Trafficking, Demand and the Sex Market

Lin Lean Lim (International Institute for Labour Studies, International Labour Organization), “Trafficking, Demand and the Sex Market” Paper presented at the International Symposium on Gender at the Heart of Globalization, Paris, March 2007.


Trafficking in persons has emerged high on international, regional and national agendas as a forced labour issue involving particular supply-demand factors in imperfect labour markets at origin and destination. The ILO defines forced labour as all work or service that is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered herself or himself voluntarily. Forced labour involves violation of human rights and restriction on human freedom, slavery and slavery-like practices, debt bondage and servitude. Women and men, girls are boys are trafficked, but gender, socio-cultural and market biases determine the type and severity of forced labour in different sectors. The ILO estimated in 2004 that 2.45 million people in forced labour had been trafficked across international boundaries. Of these about 43 per cent had been destined for sexual exploitation, and a third for economic exploitation. Of those trafficked for prostitution, 98 per cent were women and girls.

Until recently, efforts to tackle trafficking tended to focus on the supply side with measures aimed at addressing the conditions, in particular poverty and unemployment, that drive people to leave their home in the first place. Attention has now shifted to the demand side of trafficking, in particular the demand for trafficked persons’ services in the sex market.

The presentation emphasizes that trafficking should not be conflated with prostitution and that a “prohibitionist” or “abolitionist” approach to end demand in the sex market is not an effective solution to tackle trafficking. It examines demand and the demand side of trafficking and the particular characteristics of the market for commercial sexual services, including the economic and social bases of the market. The challenge we face is to address the real root causes of trafficking – the reasons why people migrate and are trafficked and the reasons why other people are able to traffic them. It is not enough merely to regulate the sex market; we need to address the areas of vulnerability. At the same time, the related – and perhaps more difficult – challenge is to place the respect for and protection of human rights at the centre of all measures to combat trafficking and to disentangle human rights concerns from morality biases concerning prostitution.

Full text available here.

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