Are All Prostitutes Being Trafficked?

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About Noah Berlatsky

Noah Berlatsky is the editor of the comics and culture site the Hooded Utilitarian. His book on the original Wonder Woman comics will be out in early 2014. He's written for the Atlantic, Slate, Reason, and the Chicago Reader. Find him on Twitter @hoodedu.


  1. When I started reading your story here, Noah, I was uneasy that it was going to be similar to some other ‘trafficking scare pieces’ I’ve read. I was pleasantly surprised to see you handle the topic with a lot more nuance than those other stories, and I think your point about how essential it is to understand each story from the perspective of the prostitute or trafficking victim involved was a good one.

    There is, however, one flaw to your story that stands out as rather glaring: your intractable use of the female pronoun when alluding to the sex workers (or trafficking victims) in question.Men are also sex workers, and they are also vulnerable to abuse. Perhaps you were simply reflecting the tunnel vision of the documentary you’re discussing, but even so, it’s a significant problem.

    That aside, I thought your post was a good one.

    • Echoing the previous comment, it’s great that you are recognising the difference between Danielle’s situation and Dr. Magnanti’s situation, and also recognising that for a lot of sex workers, their degree of agency lies somewhere in between these two circumstances.

      This distinction is so often ignored by human trafficking organisations who have a strong anti-prostitution stance.

      I hope that, as you become more wary of this distinction, you will also begin to recognise the efforts of sex workers who organise against trafficking and other forms of exploitation in our own communities, as we have always done and will continue to do, such as the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, a grassroots organisation of 65,000 sex workers in the Sonagachi district of India, who organise against various forms of exploitation and violence. (

      I also hope that, as you look deeper into the policies being advocated in the human trafficking movement, you will see that the real issue here is immigration and labor opportunity / labor rights. Some of the immigration laws targeted towards rooting out sex trafficking actually exacerbate conditions for migrant sex workers, domestic workers, farm workers, and other immigrant workers who face exploitation from both the law and migration/lending agents. This article shows enforcement of human trafficking laws could make human trafficking harder to detect:

      Safe Horizon (, a model anti-trafficking project in a NYC organisation that targets domestic violence and other forms of violence against women and children, recognises that the it is extremely important to respect the wishes and agency of the victim of violence, whether she or he identifies as a human trafficking victim or a sex worker. Both can be victims of unjust violence, and both are vulnerable members of our society, who should be protected from harm.

  2. Noah Berlatsky says:

    Tha’s a good point;. Thanks for bringing it up.

  3. anotherfactor says:

    Here’s my issue with this approach: If you were watching a film about trafficked domestics or farm workers, would you expect that maids and harvesters who are voluntary and well paid be included? Or, to use an example from illegal but not illegitmate labor, if you saw a film about people forced into drug smuggling via violence and threats, would you claim it isn’t doing it’s job unless a successful white pot dealer who is just fine with the risks also gets a voice? Or would that seem like a red herring or maybe dimissing the exploited by bringing up the privleged? I agree there’s a problem with opponents to sex work defining everything by the worst examples, and I get why sex work supporters wish to combat an unfair stigma, but there’s a point where prioritizing stigma prevention produces the reverse – handwaving significant problems based on the non-problems of others, who often enjoy privilege of some sort. Concentrating on how to help the truly exploited and suffering is not the same as saying everyone is exploited, and at some point conflating the two is kind of derailing. Especially when the film is about a victim whose voice has not been heard until now and the counter examples are published authors with nothing to do with the film. It’s not about protecting those who don’t feel exploited from feeling uneasy about those who are. It’s about real victims, who would be there if sex work was legal or not because of our predatory capitalist system. Again, I do think stigma is an issue which should be considered with sex work, but unless the film explicity insists all prostitues are victims (and it sounds like it’s being sensitive) one must consider length and puose – or it’s like saying a movie about labor problems at McDonalds is somehow unfairly denying the experience of the waitstaff at Le Cirque.

  4. Noah Berlatsky says:

    The problem is, everybody knows not all waitstaff are exploited. There’s a huge discourse around trafficking that says that all prostitutes are trafficked or are victimized. If you don’t engage with that, you’re lending it credence by default.

    I have no doubt that the people who made this film know about the arguments around trafficking, nor do I doubt that they were taking a position on those debates.

  5. Noah Berlatsky says:

    Having said that…this isn’t a negative review. I think what the film is doing is really well done and worthwhile and important. Arguing with it is not the same as condemning it

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