Explorations of exploitation
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)