Counting the victims: The politics of numbers in anti-trafficking campaigns

Numbers hold a fascination that borders on the irrational sometimes. Their simple mention turns hypothetical conversations into fact-based statements, triggering the you-can’t-deny-it effect. The link between the right numbers and the irrefutable reality they allegedly reflect works to bolster viewpoints and functions as the ultimate test of the work of evidence. To mention numbers is to halt conversations mid-sentence and present one with the naked truth: genocides are called by name when the right numbers are attached to killings and a humanitarian crisis is not a crisis unless numerically proven to be so.

It is no wonder, then, that human rights organizations rely on numbers to bring evidence and tell stories of human rights violations. Yet numbers, like stories, function affectively to represent reality. They do not merely reflect a sociopolitical phenomenon. They also produce the very phenomenon they represent, creating new realities and ways of understanding the world. Like stories numbers work emotionally, they are “what moves us” and “what makes us feel”; they “circulate and generate effects,” bringing people together and against one another.

The politics of numbers is at the center of the alleged humanitarian crisis of the traffic in women. The simple mention of high numbers of trafficked victims or survivors breathes new life into the anti-trafficking activist cause. To be clear, I am not arguing here that the traffic in women does not qualify for the name of “humanitarian crisis” or that activists make dishonest use of numbers. I am rather interested in the ways in which numbers are given, contested, and take on a life of their own in activist circles. My argument is that numbers are too easily mobilized with little understanding of what they mean and the effects they have for feminist politics.

Governmental and non-governmental anti-trafficking organizations cite the high numbers of sex trafficked women to justify rescue campaigns worldwide and to justify the large amounts of anti-trafficking governmental funding. The Polaris Project in Washington DC, a group that works closely with the U.S. Department of State, estimates that 100,000 children enter the sex industry in the United States each year, while the U.S. State Department places the global number of trafficked persons at 27 million. USAID estimates that there are between 12 and 27 million trafficked persons worldwide. The 2013 Traffic in Persons Report, issued annually by the U.S. Department of State, puts the number of survivors at 46, 000 out of the 27 million trafficked persons believed to exist worldwide.

Responding to these numbers and drawing attention to the illicit character of the phenomenon, many international organizations, including the United Nation, have declared such accounts unreliable. According to the UNESCO Bangkok office Trafficking Statistics Project, trafficking statistics circulated in media and scholarship are “false” and  “spurious”:

“When it comes to statistics, trafficking of girls and women is one of several highly emotive issues, which seem to overwhelm critical faculties. Numbers take on a life of their own, gaining acceptance through repetition, often with little inquiry into their derivations. Journalists, bowing to the pressures of editors, demand numbers, any number. Organizations feel compelled to supply them, lending false precisions and spurious authority to many reports.”

Numbers circulated liberally in mass media and governmental press releases have enabled the mobilization of a strong anti-prostitution coalition made up of anti-prostitution feminists (the so-called neo-abolitionists), evangelical Christians, and anti-trafficking activists. Under John Ashcroft, the Department of Justice spent approximately 100 million dollars a year to fight trafficking both inside and outside the United States. Between 2001 and 2008, the United States has channeled about $528 million into anti-trafficking assistance overseas. USAID alone has provided $123.1 million in assistance to more than 70 countries in the time period mentioned above. In 2011, the U.S. State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat the Trafficking in Persons allotted $16 million in foreign assistance. In 2012, the sum rose to $64 million in assistance for 70 countries.

Fueled by this wealth of resources, numerous nongovernmental organizations have mushroomed throughout the U.S., embarking on humanitarian campaigns to stop the traffic in women. During the Bush administration, evangelical Christian groups received large sums of anti-trafficking funding. Citing the high numbers of trafficking victims, such groups spread their missionary work throughout the world finding yet another opportunity to disseminate their version of Christianity, this time under the guise of the struggle against trafficking and for women’s rights.

It is impossible to know the exact numbers of trafficked victims and survivors because of the complexity and illicit character of the trade. What is called human trafficking is, in effect, an amalgamation of distinct but related phenomena: migration, work, the globalization of capital, the emergence of the virtual space and its subsequent incorporation into the capitalist means of production, and the expansion and overall transformation of the sex industry. To talk about millions of trafficked persons is to simplify and misread the socioeconomic conditions that enable the forward movement of the capitalist machine. The impressionistic mention of numbers merely sustains the rhetoric of abolition, naturalizing what would appear otherwise to be the coercive actions of brothel raids and imprisonment of sex workers.


(Image Credit: UN SDG Action Campaign)

Labor, Migration, and the Movement to Stop the Traffic in Women

The traffic in women (or sex trafficking, as it is usually called) has gained central attention in the humanitarian world of nonprofits and nongovernmental organizations. The emergence of sex trafficking as the ultimate humanitarian crisis has led to an uncritical, melodramatic discourse. Governmental and non-governmental organizational rhetoric posits women and children as the main protagonists in a tale of capture, rescue, and redemption. Slogans such as “Free the slaves,” “End slavery,” and the authenticity-promising  “Sex trafficking through the eyes of survivors,” prod audiences to learn about human trafficking and embark on rescue campaigns, by donating to anti-trafficking causes or by founding anti-trafficking NGOs.

Human trafficking (sex trafficking included) is a serious problem. What is unrealistic and uncompassionate is anti-trafficking activists’ presentation of trafficking in a political and economic vacuum, and the resultant erasure of capitalist socioeconomics, including labor migration and trade globalization. The Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers (APNSW) sums up the problem best: “Don’t talk to me about sewing machines. Talk to me about workers’ rights.” The slogan refers to the frequent brothel raids undertaken by western humanitarians, raids that result in the so-called rehabilitation of sex workers as employees in the textile industry. Rejecting their easy subsumption under the logic of capitalist accumulation, sex workers mobilize the language of rehab only to reinvest it with their own struggles as workers and women living in deeply racialized and inequitable local and global economies. The APNSW re-channels the trafficking conversation into debates about labor exploitation, in the process recognizing sex work as a legitimate part of the labor sector, as well as situating human trafficking in the broader context of work migration.

So who are the sex trafficked? According to most anti-trafficking activists, the story is simple: the sex trafficked are non-western women and children coming from poverty-stricken places and desperate to move west for a better life. Enter pimps, traffickers, and organized criminal groups who pry on desperation and poverty. The poster child of anti-trafficking campaigns is the naïve and innocent young woman or girl — unfamiliar with capitalist transactions and ignorant of the perils of immigration — beaten into prostitution, her body a living testimony to the cruelty and inhumanity of the sex industry. The reality of migration is messier and less straightforward. As scholars and activists Laura Augustín, Jo Doezema, Kamala Kempadoo, among others, have shown, women migrate for a variety of reasons (poverty being only one of them) and go through a variety of situations that rarely resemble the absolute captivity envisioned by mass media.

The easy equation of sex trafficking and sex work jeopardizes anti-trafficking initiatives. Sex workers, not anti-trafficking activists, are more successful at fighting forced prostitution. The Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee in Sonagachi, the largest red-light district in Kolkata, India, is a network of sex workers who take upon themselves to locate underage sex workers or those workers who are in the trade against their will. Committee’s success in removing sex workers forced into prostitution should represent a lesson for the anti-trafficking movement. Despite evidence to the contrary, however, anti-trafficking scholars and activists  continue to discount sex workers as reliable allies in the fight against human trafficking.

The misguided conflation between trafficking and prostitution has had serious effects on AIDS prevention programs. The U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR requires all organizations that receive PEPFAR funding to oppose prostitution and trafficking, both seen as equally oppressive. This anti-prostitution pledge has had negative effects, such as forcing the closure of AIDS prevention programs geared towards sex workers. In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the provision as unconstitutional.

Equally pernicious are the law enforcement and rescue paradigms that characterize current approaches to sex trafficking. In 2004, the U.S. Secretary of State, the Secretary of Homeland Security, and the Attorney General created the Human Smuggling and Trafficking Center (HSTC), a center that brings together officers and investigators from the FBI, CIA, and the Homeland Security to combat the traffic in women. The makeup of the Center mirrors the State Department’s punitive anti-immigration approach to human trafficking. The law enforcement approach relies on raids of red light districts and indiscriminate arrests of sex workers. The migrant women rescued during these raids have two options: return to their countries or testify against their so-called traffickers.  Following the 2000 Trafficking Victims Protection Act, Section 103.8, women must also prove that they suffered “severe forms of trafficking” in order to qualify for the T-Visa that enables them to remain in the United States.

Returning to the APNSW, one is puzzled by the exclusion of issues of labor and migration. What would change if activists were to heed the APNSW slogan and consider the rights of women as workers in a globalized capitalist economy. What if anti-trafficking activists acknowledged the fight of migrant women and sex workers for decent work, respect, and social inclusion? While this alternative is unlikely to dominate the anti-trafficking community too soon, the prospect of a justice paradigm centered on labor and migration will continue to inspire migrant workers, sex workers, and their allies.


(Photo Credit: Twitter / Lela Who)