The word trafficking is a powerful word that stops normally sensible people from thinking clearly. It is a word that makes sure we are not seen or heard. I’d prefer not to use it.

—Ping Pong, sex worker and Empower coordinator

Empower is a Thai sex worker organization that promotes opportunities and rights for sex workers. From Empower’s beginning in 1985 until about 1997 many of Empower’s leaders and members were women in situations of debt bondage, living and working behind locked doors with no freedom of movement, and unpaid. However, by 1999 these horrendous conditions were almost entirely a thing of the past. Locked brothels, debt bondage, and force had all but vanished. A detailed explanation of why things changed is not possible here, but three major reasons for the dramatic changes are that migrant women could travel more independently, they were no longer limited to living and working in a brothel, and they found ways to organize together.1

The word trafficking, whether in Thai or English, was never used by women to describe their situation. It is a foreign word in every sense. Sex workers in Thailand used words like in debt, forced, rape, smuggler, pimp, owner—words that are precise, define the specific conditions, and are readily understood by the workers and generally by society at large.

Regardless of our reality, in 2001 the words human trafficking fell on top of us from the United States and Europe. It wasn’t long before the word human disappeared and was replaced with sex trafficking, as if they had decided we were not human after all.

The creation of the “rescue industry” reaffirmed the tradition where women of color from poor countries are the victims and white people must protect us—perhaps from our own stupidity and naivete? The idea that a young woman of color with no money and no academic qualifications who does not speak English as a first language can make decisions to protect herself and others from exploitation is deemed ludicrous. Someone more educated, wealthy, and white must intercede to protect us, even, if necessary, protecting us from ourselves. These are the classist, racist, and sexist underpinnings of the antitrafficking framework. Many people, including self-proclaimed feminists in positions of power, happily helped birth the antitrafficking industry, and they continue to profit from it—exploiting the exploitation of prostitution. Foundations, papers, books, conferences, celebrity, and substantial grants have all flowed. They work hand in glove with evangelistic vigilantes, police, immigration, and all other state mechanisms geared to keep people, especially women, in their proper geographic, social, and economic place. The call for decriminalization, like the human rights violations committed in the name of antitrafficking, and the root causes of exploitation are all ignored. The word trafficking is much louder than the words decriminalization and rights; it drowns out the voices of sex workers.

Other new words have been pasted on top of old ones. Arrest is now called “rescue.” Detention is called “shelter.” Deportation is referred to as “reintegration.” Migrant sex workers are now “victims.” Women are not fooled. The real-life brutal experience of being arrested, detained, and deported has not changed, only the vocabulary shifted. This empty gentrification of language does nothing for sex workers, whether exploited or not, trafficked or not.

In the last two decades Empower has written reports, published community research, embroidered a tapestry, made a film, lodged complaints of the harms caused by antitrafficking with the Thai National Human Rights Commission, and petitioned the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). However, it seems that sex workers’ words are not as important as those used by antitraffickers. Sex workers, including migrant sex workers in Thailand and around the world, continuously highlight the need to remove criminal laws against prostitution. In other words, decriminalizing sex work is a vital step in ending the exploitation of sex workers. Despite sex workers providing mountains of testimony and evidence, the shift to decriminalize sex work continues to move at a snail’s pace. Our other solutions—such as building stronger state welfare systems, access to independent migration, improvement on labor protection for sex workers—are obliterated by the single word trafficking.

The word trafficking has a wide reach. It papers over the everyday exploitation of all workers. Authorities claim to be busy fighting trafficking and rescuing sex slaves, while demands for fair wages, better hours, and social benefits pale into insignificance. Who could be against such demands?

After twenty years of trying to be heard over the shrill screaming of the antitrafficking zealots and political shamans, whenever we hear the word trafficking we feel a deep sense of dread and exhaustion. Dread because we know that it means once again the lives of women doing sex work are being turned upside down and destroyed by entrapment, arrest, detention, and deportation. Made worse when the perpetrators insist it is called “rescue.” Exhaustion because we have said everything we have to say, in so many ways and in so many different spaces, that we don’t know what else we can say or do to be seen, heard, and given leadership of our struggle against exploitation in our industry.

Note

1.

For a full explanation of these changes, see Collateral Damage: The Impact of Anti-Trafficking Measures on Human Rights around the World (Bangkok: Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women, 2007), https://gaatw.org/resources/publications/908-collateral-damage-the-impact-of-anti-trafficking-measures-on-human-rights-around-the-world.