KASAMA Vol. 16 No. 3 / July-August-September 2002 / Solidarity Philippines Australia Network


The following is the transcript of the workshop paper presented by SHEILA JEFFREYS at the Symposium on Stopping the Traffic in Women for Sexual Exploitation.

THERE has been a surprising development in the 1990s whereby trafficking in women for prostitution has been de-linked from prostitution. There's been the development of this idea that somehow prostitution itself can be separated off as a separate area - a 'protected zone' so that trafficking for prostitution is a problem but prostitution itself is not a problem. What I suggest to you in this paper is that actually the first cause of the trafficking in women for prostitution, is prostitution - and the first cause of prostitution is men's privilege in systems of domination to feel that they have and can buy the right to enter the bodies of women and children at will. Therefore I find it very difficult to talk about trafficking of women into prostitution without mentioning male domination and the construction of that masculine privilege. Although I do know that it's polite not to mention the connection, and it's particularly polite in Australia not to mention it, because we have a system of legalised prostitution in Victoria and in many states within Australia.

Those of you who are from Victoria are probably aware that brothel prostitution was legalised in 1984 and that the idea and understanding at the time was that legalisation would control and decrease the illegal sex industry in Victoria. That didn't happen. Presently there are about 100 legal brothels and, according to the adult industry association, there are 300 illegal brothels in Victoria - which is extraordinary in a system of control that was established to regulate and decrease the illegal trade.

And, as we heard today, trafficked women are actually sold into legal brothels and of course they are also sold into the 300 illegal brothels that exist in Victoria. So I would suggest that there is a problem with the system of regulation of prostitution in this state. It does look as if it is not the best form of regulation of prostitution to deal with trafficking.

Victoria legalised prostitution very early, but there is now a push on to legalise prostitution in many countries of the world as a result of the pressure of sex industrialists and free market economics. Free market economics - as we've been hearing today, can sell anything, including the insides of women's bodies. The underlying philosophy of free market economics is liberal individualism. All this fuels legalisation. I think that there's a weariness about how to deal with the acknowledged very serious harms to women as a result of prostitution. They're becoming so clear, they're becoming so many and the industry and the harms are becoming so horrific on a global scale that I think people are just demoralised into thinking that there is simply nothing we can do about it.

So, I'll start with a bit of history. In my book "The Idea of Prostitution", I talk about the feminists who worked between the two world wars through the League of Nations against the trafficking of women. The end of the 19th and the early 20th centuries was the first time the trafficking of women was really recognised as a problem. The shape of trafficking was in some ways different from what is happening now. Trafficking at that time was a result of the developments in transport; the steam ship for instance was important, there were pogroms - Jewish women escaping from pogroms being wrapped up in rolls of carpet and trafficked to Buenos Aires, and Russian women were being trafficked into China after the famine in Russia in 1921. There were particular factors at that time that led to particular groups of women being trafficked.

Amazingly, trafficking was actually included in the peace settlement, The Treaty of Versailles, after the first World War, through which the League of Nations was set up. It was remarkable that there was such concern at the time about the trafficking in women. It really shows the size of the problem. A committee, chaired by a woman, was set up on the trafficking in women - the title was later changed to trafficking in persons - and feminists worked through this committee for 20 years. The result of that work was the construction of the 1949 United Nations Convention against the Trafficking of Persons and the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others.

The result of their work, because it was delayed by the second world war, was eventually a United Nations Convention. Australia did not sign it, the Netherlands did not sign it, the U.K. did not sign it. And a main reason that these countries did not sign it, was that it did not actually say that the definition of trafficking required the element of force. The framers of that Convention understood that whether women knew what the traffickers intended for them on arrival or not, the conditions into which they were delivered would be harsh i.e. not speaking the language, under control and violence of traffickers with nowhere to turn, so that 'consent' was not crucially important. Interestingly, we have just got a definition through the Protocol on Trafficking of the United Nations Convention on Transnational Organised crime (2000) where, once again as in the 1949 Convention, the demonstration of force is not required. We've come to that point 50 years later where we've now got a new definition of trafficking in a UN Convention which I think is going to be very helpful to those who are fighting the traffic in women.

What is interesting about the work of feminists in those 20 years through the League of Nations was that they did huge research projects on trafficking and concluded that brothel prostitution was fundamental to the trafficking of women. They said that brothels were used to warehouse the trafficked women. They were stored in the brothels and used in the brothels on route; very much like what Liz Kelly was talking about today. So brothel prostitution was crucial. Therefore the 1949 Convention not only says that prostitution in general is against the dignity of women, but also that brothel prostitution specifically must be outlawed. And it was to be outlawed through the prosecution of the exploiter who owned the brothels. There was no criminalising of the male customers in that convention, or of the prostituted women. So really the systems of regulation of prostitution were fundamental to the construction of that Convention. It was understood by those feminists working against trafficking that brothel prostitution was totally implicated in the trafficking of women and was fundamental to the continuance of that trafficking. That led to a Convention to outlaw brothel prostitution.

In the 1950s and 60s brothel prostitution was indeed outlawed in many countries, particularly in France, which had been particularly resistant on this issue. In India of course, Ghandi was involved in working against brothel prostitution in India. So the eradication of brothels was understood in the 50s & 60s to be a government responsibility.

The picture changed. It changed particularly in the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s with several developments taking place. I suggest to you that one of the developments was the sexual revolution which is actually founded on the values of the sex industry. The sexologists developed their understanding of what is women's pleasure and how sex should be done from the sex industry. Masters and Johnson did research with prostituted women who were hired to get erections in drunken men who were otherwise impotent. Our understanding of sex is developed out of the sexual revolution. It came from the sex industry and from pornography. Many sexologists talked about going into the brothels and what they learned from the brothels.

So that's where a sexual revolution understanding of sexuality came from. The sexual revolution normalised prostitution and the sex industry as simply being what 'sex' was. In the 1980s and 1990s there was a big push from the developing global sex industry to normalise and legalise prostitution and brothel prostitution. In 1998 the International Labour Organization published a report called "The Sex Sector" on prostitution in 5 Asian countries and they pointed out that at that time the prostitution industry economically was responsible for 2 to 14% of the gross domestic product in those countries. The ILO report "The Sex Sector" was basically saying, "you can't fight it, it's an important economic sector, we simply have to accept this". So we've now got the International Labour Organization, which is a human rights organisation, taking the position that prostitution is a perfectly ordinary economic sector. We have come a long way from the earlier understandings of the problems of trafficking for prostitution.

What happened in the 1990s is that some NGOs and some UN personnel sought to separate trafficking from prostitution, as we were told today. Some people said "it should come under people smuggling". Some people said we should "talk about the trafficking of everybody", and "prostitution is just one of those things and we don't need to specifically mention it". But of course we do need to specifically mention it, because it is the actual insides of women's bodies that are being entered in prostitution. And I think it is different from the garment trade, for example. I think there are a lot of differences between trafficking for prostitution and trafficking for the garment trade.

What can we do about it? There's been this big campaign to separate off trafficking from prostitution so that we don't look at the system of regulation of prostitution. Particularly in Victoria we're not supposed to do so. But we have legalised brothel prostitution here and that system leads to increased trafficking.

I'd like to give you a couple of examples of other countries where they use different systems of regulation to see if whether they may offer some alternative models. In the Netherlands until 2 years ago there was de facto legalisation of brothels. Brothels were not officially legalised but the prostitution industry was very much accepted and normalised in the Netherlands. The vast majority of women in the windows in Amsterdam and in brothel prostitution in Amsterdam are trafficked women.

It is in fact out of the Netherlands that, interestingly enough, the most significant ideological push to get prostitution recognised as simply work, as simply choice, and separate it from trafficking, has come. In the Netherlands, the concern about trafficking led to the formal legalisation of brothels which took place in 2000. Behind it was the idea that trafficking was pulling down the wages and the conditions of women from the Netherlands in prostitution.

What seems to have happened as a result of the actual formal legalisation of brothel prostitution, which says that those who work in brothels must have work permits for the Netherlands, is that brothel prostitution is being restricted to citizens. The trafficked women cannot be in the brothels any more. And the brothel owners are very cross because they cannot get enough women to sell. The trafficked women have been reduced to working in street prostitution where they are very much more under the control of their pimps and receive more abuse and violence as a result. So though in theory it was a development that was actually going to help deal with the problem of the traffic in women, to reduce the numbers that are trafficked, it has not achieved that. The trafficked women are put into different contexts such as carparks on the outskirts of the city which have become tolerated zones for street prostitution with men queuing up in their hundreds to abuse them. They are more exploited and more vulnerable than they were in the brothels themselves. So restricting brothel work to certain nationalities does not necessarily reduce trafficking. There needs to be a reduction in men's prostitution behaviour. Men's demand to use women needs to be decreased.

Sweden has a very different approach. Liz Kelly mentioned this earlier. The Swedish model, which is likely to be followed by other countries in Scandinavia, was developed in a country in which women have 50% of the places in Parliament and women have more formal equality than in any other country probably in the world. I'm not suggesting to you that formal equality is the answer. After all where there's a man and a woman in a marriage, there's one of each, they're exactly equal, but it's the woman who gets bashed. So formal equality does not necessarily help us; 50% does not necessarily help us either. But in theory, in Sweden they are in a better position. And the influence of women there has led to the Violence Against Women Act which came into effect in 1999 in which prostitution was defined as an aspect of violence against women. As a result, in that legislative regime, men are committing an offence if they are buying sexual services. There have only been something like, when I was there earlier this year, about 37 prosecutions, so not a great deal.

Does it make a difference to the traffic in women? My understanding from women in the Ministry for Gender Equality in Sweden now that, as a result of that legislation, traffickers are dissuaded from trafficking women into Sweden simply because it's so much more difficult. There are other places where there's legalised brothel prostitution or accepted brothel prostitution, or tolerance zones, where it is much easier to traffic women. Sweden has become a less favoured destination for traffickers. Therefore there does seem to be a model which is suited to decreasing trafficking and that is prosecuting men for buying sexual services - the women are not criminalised only the men are criminalised.

The Swedish example, I think, is often very surprising to people because in Victoria we have been led to believe that Australia, or at least Victoria is in the forefront with very progressive liberal laws. It is surprising to realise that there are countries in the world which actively pursue women's equality by penalising buyers instead of making their activities more comfortable in legalised brothels. Sweden in terms of women's rights and in terms of women's formal equality, is streets ahead of Victoria.

So my suggestion to you is that, if we want to deal with the trafficking in women we need to think about what are the appropriate systems to adopt to regulate prostitution that are consonant with that aim. If the first cause of trafficking is prostitution, and the first cause of prostitution is male privilege in the right to buy and enter the bodies of women, then a good way forward would be to treat men's abuse of women in prostitution and their violence in prostitution in exactly the same way in which we treat domestic violence in this country. There should be education programs against it. There should be education posters all round the cities of Australia saying "this is a prostitution free zone" for instance. There should be education in schools, to change the way men think and the way they use women in prostitution. Imagine this happening in this country. Imagine the Labor Party in Australia having sufficient commitment to the creation of women's equality to do what the Social Democrats have done in Sweden and adopt a policy of penalising the buyers.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: SHEILA JEFFREYS is a founding member of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women Australia. She is an Associate Professor in Political Science at the University of Melbourne. Email: She is the author of The Idea of Prostitution, Melbourne: Spinifex, 1997.