Gloria Steinem's “feminist approach” to trafficking and prostitution is not shared by all feminists. Many of us do not believe that abolishing sex work will stop trafficking, nor do we think that the two are synonymous. The conflation of sex-work with ‘trafficking' stems from the moralistic assumption that women can never voluntarily choose sex work as a profession and are always ‘trafficked' into it.
This idea has been conclusively challenged by the sex workers rights movement that has tirelessly argued that trafficking (that is induction into the trade through force, coercion or deception) is a crime whereas the exchange of sexual services between two consenting adults is not.
Just as all sex work is not linked to trafficking, all trafficking is also not linked to sex work. While it is certainly true that many women (and children) enter sex-work under violent and exploitative conditions, this is no different from other livelihood occupations in the unorganized sector such as agricultural and domestic work, construction and industrial labour. Ironically, those who demand the abolition of sex work to stop trafficking do not make the same argument for domestic work despite the fact that conditions, wages, working hours, levels of exhaustion are far worse for domestic workers.
It has been repeatedly pointed out that the statistics on `trafficking' have no basis in a rigorous methodology, scientific evidence or primary research. A study undertaken by the Special Rappateur on Violence Against Women demonstrated the extreme difficulty of finding reliable statistics since so much of the activity happens underground. Consequently, ‘trafficking' statistics are derived from figures relating to sex-work, migration and even numbers of “missing persons”. By failing to distinguish between sex-work, migration and trafficking, ‘abolitionists' like Steinem only serve to make the gender-neutral term synonymous with the female migrant.
Ironically, some of the best work on ‘trafficking' in India is being done by the Self Regulatory Boards of the Durbar Mahila Swamanyay Committee (DMSC) which emerged out of the famous STD/HIV Intervention Project (SHIP) in Sonagachi, now an internationally acclaimed model sexual health project. The DMSC considers sex-work to be a contractual sexual service negotiated between consenting sexual adults and demands decriminalization of adult sex-work. If feminists like Gloria Steinem and organizations like Apne Aap want to end trafficking in sex-work, their best bet is to recognize sex-work as labour, support its decriminalization and empower the sex-worker to fight exploitation, coercion and stigma.
Ms Shohini Ghosh is the Professor Zakir Hussain Chair at the AJK Mass Communication Research Centre, Jamia Millia Islamia