Explorations of exploitation

Sat, Oct 6, 2012, 01:00

SEX TRAFFICKING: Slavery Inc: The Untold Story of International Sex TraffickingBy Lydia Cacho, Portobello Books, 271pp. £14.99

LYDIA CACHO is a highly regarded Mexican investigative journalist and champion of women’s and girls’ rights. In 2004, after years of determined investigation and despite continual threats to her safety, Cacho published Demonios del Edén which exposed the collusion of mafia organisations, powerful businessmen and corrupt authorities in a paedophile ring in Mexico. Falsely imprisoned and tortured as a result, Cacho has won much acclaim and earned several international human-rights and journalism awards. Her latest book, Slavery Inc: The Untold Story of International Sex Trafficking, embodies the author’s blend of tenacity, resourcefulness, idealism and risktaking as she weaves this often harrowing account of the mechanics of international sex trafficking in dozens of countries across different regions.

In doing so, Cacho presents an unsettling portrait of human cruelty and systemic abuses of power in which girls and young women living on the margins of societies across the globe are the main losers.

Slavery Inc is the product of a five-year investigative journey by Cacho, which itself occupies a central place in the narrative of the book. Often in disguise or undercover, Cacho visited known trafficking hubs and interviewed a vast number of individuals (430 women and 312 men). These included trafficked persons, traffickers, prostitutes and “clients”, pornography producers and porn stars, government officials, lawyers and academics, and fellow journalists and writers.

In addition to drawing on this research, Slavery Inc includes valuable factual and statistical information and makes good use of various official and non-governmental reports and key related books.

Stylistically, the book is an eclectic mix of travel writing, crime reportage and human-rights documentation written from the perspective of a deep personal commitment to exposing the underbelly of sex trafficking.

The UN estimates the number of people trafficked annually as between one and two million, the vast majority of whom (80 per cent) are women and girls trafficked for sexual exploitation. Aside from poverty and inequality, which make people vulnerable to being trafficked, a core argument of Slavery Inc is that sex trafficking thrives because criminal organisations flourish in the confused interface between legal and illegal aspects of the sex trade and because corruption is rife in (male-dominated) authorities in many parts of the world. Cacho, therefore, strongly contests the view that it is possible to disentangle the brutal world of sex slavery from a presumed bona fide “sex industry”. She provides many examples to illustrate how sex trafficking is entwined with legitimate tourist and entertainment industries, as well as with other kinds of organised crime, including drugs and arms smuggling, money laundering and selling organs.

Most fundamentally, perhaps, Cacho argues that sex trafficking occurs on the scale and in the forms that it does because old- fashioned sexism and misogyny are back (reflecting a backlash against feminist movements), or have never gone away.

Slavery Inc contains six country-specific chapters that illustrate key aspects of sex trafficking in each context (Turkey, Israel and Palestine, Japan, Cambodia, Burma and Argentina and Mexico). A further six topical chapters address cross-cutting issues, including the perspectives of “clients”; links between the military and prostitution; money laundering; the pimp profession; and mafia and globalisation.

Much of the content makes for difficult reading. One story involves a 13-year-old girl in Cambodia (where child sex tourism is a crime) who was forced to work as a prostitute in a “massage parlour” to pay off a $400 debt. The cruellest client she dealt with, Cacho reports, was a 50-year old man “who liked to insult the young girls, spit in their faces, urinate on them and anally rape them, all for a big tip to the owner of the massage parlour”.

Another account describes the situation of a 21-year-old Colombian woman trafficked by the Yakuza (mafia) to Japan, where prostitution is illegal but a legitimate “sex industry” flourishes. Cacho describes how the young woman, under pressure to pay $15,000 owed to the Yakuza, “worked as a forced prostitute . . . [and] had sex with 1,320 men” in the 11 months she had been in Japan.

Also highlighted is the ominous presence of large numbers of older Europeans residing in northeast Thailand, including men from The Netherlands and Germany, the countries that “have expelled the most paedophiles”.

While Cacho is sympathetic to abolitionist analysis, the book engages thoughtfully with the competing positions that shape and divide feminist and popular discussions of trafficking and prostitution. The author is alert to the pitfalls of the approaches taken by both “rabid abolitionists” and “intolerant proponents of regulation”. She helpfully highlights an array of actions that can be taken to tackle sex trafficking with greater resolve, including, for example, rigorous and ongoing investigation into the finances of legal “sex industry” businesses; close surveillance of pornography-producing operations; and introduction of zero-tolerance policies in relation to the purchase of sexual services by politicians, public officials and police and military personnel.

Slavery Inc, however, has some weaknesses. Although it is a mine of valuable detail, it does not offer a systematic presentation or analysis of the research findings, and this is likely to disappoint some readers. At times it walks a fine line between courting the sensationalism that is hard to avoid when dealing with this subject matter and engaging the sympathy of the reader. Often sources are not given to support important statements, and the discussion of international law on trafficking is patchy.

Ultimately, Slavery Inc speaks more to the heart and to the conscience of the reader than it does to the mind. It relies primarily on the powerful first-person testimonies of survivors of sex trafficking and the author’s compelling personal observations to tell its story and make its case. And in doing so, it makes an extremely valuable contribution to knowledge and debate on this contentious human-rights and feminist issue.


Niamh Reilly is a senior lecturer in the school of political science and sociology at NUI Galway. Her books include Women’s Human Rights (Polity, 2009) and a forthcoming edited collection, Religion, Gender and the Public Sphere (Routledge, 2013)

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