Regulating the GIobal Brothel
by Leah Platt
The American Prospect magazine, Summer 2001
As feminization of migration continues, prostitution becomes
the prototypical global industry. How do we "protect"
On the night of September 10, 1997, Toronto police officers
raided more than a dozen apartments suspected of being houses
of ill repute. Twenty-two women, including the alleged madam,
Wai Hing "Kitty" Chu, were charged on a total of 750
prostitution and immigration-related charges. All of the women
were Asian and spoke no more than a few words of English.
The press accounts of the raid were by turns titillating and
full of moral outrage. According to the San Jose Mercury News,
the women were helpless victims, "pretty, naive country bumpkins"
who were exploited by an international crime syndicate (the U.S.
police collaborated on parallel raids in San Jose). In a piece
for The Toronto Sun, with the lurid headline "Sex Slaves:
Fodder for Flesh Factories," a reporter profiled "Mary,"
a Thai prostitute, who obligingly described her first trick, a
fumbling failure made to sound almost endearing.
It is a familiar story by now: poor, vulnerable women from
Thailand or the Ukraine promised jobs as nannies or models in
Western cities, only to find themselves pressed into service as
prostitutes to pay off travel debts and line the pockets of their
traffickers. As long as the women were portrayed as misled innocents,
it was easy for Toronto readers to sympathize.
But readers' pity quickly turned to anger when it was revealed,
a few days later, that most of the women had known exactly what
kind of work they had been recruited to do. As the Toronto Star
summed up a few months later, "public opinion did an instant
about-face" when police revealed that the women "had
willingly come to Canada to ply their trade; wiretaps caught them
boasting, long distance, about the money they were earning."
Now, the women were considered "hardened delinquents, illegal
immigrants, tawdry, dismissible, selling their bodies of their
own free will."
Nothing became of the initial allegations of labor abuses.
There had been rumors of debt bondage, a form of indentured servitude
that requires migrants to finance their travel expenses (which
are frequently inflated) by working without pay; of confinement;
of shifts that lasted 18 hours. But before these charges could
be investigated, the women were released on their own recognizance
and disappeared from view, dismissed by the media as common whores.
What is it that separates a Thai woman turning tricks in a
cramped Toronto apartment from a Mexican immigrant toiling in
a sweatshop in the suburbs of Los Angeles? Why does the former
draw our scorn, the latter our sympathy? Clearly, many people
react uncomfortably to the idea of sex as just another good that
may be purchased on the open market. Yet for the women who make
their living as strippers, escorts, prostitutes, and porn stars,
sexual activity at the workplace is a job-a repetitive task that
can be as unerotic and downright boring as cutting pork shoulders
on an assembly line or sewing sneakers in a Nike factory. As such,
doesn't sex work deserve the full protection of U.S. Iabor laws?
One reason that sex work doesn't currently benefit from such
labor protections in the United States is that the feminist community,
which is the champion of women's rights in the workplace in many
realms, remains bitterly divided over prostitution. On one side
are the abolitionists, who call prostitution a crime against women,
akin to rape or domestic abuse; on the other side are the pro-choicers,
for whom the rhetoric of victimization is itself demeaning, and
who say that women should be able to do whatever they want with
their own bodies, including renting them out for pay.
The two sides talk past each other, particularly at the extremes.
Prostitutes, the controversial firebrand Camille Paglia has said,
are "very competent, very professional. They look fabulous!
I've always felt that prostitutes are in control of the streets,
not victims. I admire that-zooming here and there, escaping the
police, being shrewd, living by your wits, being street smart."
To Donna Hughes, on the other hand, the director of the women's
studies program at the University of Rhode Island, the idea of
selling a sex act like a trip through the car wash is inherently
degrading, and in practice is often accompanied by rape, intimidation,
and cruelty. "A lot of people don't know what prostitution
is," she told me angrily. "They don't know what it really
takes to have sex with five strangers a day. What most people
know about prostitution is based on myths and misinformation."
But while feminists debate the "sex" part of sex
work-is it degrading or liberating?-they generally ignore the
"work" part. Neither Paglia's paean to the hooker-as-rugged-individualist
nor Hughes's lament for the little-girl-lost captures the often
mundane reality of illicit prostitution: It is a job without overtime
pay, health insurance, or sick leave-and usually without recourse
against the abuses of one's employer, which can include being
required to have sex without a condom and being forced to turn
tricks in order to work off crushing debts. Given that the sex
industry exists and probably always will (they don't call it the
oldest profession for nothing), what should be done about its
SEX WORK GOES GLOBAL
That question was vexing enough when prostitution was primarily
a local issue. But sex work is an increasingly global service.
In the language of international trade, sexual services are commonly
"imported" into places like the United States from the
developing world. Men from wealthy countries frequent the semi-regulated
sex sectors in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Thailand-a phenomenon
known as "sex tourism." And women from countries in
Southeast Asia, Africa, and eastern Europe migrate to the industrialized
world to work in the domestic sex industries. The United Nations
estimates annual profits from the trade in sex workers like the
Thai women arrested in Canada to be $7 billion.
While there are no precise statistics on the number of women
who enter the United States from abroad to work as prostitutes-either
voluntarily as immigrants or involuntarily as victims of trafficking-a
recent report by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) estimates
that roughly 50,000 women and children are brought into the country
by traffickers each year. (This figure includes traffficking victims
who work in brothels as well as those who work in sweatshops and
as domestic servants.)
The crime of traffficking in women has recently attracted
a great deal of attention from policy makers in Congress and the
international community. The European Commission highlighted action
against the "modern day slave trade" as part of its
commemoration of International Women's Day this March. The UN
Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime, which was signed
in December, included a separate protocol on the prevention of
traffficking in women and children.
Here at home, Congress passed the Victims of Trafficking and
Violence Prevention Act in a nearly unanimous vote last October,
a move that President Bill Clinton hailed as "the most significant
step we've ever taken to secure the health and safety of women
at home and around the world." Minnesota's liberal Senator
Paul Wellstone, one of the bill's co-sponsors, said that "something
important is in the air when such a broad coalition of people-including
Bill Bennett, Gloria Steinem, Rabbi David Sapperstein, Ann Jordan,
and Chuck Colson-work together for the passage of legislation."
And what's not to love about a bill that can be dressed up alternatively
as a victory for women's rights, a way to get tough on crime,
and a curb on immigration? As Ann Jordan of the International
Human Rights Law Group puts it, "there is no way that any
politician could say he is opposed to this bill. It was a win-win
bill for everyone." Even the Christian right was satisfied;
Jordan explains that "evangelicals took on trafficking as
one of their big projects" in order to rescue innocent women
from the sin of prostitution.
But in all this self-congratulatory rhetoric about protecting
innocent girls, some of the harder questions never got asked.
What is the distinction between "trafficking," say,
and alien smuggling, or between trafficking and labor exploitation?
According to the CIA report, trafficking "usually involves
long-term exploitation for economic gain," whereas alien
smuggling is a limited exchange-an illegal immigrant pays a smuggler
to be transported or escorted across the border and there the
economic relationship ends.
But in practice the two crimes blend together: Hopeful migrants
often can't afford the price of their passage and arrive in the
country in debt to their smuggler; the smuggler in effect becomes
a trafficker. As migrants try to pay off their loans, they are
often caught in abusive situations, forced to work long hours
in unsafe and unsanitary conditions. The most notorious example
of this mistreatment is the El Monte case, named for a town in
Southern California where 72 Thai migrants were found in 1995
held against their will in a warren of apartments that doubled
as a garment factory. To pay off their travel debts, the migrants
were stripped of their passports and forced to work at sewing
machines for more than 80 hours a week at a negligible wage, surrounded
by barbed wire. After the operation was raided by federal and
state agents, the perpetrators pleaded guilty to indentured servitude
in order to avoid more severe kidnapping charges and were sentenced
to between two and seven years in prison.
The facts of the El Monte case parallel the alleged misdeeds
in the Toronto brothel: The perpetrator helped immigrants enter
the country illegally and the immigrants were forced (either through
violence or because of mounting debts) to work in substandard
conditions for below-minimum wages. But addressing Toronto-type
situations with specific legislation like the Victims of Trafficking
and Violence Prevention Act implies that foreign women working
in the sex industry are different in kind from foreign laborers
in other exploitative industries. There is arguably something
to this implication; sex workers are more susceptible to rape
and other forms of violent degradation. Yet legislation like the
Victims of Trafficking and Violence Prevention Act implicitly
seems to exempt sex workers (and their exploiters) from the labor
laws that already exist to protect them-making them instead subject
to the specific crime of "sex trafficking." Such laws
obscure the fact that for the most part the abuses that afflict
prostitutes are the sort that can befall all migrant workers.
"Prostitutes," writes Jo Bindman of Anti-Slavery
International, "are subjected to abuses which are similar
in nature to those experienced by others working in low-status
jobs in the informal sector." In her 1997 report, "Redefining
Prostitution as Sex Work on the International Agenda," Bindman
argues that mistreatment of prostitutes-everything from arbitrary
arrest and police brutality to pressure to perform certain sexual
acts at work-should not be thought of as hazards of the trade
or as conditions that loose women bring upon themselves but as
abuses of human rights and labor standards.
In other words, rather than design new legislation to combat
the crimes of "sexual slavery" or "trafficking
in women," we should prosecute alien smuggling, trafficking,
debt bondage, and labor exploitation under existing national and
international codes. The International Labor Organization (ILO)
has signed conventions on forced labor (1930), holidays with pay
(1936), the protection of the right to organize (1948), the protection
of wages (1949), and migration for employment (1949), but because
of our intuitive sense that sex work should be marginalized as
immoral and degrading to women, none of these rules has been applied
to the gray market in sexual services. Our well-meaning desire
to "protect" women forces the prostitution industry
underground and out of the reach of established labor statutes.
WHY PROSTITUTES MIGRATE
As hard as life can be for prostitutes who lack formal labor
protections, it is often still harder for migrant prostitutes,
who as both illegal immigrants and participants in an illegal
industry are doubly marginalized. The Network of Sex Work Projects,
an informal alliance of human rights organizations, warns that
the dual "illegality of sex work and migration" allows
smugglers and brothel owners to "exert an undue amount of
power and control" over foreign sex workers. Employers threaten
migrant sex workers with deportation if they inform the authorities
about inhumane labor practices-and even if women could report
their situation, the authorities might not take it seriously.
The migration of sex workers to the developed world is part
of a wider pattern that sociologists call the "feminization"
of migration. Until very recently, most labor migrants were men
who worked in mining, manufacturing, and construction. If women
migrated, they did so under family reunification statutes, often
with children in tow. As industrialized economies become more
service oriented, the jobs available to migrants are increasingly
in the "female" sector, which includes everything from
maids to nannies to exotic dancers. "The latest figures from
the ILO indicate that more than 50 percent of labor migrants are
women," says Marjan Wijers, a fellow at the Netherlands'
Clara Wichmann Center for Women and Law in Utrecht. "But
the economic situation is different now than it was for men a
generation ago. Male migrants entered the formal labor market
through formal channels. They didn't have the most attractive
types of employment," she notes, "but at least they
had work permits. Women have been relegated to the informal sector
in traditional women's work: domestic and sexual services, either
in the sex industry or in arranged marriages. These jobs are often
not recognized as 'work'; there are no labor protections for them,
no access to legal working permits."
Despite the very real conditions of abuse, Wijers is careful
not to call all low-paid female immigrants-or all migrant prostitutes-victims.
For many women now, as has been the case for men for centuries,
migration is a calculated financial decision, with prostitution
seen as a way to make money. Sex work, like providing paid domestic
services and child care, is a way to support family or children
back home or to start a new life in the West. "These women
made a conscious decision to improve their situation through migration,"
Wijers explains. "It is possible that they expected another
job-and of course, no one expects to be held in slavery-like conditions.
But these women are intelligent, enterprising, and courageous.
It is quite a step to leave your family and your security to go
abroad, into a situation where you don't know exactly what to
Wijers has staked out a defensible middle ground between the
strict abolitionists and the prostitution-as-self-expression promoters:
She supports a woman's right to control over her own body, as
well as a prostitute's volition as an economic actor, without
valorizing sex work as a liberating profession. As one of the
chief investigators for a report on trafficking prepared for the
UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, Wijers is one
of the world's foremost experts on forced prostitution, but she
finds the narrative of victimization supported by the United Nations
to be sentimental and overly simplistic. The reality in her native
country, the Netherlands, is more nuanced. "Some of the first
women to come from abroad were from the Dominican Republic and
Colombia," she says. "They were clearly disadvantaged,
recruited in cruel ways, forced into terrible conditions-all the
clichés. But when you have spent some period of time in
a country, you start to make contacts and to organize. Soon these
women were sending for their aunt or their sister- they were organizing
the migration of female friends and relatives. Within a few 'generations'
of migration, this group of women learned Dutch and became more
One of the most reliable studies of sex tourism, conducted
by the ILO in 1998, corroborates Wijers's observations. Based
on interviews with thousands of sex workers in Indonesia, Malaysia,
the Philippines, and Thailand, the report concluded that "while
many current studies highlight the tragic stories of individual
prostitutes, especially of women and children deceived or coerced
into the practice,...many workers entered for pragmatic reasons
and with a general sense of awareness of the choice they were
making." Almost all of the women surveyed said they knew
what kind of work they would be doing before they began; half,
in fact, responded that they found their job on a friend's recommendation.
THE BENEFITS OF LEGALIZATION
In order to use labor laws to protect women in the sex industry,
the legal status of prostitution and its offshoots-brothel keeping,
pimping, soliciting, paying for sex-would need to be re-examined.
After all, the Department of Justice does not ensure minimum wages
for drug runners or concern itself with working conditions in
the Mob. But whether or not we approve of sex work or would want
our daughters to be thus employed, the moral argument for condemnation
starts to fall apart when we consider the conditions of abuse
suffered by real women working in the industry. Criminalization
has been as unsuccessful in dismantling the sex industry as it
has been in eliminating the drug trade and preventing back-alley
abortions. Sex work is here to stay, and by recognizing it as
paid labor governments can guarantee fair treatment as well as
safe and healthy work environments-including overtime and vacation
pay, control over condom use, and the right to collective bargaining.
A decision to re-evaluate the legal status of the sex industry
in the United States would not be without international precedent.
Prostitution is legal (while subject to varying degrees of regulation)
in England, France, and many other parts of Europe. In 1999, Germany
eliminated the legal definition of prostitution as an "immoral
trade," thus allowing sex workers to participate in the national
health insurance plan. Prostitution is also legal in parts of
South America and the Caribbean, and in some counties in Nevada.
Prostitutes' unions have sprung up in Cambodia, Hong Kong, India,
and Mexico, and groups like COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics)
advocate for sex workers' rights in the United States.
In areas where prostitution is legal, brothel keeping-or profiting
from the proceeds of prostitution-remains a crime. Even the Netherlands,
a country notorious for its laissez-faire attitude toward sex
work, legalized brothels only in 1999; and the concern that, as
sanctioned businesses, brothels would sprout up on every street
corner there has proved unfounded. Brothels are now subject to
the same building codes and municipal ordinances as any other
business-including zoning laws that keep brothels contained in
established red-light districts.
As one of the only countries with a fully decriminalized sex
industry, the Netherlands provides the fullest illustration of
how legalization can operate. Amsterdam's red-light district occupies
a maze of narrow streets in the oldest part of the city. Residents
who have no interest in frequenting the sex shops can avoid the
area without inconvenience. Inside the district, which is marked
off with strings of red lights, prostitutes sit in storefront
windows to display their wares (l00 guilders, or roughly $50,
for a 15-minute "suck and fuck"), alongside topless
bars, porn and sex toy shops, and the neon lights of peep show
emporiums. Even in the dead of winter, packs of foreign men gather
in the narrow alleys to gawk and knock on windows. Some of the
women behind the windows look Dutch, but Marisha Majoor, who greeted
me at the Prostitution Information Center's storefront, corrects
this impression. "Most of the blond girls are from other
European Union countries, like Sweden and Germany," she says.
Dutch women, who can work in the comfort of their own homes, don't
bother with the hustle of the red-light neighborhood.
Until last year, Amsterdam's windows were full of illegal
immigrants from Africa and eastern Europe. Brothel and club owners
estimated that between 40 percent and 75 percent of the women
in the red-light district were working illegally. All of that
changed with the legalization of brothels. "Of course,"
says Marieke van Doorninck, a research fellow at the Mr. A. de
Graaf Stichting Institute for Prostitution Issues in Amsterdam,
"brothel owners were technically never allowed to work with
illegal migrants, but the practice was condoned for years. If
an illegal worker was discovered, all that could happen is that
she would be deported and the club owner would be given a fine.
There was no real incentive for the brothel owners to deny jobs
to illegal migrants. Now they can lose their license."
It is possible to support a woman's right to control over
her own body, as well as a prostitute's volition as an economic
actor, without valorizing sex work as a liberating profession.
There are still a few African women working in the red-light
district. Some of them have married Dutch men; others have forged
passports from Italy or Greece, allowing them to work in the European
Union. One landlord, a gray-haired, heavyset man known as Marcel,
owns 20 windows; his "tenants" are mostly from Africa.
He claims that all of his "girls" have legitimate papers
and, when pressed, pulls out a blue binder stuffed with photocopied
passports from Ghana and Nigeria.
The passports may very well be real, but according to van
Doorninck, the working papers could not have been. "In other
lines of work," she explains, "if a boss can show that
there is no person from the EU that can do the job, then he can
hire someone from outside." Farmers, for example, regularly
request allowances for agricultural workers. "But the sex
industry is shut out from this regulation. There is no legal way
for a woman from outside the EU to work in prostitution."
Sex workers are also specifically excluded from the immigration
regulations governing the self-employed. Potential immigrants
from outside the European Union "can apply for working papers
if they show a viable business plan and can prove that they are
capable of taking care of themselves without becoming dependent
on the state," says van Doorninck. "But foreigners who
apply to settle in the Netherlands as self-employed prostitutes
are in principle rejected on the grounds that their activities
do not serve the country's interests."
The women working in Marcel's windows are lucky. Most of the
Asian, African, and eastern-European women left in Amsterdam are
working on the street or in unregulated black-market brothels.
"By making it more difficult for foreign women to work in
legal places, where they have been condoned for ages, they are
forced to leave or to work in an illegal setting," van Doorninck
points out. "In a way, the government stimulates trafficking
by leaving no options for the women who are already here."
The Dutch government's decision to regulate brothels was based
less on morality than on economics. The sex sector had long been
"officially tolerated" (or in Dutch, gedoogt); by legalizing
its activities, the government is able to collect revenues from
licenses and taxes. And from the workers' perspective, legalizing
the sex industry-and thus barring foreign women from working in
licensed brothels-follows from a classic trade-protectionist motive.
Why offer jobs to non-Europeans when there are plenty of women
in Holland and elsewhere in the European Union who are willing
to work in the Dutch sex industry?
Before the change in brothels' status, "there was definitely
tension between Dutch prostitutes and the migrant workers, a competition
over prices," remembers Wijers. "Because the illegal
women had no documents, they were willing to work for less and
Dutch women started to feel uneasy." Foreign women "spoil
the market," the Prostitution Information Center's Majoor
told a team of American and Dutch college students researching
the condition of illegal prostitutes last year. "It makes
you furious when some guy keeps knocking at your door, saying,
'Okay, but a little way down the street, they are only asking
z5 guilders." Majoor, like most of the Dutch women who work
in the sex industry, belongs to the Red Thread, a lobbying group
akin to a union. The Red Thread does not allow illegal migrants
to join. "When a hotel like the Hilton suddenly brings in
an Hungarian pianist who is willing to work for less money, longer
hours, without social insurance, Dutch pianists will complain,"
Wijers notes. "It is the same mechanism in the sex industry
as in other labor sectors."
The Dutch experience with decriminalization suggests that
the reaction of the sex industry to the stresses of globalization
is not unlike that of, say, the garment industry here in the United
States. Domestic workers resent immigrants, who are eager to find
work at any pay and consequently create downward pressure on wages.
Arriving in the country with few resources and little command
of the language, immigrants are often shunted into the informal
economy, which in this case means shady makeshift brothels and
Legalization may be limited in what it can do to reach the
nearly invisible population of illegal migrants who work internationally
in the sex industry. But that's also true of the Victims of Trafficking
and Violence Prevention Act and the protocol included in the UN
Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime. Both of the
latter measures define trafficking as an explicitly sexual crime-an
act of violence against women-rather than as a by-product of an
ever more global marketplace and the increasing feminization of
migration. Any policy that will truly improve the often deplorable
working conditions in the international sex industry must confront
the economic realities of the profession without getting distracted
by the sexual ones.
To those who feel their moral hackles rising at the prospect,
Ann Jordan of the International Human Rights Law Group presents
a compelling analogy: "We don't support a woman's right to
choose because we think abortion is a great thing," she says,
"but because we believe fundamentally that women should have
control over their own reproductive capacity. The same argument
can be made for prostitution. Women who decide for whatever reason
to sell sex should have the right to control their own body"-and
should be assured of basic protection on the job. As with abortions,
we can dream of a day when sex work is safe, legal, and rare.
LEAH PLATT is an American Prospect writing fellow. For more
information on the global sex industry, see links to this article