My first post in this series on trafficking began with the case of Malaysia; In the June 2009 Trafficking in Person’s report, the U.S. State Department designated Malaysia as among the worst of the worst in global trafficking. I was specifically curious about the “how” and “what now?” of Malaysia’s downgraded status to “tier 3.” In that first post I shared the current definition from the U.S. State Department of trafficking as well the distinctions between Tier 1, tier 2, Tier 2-watchlist, and Tier 3.  I also briefly described demand-side vs. supply-side approaches to anti-trafficking work. In this follow-up post I briefly discuss:

  • the “new abolitionist” movement and its impact on anti-trafficking efforts, &
  • the growing sex worker and feminist critique of the new abolitionist movement.

The New Abolitionist movement

Scholars and activists from a variety of political stripes have noted the impact of “the new abolitionist movement” on U.S. State Department Anti-Trafficking efforts.  Drawing inspiration from the early 19th century social justice movement to abolish slavery in the U.S., the new abolitionists are working to eliminate “modern day slavery,” both domestically and internationally. While the new abolitionists include some secular activists (e.g., Donna Hughes, University of Rhode Island), the movement is fundamentally driven by a new form of evangelical Christian activism; that which emphasizes global and social justice. Sociologist Elizabeth Bernstein, who has written extensively about the politics of commercialized sexuality, provides an in-depth ethnographic description of the new abolitionist movement her article,  “The Sexual Politics of the ‘New Abolitionism'”:

“A new group of highly educated and relatively affluent evangelicals have pursued some of the most active and passionate campaigning around sexual slavery and human trafficking. These evangelicals not only embrace the languages of women’s rights and social justice but have also taken deliberate steps to distinguish their work from the sexual politics of other conservative Christians. Richard Cizik, vice president of the National Association of Evangelicals and a self-described evangelical “moderate,” has gone on record describing the efforts of his organization to reorient conservative Christians away from issues such as homosexuality and abortion and toward more “common denominator” concerns such as global warming, prison reform, human trafficking, and HIV/AIDS.” (Bernstein, 2007, p. 136).

In their calls to action, the new abolitionists echo (and/or replicate) the emphasis of the U.S. State Department (especially under President Bush) on sexual trafficking. Additionally, the new abolitionists tend to favor “demand-side” approaches to fighting trafficking.


One of the newest of the new abolitionist groups, aptly titled “Stop the Demand,” is headed by Roman Catholic nuns based in the Seattle area. The public face of this campaign is currently found on the sides of Seattle buses, featuring an ad with what appears to be a young (attractive) Asian women trying to escape from the clutches of an Asian man in uniform.

The website for “Stop the Demand” lists as the following as the “goal” of traffickers: prostitution, pornography, violence/sexual exploitation, forced labor, involuntary servitude, debt bondage, or slavery/similar practice” (emphasis mine). Of course, the first two of these, prostitution and pornography, are simply categories of commercial sex, not trafficking.

Similarly, the Baptist World Alliance’s statement against trafficking appears to actually be a campaign against sex work:

“Described as a form of modern slavery, human trafficking mainly affects women and children, most of whom are forced into prostitution” (emphasis mine).

As mentioned in my previous post, while there is clear evidence that women and girls are disproportionately trafficked, of all trafficking cases, approximately 11/12 trafficking cases are NOT sexual (U.S. State Department, Trafficking in persons report, 2009).

False claims about the prevalence of sexual trafficking can be countered with reliable evidence, but the moral and religious opposition to commercial sex is resilient to claims of empirical evidence: The issue of sex work is simply seen as a matter of right and wrong. Quoting again from The Baptist World Alliance’s website:

“The sex industry is able to make humans become slaves to the power of sin.” (emphasis mine)

In its effort to curb human trafficking the faith-based group World Hope International recommends a number of tactics that everyday people in the U.S. can use. These include:

“Teach youth and young adults about the link between the sex industry and the sex trade. Stop the demand before it starts…”

(Actually, “sex industry” and “sex trade” are synonyms. Neither inherently involve sex trafficking).

and, “Provide information to your legislators on how demand increases supply in your state. For more information, contact World Hope. For information on how the sex industry (strip clubs, prostitution rings, pornography) increases demand for victims in your state, contact the Initiative Against Sexual Trafficking (IAST).”

Critics of New Abolitionism: Sex worker activists and their academic and public health allies

Since the passage of the 2000 TVPA several sex worker activist groups along with their feminist academic allies have sharply criticized the sexual politics of the U.S. State department’s anti-trafficking efforts. (Some key academic critics include: Augustin, Bernstein, Chapkis, Desyllas, Ditmore, Doezema, Kempadoo, and Soderlund. See bibliography). These critiques center around several points including: the clear anti-sex work agenda which conflates sexual trafficking and “sexual slavery” with all forms of commercial sex, the ways that anti-trafficking efforts muddy immigration rights efforts, and the “imperialist” nature of US anti-trafficking discourse.

This leads me to the final subject of this post:  the ripple effect of the new abolitionist movement on USAID funding for global sexual and reproductive health projects. Specifically here I will address the USAID policy which requires community/ health organizations to officially denounce the act of prostitution (even if they serve the sexual health needs of sex workers).  Known by many as the “anti-prostitution pledge,” this law states that:

“No funds … may be used to provide assistance to any group or organization that does not have a policy explicitly opposing prostitution and sex trafficking.” (Center for Health and Gender Equity Policy Brief, 2008).

This anti-prostitution pledge helped usher in new abolitionist politics into the realm of global public health; as a result public health and human rights scholars and activists have started to join forces with sex worker and feminist activists. One example of this collaboration is a 13 minute film on the global public health impact of the anti-prostitution pledge. The film, “Taking the Pledge: The USAID PEPFAR Clause, Sex work, & HIV Prevention” is produced by the Network of Sex Work Projects. The film features speakers in English, Khmer, Thai, French, Portuguese and Bengali, with English subtitles.

Links to this film, film curriculum, and other related resources can be found at the Sex Workers Project.

As a result of these sorts of collaborative efforts by sex worker, public health, and human rights workers/advocates, in 2006 the “prostitution pledge” was judged in two U.S. District Courts as violating the First Amendment rights of U.S. organizations:

In May 2006, two U.S. District Courts determined that the oath required of grant recipients by the U.S. government violates the First Amendment rights of the plaintiff organizations, the Alliance for Open Society International, Pathfinder, and DKT International….

Unfortunately, organizations based in other countries are not protected by First Amendment rights; thus they are currently still bound by the prostitution pledge:

…While good news for U.S. organizations, the decision apparently does not does not apply to or “release” subcontractors/subgrantees working on the ground in other countries from having to sign the prostitution loyalty oath. In many instances, those doing  cutting edge work and outreach on the ground are the subgrantees working with sex worker populations.” (Source: PepFar Watch).

Next up in this series: A change of direction for the Obama/Clinton State Department?


  • Augustin, L.M. 2007. Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry. London: Zed Books.
  • Bernstein, E. 2007. “The Sexual Politics of the ‘New Abolitionism’.” Differences: Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies, 18:3, 128-151.
  • Center for Health and Gender Equity. 2008 (August). “Policy Brief: Implications of U.S. Policy Restrictions for HIV Programs AImed at Commercial Sex Workers.” Accessible at
  • Chapkis, W. 1997. Live Sex Acts: Women performing erotic labor. New York: Routledge.
  • —– 2003. Trafficking, migration, and the law: Protecting innocents, punishing immigrants. Gender & Society, 17(6), 923- 937.
  • —– 2005. “Soft Glove, Punishing Fist: The Trafficking Victims Protection Acto of 2000.” In Regulating Sex: The Politics of Intimacy and Identity, edited by Elizabeth Bernstein and Laurie Schaffner. New York: Routledge, 51-65.
  • Department of State, United States of America. 2009. Trafficking in Persons Report.
  • Desyllas, M. C. 2007. “A critique of the Global Trafficking Discourse and U.S. Policy.” Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare, Vol. 34 (4), 57-79.
  • Ditmore, M., (2005). Trafficking in lives: How ideology shapes policy. In K. Kempadoo, J. Sanghera, & B. Pattanaik, (Eds.) Trafficking and prostitution reconsidered: New perspectives on migration, sex work and human rights. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers.
  • —–.  2007. “I never want to be rescued again.” New Internationalist (September). 15-16.
  • Doezema, J. (1998). Forced to choose: Beyond the voluntary v. forced prostitution dichotomy. In K. Kempadoo & J. Doezema (Eds.), Global sex workers: Rights, resistance and redefinition. New York: Routledge.
  • —–. “Loose Women or Lost Women? The Re-emergence of the Myth of White Slavery in Contemporary Discourses of Trafficking of Women.” Gender Issues 18.1 (2000): 23–50.
  • —–. “Now You See Her, Now You Don’t: Sex Workers at the un Trafficking Protocol Negotiation.” Social and Legal Studies 14.61 (2005): 61–89.
  • —–.  “Ouch! Western Feminists’ ‘Wounded Attachment’ to the ‘Third World  Prostitute.’ ” Feminist Review 67 (2001): 16–83.
  • Kempadoo, K. (2005). “Introduction: From moral panic to global justice: Changing perspectives on trafficking.” In K. Kempadoo, J. Sanghera & B. Pattanaik (Eds.), Trafficking and prostitution reconsidered: New perspectives on migration, sex work, and human rights. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers.
  • Soderlund, Gretchen. “Running from the Rescuers: New U.S. Crusades against Sex Trafficking and the Rhetoric of Abolition.” NWSA Journal 17.3 (2005): 54–87.