Year Published: 2013

Sally Engle MerryResearch & Action Report, Fall/Winter 2013

By Sally Engle Merry, Ph.D.

Trafficking is one of the hottest topics in the global reform world these days, but it is increasingly unclear what is meant by “trafficking.” It is often hard to know who is trafficked and even more difficult to count these populations. Moreover, simply identifying trafficked victims and traffickers is difficult; for purposes of this article, I will be discussing issues related to women only. A woman may migrate in search of a job and end up doing sex work in exploitative conditions. A migrant may intend to take on one kind of work and find herself in another, or go back and forth between sex work and other forms of work depending on circumstances.

There are multiple organizations active in this global terrain, many of which hold quite different views about what trafficking is; predictably, their solutions also vary widely. Many anti-trafficking groups conceptualize the movement of people as similar to the movement of drugs and organs. They focus on prosecuting the organized crime figures behind the illegal circulation of people and things. The U.S. State Department, which has taken a leading role in the antitrafficking movement, now says mobility is not necessary: trafficking is really about exploitative labor. For the last 12 years the State Department has published Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP Report), an annual report on global trafficking and many of the worlds’ governments’ response to it. Since 2001, the State Department has changed the way it describes trafficking—from sex trafficking to labor trafficking to slavery. At the same time, human rights groups see trafficking as a denial of a victim’s human rights that requires attention to their protection. And evangelical Christian groups see trafficking as a dimension of prostitution, a violation of women from which they need to be rescued.

Sex Trafficking or Labor Trafficking?

Whether trafficking refers only to the movement of women into commercial sex or the broader process of exploitative labor conditions is still unsettled, although there is a tendency to expand the definition from sex trafficking to labor trafficking. Within feminism, there is a fierce debate about the nature of sex trafficking and what should be done about it. One view opposes all prostitution as inherently degrading to women and therefore seeks to abolish prostitution as well as coerced movement into prostitution. This group, the abolitionists, views prostitution itself as a form of violence against women; this is the position most often held by radical feminists and evangelical Christians working in the field.

The other argues that commercial sex work is a form of labor that should be legalized so that sex workers can benefit from the kinds of protection due to all workers—such as improved conditions of labor. This position is often advocated by public health workers seeking to protect sex workers and their clients from sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/ AIDs as well as labor rights activists. This is a position in tune with liberal theories of individualism and autonomy, in that it recognizes the possibility of agency but retains a protectionist perspective with regard to coercive labor conditions.

The two international coalitions of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working on sex trafficking reflect these different views. The Coalition Against Trafficking in Women condemns prostitution as a violation of women’s bodies, persons, and rights, while the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women sees it as a form of work and advocates better working conditions and protections.. While feminists occupy both sides of this divide, the former tends to include conservative and religious groups and the latter public health advocates. A third approach argues that the harm of prostitution is the product of moral condemnation and criminalization of the activity, and that decriminalization and a human rights framework that includes migrant and labor rights is preferable.

Research, Governance, and Intervention Implications

My research into trafficking focuses on the question of how knowledge is created and how it affects governance. I began my research on trafficking with a background in the study of violence against women. Indeed, concern about sex trafficking grows out of the battered women’s movement. For example, the U.S. government’s effort to stem global trafficking, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) of 2000, was attached to the Violence against Women Act. Like the broader movement against violence against women, the U.S. initiative focused on prosecution rather than prevention or repair. Although the TVPA and the office it created in the U.S. State Department, the G/TIP Office, emphasizes prosecution, protection, and prevention, its major focus is prosecution. Ironically, the focus on prosecution often ends up making the lives of victims more difficult, since they are essential as witnesses for a successful prosecution and may be held in shelters until the trafficker can be found and prosecuted. Even countries, such as the U.S., Sweden, and Australia, which offer limited opportunities for victims to stay in the country into which they have been trafficked, offer this benefit under the condition of cooperating with the criminal justice system. For victims who are frightened or intimidated, this is clearly a tough requirement. There has been a sustained critique of the criminalization model for managing domestic violence; I argue that such a critique is also appropriate for much of the intervention on trafficking.

There are other ways of approaching the trafficking problem besides criminalization. Many of the prominent U.S. anti-trafficking groups, inspired by secular feminism and Christian evangelism, use the language of “freedom” to stage rescues from brothels and restore women to their families where they can be rehabilitated as workers. After rescues, traffickers can then be arrested and prosecuted. For faith-based organizations, particularly evangelical Christian groups, the goal of rescue is to do “good work for God,” for one’s own spiritual growth, and to seek justice for the violently oppressed and suffering poor. One of the most active organizations is the International Justice Mission (IJM). The G/TIP Office named IJM’s director, Gary Haugen, a TIP Report hero in the 2012 TIP Report, crediting him with assisting nearly 4,000 victims of sex trafficking and forced labor since 2006, leading to more than 220 criminal convictions and hundreds of ongoing trials.

Other social scientists’ work, as well as my own research in India and that of my graduate student Vibhuti Ramachandran, makes clear that raids are difficult, women do not always wish to be rescued, and many escape from the shelters where they are held pending return home, rehabilitation, and/or testifying against traffickers. In India, such raids are typically conducted by the police with NGO representatives present to provide counseling for the victims, which often means encouraging them to testify against their traffickers. Rescue homes may hold women in prison-like conditions to prevent their return to sex work and to be sure they will testify against their traffickers. Although ideally they are repatriated, it may be difficult to persuade other countries to take them back, and it sometimes means sending women back to places they sought to escape. In Kolkata (Calcutta), for example, I was told that it was difficult to repatriate Bangladeshi women across the border because the government is uncooperative about receiving them. We have little information about the rehabilitation dimensions of rescue work because such women typically disappear. Even if repatriated to another country, many return, usually because of the same pressures that drove them to move in the first place. This tendency to return does not mean that these women would not prefer a different kind of work, but it may be that sex work is the best available option.

My research on trafficking began from the question of measurement and knowledge: how can we count how many trafficking victims there are and how widespread the problem is? It is clearly always difficult to gather good data on illegal behavior. But an additional hurdle is the ambiguous definition of trafficking itself, which as we have seen is varied and changing over time. There is currently a war of numbers, with advocates offering larger and larger numbers of victims, often with very little empirical basis. A new index on global slavery has just been released which describes the problem of slavery country by country as large and widespread. Large numbers, particularly coupled with the idea of slavery or sexual violation, elicit public concern, activism, and probably funding.

But, as my research shows, there is also a war of definition. Various groups define trafficking quite differently. Ironically, this ambiguity explains why it is so important to pay attention to what is counted and how the numbers are gathered. It is in the act of naming the problem and providing data to describe it that a social problem comes to exist and be recognized. Right now there are several competing definitions and numbers. As we have seen, the definition of the problem—its name, its framing—has very significant implications for what we do about it. So it is critically important to understand how systems of measurement are working to pin down trafficking if we are to develop an accurate understanding of what is happening and develop appropriate and effective policies to promote change for individuals and for societies.


Sally Engle Merry, Ph.D. is a Silver Professor of Anthropology and of Law and Society at New York University (NYU)—recognized for her outstanding research scholarship at NYU—and a Senior Scholar at the Wellesley Centers for Women. Her work explores the role of law in urban life in the U.S., in the colonizing process, and in contemporary transnationalism. Widely published, she edited The Practice of Human Rights: Tracking Law Between the Global and the Local with Mark Goodale, Ph.D., (Cambridge University Press, 2007) and is currently working on a new book, The Seductions of Quantification.

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