Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Watch Your Language

When we are working in and around the issue of sex trafficking, there is a tendency, particularly in conservative circles to moderate our language. I am not talking about using foul-language, rather; I am talking about calling things what they really are. In a world of high-sensitivity, we have lost our ability to call things by their true name.

Granted, progress in society removes ethnic slurs and insensitive labels, of which I am wholly in support. Yet, in this movement, there is a distinct sense that much of what needs to be dragged into the light has remained hidden, particularly in regard to sex trafficking.

Let me give you some examples. In Japan, prostitution has been disguised as 'compensated dating'. In the 1990's, the term 'prostitute' was replaced with 'sex worker'. This was an attempt to restore dignity to the women engaged in this activity, but the result was much more complicated. Even in the US, we have gone to using the term 'trafficking-in-persons', which is gender neutral. Given that this was to have a single term for both labor and sex trafficking, it eludes the force of the fact that sex trafficking is a gendered activity that transports female victims into prostitution.

Instead of the old 'Madonna-whore' dichotomy, we inherited a new dichotomy of 'prostitute-trafficked victim' - the former gives the idea that a prostitute is one who has voluntarily engaged in selling her services, over and above the one who is exploited and victimized. This is a dangerous precipice that we need to carefully maneuver around. We need to call things what they are and observe what those terms mean.

Let's look at a few more examples of this term changing and how it influences our understanding. In many countries, 'brothel' has been replaced by 'hostess bar', 'gentlemen's club', 'bunny ranch', or 'entertainment center' - all of which negate the fact that sex is being sold for profit. Also missing from this new terminology is the link between voluntary and vulnerable. What we assume is a girl just trying to make a living and a girl that is being exploited based on her circumstances is a fine line.

Trafficking, particularly sex trafficking has been deemed under a softer term 'migration' or even as late as 2002, as 'facilitated migration' (see Network of Sexwork Projects, 2002). The result of this new terminology is an often naive attempt to be sensitive to the victims or the audience that is involved. Other times, it is an outright effort to disguise the fact that sex trafficking is simply globalized prostitution - plain and simple.

1 comment:

  1. James - your sight looks wonderful! I'm so encouraged by what you guys are doing. My husband and I just watched a documentary, Trade, about the sex-traffic industry into the US, it was very difficult to watch. Just wanted to pop in and say hi! My friends and I are planning a trip to China, Thailand, and Cambodia in a little over a year... I would love to meet with you and see what you guys are doing...Hope all is well!


    Tovah Means (From Thailand!!)