fundamental need for sex workers’ who enter the trade autonomously to have their voices heard as opposed to their invisibility to the issue of traffic in women.

Surprisingly, while Goldman and Jeffrey differ in their approach to the issue of prostitution through its definition, population groups, and its causes, both authors correspond with their stance on legislation or legislative methods in combating prostitution or traffic in women. As highlighted in the introduction, Goldman and Jeffrey agree that the answer to changing the horrendous work conditions of sex workers lies in changing legislation. Yet, even in their agreement, one can find differences. For instance, Goldman prefers to have prostitution eradicated all together. In Traffic in Women, Goldman states, “As to a thorough eradication of prostitution, nothing can accomplish that save a complete transvaluation of all accepted values – especially the moral ones – coupled with the abolition of industrial slavery” (19). Meanwhile, Jeffrey stresses the importance of decriminalization of prostitution to focus on the civil, political, and employment rights of sex workers. Jeffrey argues “changing Canadian behaviour – most importantly through the decriminalization of sex work in Canada and the institution of policies that create good working conditions for all sex workers – is a large part of the solution” (33). One might argue that the decriminalization of sex work might lead to more violence and stigmatization against sex workers. Yet, even Goldman agrees that sex workers are more likely to experience violence and exploitation at the hands of those designed to protect society. In describing the collection of extra bribes and fines from the madam of a bawdy house in the 1900s, Goldman draws attention to this seedy revenue collected by police officers as “the blood money of its victims, whom it will not even protect” (16). This focus on victims for Goldman suggests another divergence from Jeffrey in their approach to women in the sex trade.

In Traffic in Women, through the radical feminist perspective and the victimist approach, Goldman focuses on the exploitation of women and girls as opposed to the rights of victims and sex workers. In Goldman’s discussion of child prostitution, she suggests that child labour in general is the first step to prostitution because young girls either have “no home or comfort” or are “in close proximity of the other sex” (15). Again this argument removes agency from women and girls. However, given the time period Goldman was writing in, she is possibly working within the economic systems of oppression to fight for child welfare rights and perhaps better wages for women. The way Goldman and Jeffrey differ here is that Jeffrey empathetically advocates for both the rights of sex workers and victims to prostitution.

In Canada and Migrant Sex-Work, Jeffrey introduces the idea that Canada is playing the role of a “white knight” in combating the issues of traffic in women. This approach, as outlined by Jeffrey, does more harm than it does helping the issue. Jeffrey argues that “the initial impulse behind traffic in women discourse appears to be one of protecting the rights of exploited women” (34). This impulse to protect exploited women and girls is similar to the discourse in Goldman’s Traffic in Women. Jeffrey then highlights that the “white knight” approach assumed by Canada “puts sex-workers at greater risk by strengthening the powers of police to raid sex-work establishments thus pushing the industry further underground and into less and less safe areas” (34). Today, some dispute that without legislation, like the Criminal Code of Canada or anti-human trafficking legislation, it will cause more harm to already exploited women and girls. Jeffrey counters this argument that enacting harmful legislation continues to “strengthen the hand of officials without empowering the women themselves by strengthening the powers of police” (34). So where do this idea that women and girls are being trafficked?

It is hard to isolate exactly when women in traffic starts to become an issue in either time periods. It is evident that through Emma Goldman’s Traffic in Women the issue existed over a century ago but with a focus on white women and a concern for the social conditions of women and girls at the height of the 20th century. Goldman writes, “We must rise above our foolish notions of ‘better than thou,’ and learn to recognize in the prostitute a product of social conditions” (19). For Goldman, these social conditions include, as stated earlier, the possibility of child welfare rights or better wages for women. Today the focus on traffic in women is on women in third world countries causing the issue of traffic in women to be confused with other injustices such as smuggling or other criminal matters like transnational organized crime. Jeffrey writes the following:

While ministers have tended to articulate the issue as violence against women, or an assault on human rights, and government bureaucrats talk about a modern form of slavery, most of the actual policies and programs have been shaped as a response to organized crime with very little in place to support or protect putative victims. (37)
By outlining that there is very little in place to support or protect actual victims of trafficking, Jeffrey indicates that governments should be focusing efforts on other issues, like violence against women or human rights issues. It can be theorized that the issue of traffic in women transform as social conditions for women and girls change.

At the time Goldman’s Traffic in Women was published, Nazism began to become a globalized issue and shortly after, the First World War broke out. As such, with anti-Semitism at the centre of Nazism, there was a focus on the Jewish prostitute migrating to America as indicated by Goldman. Fortunately, Goldman debunks the myth of the Jewish prostitute by outlining that “no one but the most superficial will claim that Jewish girls migrate to strange lands, unless they have some tie or reaction that brings them there” (17). Similarly, Jeffrey’s Canada and Migrant Sex-Work emphasizes the fact the rise in concern for traffic in women in the 21st century began shortly after the 9/11 attacks in the United States. Jeffrey writes: In the post-9/11 era, the current US government is actively seeking closer cooperation with Canada in order to more firmly secure the borders. At the same time it has enacted anti-trafficking policies that permit the American government to upbraid and even punish those countries that fail to live up to its own version of correct anti-trafficking procedures, which includes ensuring that countries in no way encourage prostitution through measures such as decriminalization or legalization. (38)

This indicates, within a present day context, that there is a conflation between traffic in women and women who enter the sex trade autonomously which contributes to the criminalization of women for their choice of work. Even if women do enter sex work because that is the best possible way to make a living, there should not be an amalgamation of these two separate issues. By combining sex work and forced prostitution under one umbrella, there is the invisibility of the injustices that do occur at the hands of authorities or other parties involved to either women who enter the sex trade autonomously or forcibly.

While Goldman and Jeffrey address the issue of traffic in women from different perspectives and in different time periods, they both agree that obstacles to the issue begin with legislation. For Goldman, she prefers to have prostitution eliminated all together. For many, including governments, this is the ideal outcome. Unfortunately, given that prostitution has been around for many centuries and does not look like it will be going anywhere anytime soon, the focus should shift from eradication of prostitution to supporting women and girls who enter the sex trade. One might argue that support is there for women and girls who are rescued from the sex trade. However, this argument ignores the fact that this support for women and girls come with the risk of being criminalized if they do not conform to the victimist ideals. Jeffrey stresses that the “rhetoric of protection of victims can be used to justify harsh security and criminal measures” (37) which contribute to the impression that women are viewed as a risk rather than right-bearing individuals. Consequently, Jeffrey suggests a move towards decriminalization, and for Canada, sex workers’ rights inclusion into Canadian society. With decriminalization, one might argue that this leaves the door open for increased exploitation especially for young girls. However, reasons that young girls who enter the sex trade are incomparable to the reasons for women who enter the trade.

If we continue to focus on the fact that women who enter the sex trade are forced, similar to Goldman, because they need the money, we ignore the real issues at hand. Such issues include rape, assault, or extortion, all of which can be handled under the Criminal Code of Canada without criminalizing prostitution. (Jeffrey 36). This then begs the following questions: Why does society not question minimum wage jobs that women and girls work because “they need the money”? What makes one job more acceptable or deserving of more rights and protection than the other? The continued criminalization of sex workers maintains the ideals that women are incapable of choosing to enter the sex trade instead of drawing attention to harmful legislation. Government policies and legislation should be closely examined as to how and why it continues to harm women and girls. As Jeffrey eloquently states, “Canada needs to look within and address the problems faced by sex-workers and migrant workers, particularly women” (43) and “only then will Canada set a global example on maintaining women’s and migrants’ human rights” (43). The discourse of traffic in women needs to include all voices to avoid causing invisibility of violence against women and girls at the hands of government officials and authorities. More importantly, the discourse of traffic in women needs to focus on dismantling the patriarchal, imperialistic, and paternalistic legislative approaches to prostitution in order to include women and girls as rights-bearing individuals as opposed to individuals who need to be controlled and dominated.

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