Sex Tourism and Trafficking: Not one and the same

Megan Rivers-Moore did her doctoral work on sex tourism in Costa Rica. She is currently a research fellow at the Institute for Women and Gender Studies, University of Toronto

By Megan Rivers-Moore

Latin America and the Caribbean are characterised by a long history of migration into, out of, and within the region. The Caribbean diaspora is surely one of the most significant in the world, marked by complex ties across nations and within families.

(This is one of a series of weekly columns from Guyanese in the diaspora and others with an interest in issues related to Guyana and the Caribbean)

This is the case of those who would be included under the ‘free movement of skilled nationals’ provisions, as well as the working class and poor men, women, and children who move in search of survival and improved life chances. It is within this context of migration and diaspora that we must place discussions of trafficking, a much talked about but often poorly understood topic that is at the forefront of concerns about migration, labour, and sexuality.

A key problem in so many discussions of trafficking was reproduced in an October 15th article in the Stabroek News, titled ‘Sex tourism growing in favoured destinations in Caribbean’, namely, that sex tourism and trafficking are conflated, as if they were one and the same.

The Organisation of American States (OAS) co-ordinator of the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Unit in the Department of Public Security, Fernando Garcia-Robles, reportedly noted that several tourist destination countries in the Caribbean have a growing sex tourism industry, and acknowledged “concerns that the Free Movement of Skilled Nationals in Caricom could result in increased human trafficking.”

Tourists travel to the Caribbean for many reasons, including in search of sexual experiences with local people, sometimes explicitly commercial, sometimes a much more ambiguous exchange of gifts, affection, and sex.

This complex phenomenon is made possible by a variety of factors, including tourism dependent economies, global inequalities of wealth and mobility, and problematic ideas about the race and sexuality of people in the Caribbean.

Sex tourism is not, however, the same as trafficking. Trafficking refers to the use of violence, coercion and exploitation to recruit and transport workers across borders to carry out various kinds of work.

Most crucially, trafficking does not just include sex work, but rather all kinds of labour, including domestic and agricultural, for example. Yet trafficking is often simplistically equated with commercial sex and sexual ‘slavery.’  The use of the term ‘slavery’ so loosely should give us pause, as it is a concept fraught with history and emotion, especially in the Caribbean and Latin America, where it calls to mind the brutalities of the middle passage, plantation economies, and the outright ownership of human beings.

In fact, the little reliable research that has been done suggests that trafficking more often resembles debt bondage, and unfair and exploitative contact labour. There is of course a long history of these kinds of labour practices in the Caribbean as well, but this is an important distinction in terms of how this work takes place within labour markets and their relationships to the global economy.

As last week’s article attests, men, women, boys and girls are all trafficked for many ends to, through, and from the Caribbean region and around the world. Significant numbers of women are indeed coerced into the sex industry, but the conditions of their lives are similar in many ways to the lives of other migrant women who struggle to get by in a world where racialized and gendered inequalities help to structure a lack of viable options and opportunities.
Because of the ways in which trafficking is often mistakenly assumed to mean sexual slavery across border, it is crucial to acknowledge that not all migrant sex workers are trafficking victims.

Sex work is often one of many strategies that women engage in for economic survival and advancement. Because few countries classify sex work as work, women tend to migrate in other immigration categories (for example, on tourist or domestic work visas) and then make their way into the sex industry. Others pay smugglers, often agreeing to      or finding themselves in situations of debt bondage or      indentureship.

One of the consequences of seeing migrant women who work in the sex industry as trafficking victims is that concerns about trafficking can be used for immigration control. By conflating trafficking with sexual slavery, women can be ‘saved’ by deporting them. This allows governments to appear benevolent, it deals with xenophobic fears about immigration, but it also conveniently ignores the massive violations of the human and labour rights of sex workers that take place with impunity throughout the Caribbean and Latin America. One wonders, then, about the wisdom of the OAS focusing on strengthening the capacity of law enforcement officials, immigration officers, judges, and prosecutors. The relationship between sex workers and police has been notoriously difficult in much of the world, and indeed, a great deal of the violence that sex workers face comes from the state. Because of their experiences with state violence, sex workers are not likely to report abuse from clients or management, and most importantly in terms of trafficking, sex workers’ are cautious about voicing their concerns about the use of force or coercion against migrants in the sex industry. This is especially the case when migrant sex workers face deportation upon discovery. These women are unlikely to testify against those who transport undocumented workers, as many trafficking victims who have been ‘saved’ go on to use these same networks in order to cross borders undetected once again.

We must pay attention to the broader conditions that make men, women and children vulnerable to smuggling, deception, and coercion in migrating, including the ever increasing demand for cheap, exploitable labour and the dire economic contexts that make precarious and dangerous choices for survival attractive or unavoidable. By defining sex work as a form of labour, alongside other kinds of labour like domestic and agricultural work in which workers potentially face unjust and unsafe working conditions, we can begin to explore ways of addressing these issues without resorting to fear mongering, alarmist and largely unsubstantiated claims about sexual slavery.

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