The Sexual Politics of Anti-Trafficking Discourse

by Prabha Kotiswaran

0 years since the negotiation of the Palermo Protocol on Trafficking in 2000, the anti-trafficking field has gone from an early, almost exclusive preoccupation with sex work to addressing extreme exploitation in a range of labour sectors. While this might suggest a reduced focus on the nature of the work performed and a greater focus on the conditions under which it is performed, in reality, anti-trafficking discourse remains in the grip of polarised positions on sex work even as the carceral effects of anti-trafficking law become evident and the Swedish model of criminalising the purchase of sexual services spreads. In this article, I demonstrate how despite the recent discursive shifts to ‘modern slavery’ and ‘forced labour’, the anti-trafficking transnational legal order itself reinforces, rather than diffuses cultures of sex work exceptionalism. The growing international sex workers’ movement has offered resistance, yet a closer look at the movement and the widespread support that it has garnered for decriminalisation from international organisations, while valuable, helps reveal the greatest cost yet of anti-trafficking discourse, namely, the inability of the sex workers’ movement to produce a sophisticated theory of regulation to reduce levels of exploitation within sex work, one which is commensurate with the informality and heterogeneity of sex markets the world over. Finally, to the extent that neoabolitionist projects derive legitimacy from interventions abroad, especially in the global South, I chronicle the edifice on which it rests in one such context, namely India, to demonstrate how countries in the global South are not merely conduits for the global North’s preoccupation with moral gentrification through neo-abolitionism, but rather, that the circuits of global governmentality while influential, are highly contingent, thus producing opportunities for creative forms of mobilisation by sex workers.

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