Berkman Center for Internet & Society.
Berkman Online Lectures & Discussions

Harvard Law School > Berkman Center > Open Education >


Violence Against Women on the Internet

Campus Sexual Assault Policies
(opens: 4.16.02)
(opens: 4.23.02)
Sex Trafficking
(opens: 4.30.02)
The Internet as a Site of Resistance
(opens: 5.7.02)
(opens: 5.14.02)
NOTE: Modules will launch by 5 p.m. U.S. Eastern time on the date listed.

Sexual Slavery in the 21st Century: An Overview

A. Scope of the Problem: A Worldwide Epidemic

Irina, aged 18, responded to an advertisement in a Kyiv, Ukraine, newspaper for a training course in Berlin, Germany, in 1996. With a fake passport, she traveled to Berlin, where she was told that the school had closed. She was sent on to Brussels, Belgium for a job. When she arrived, she was told she needed to repay a debt of US $10,000 and would have to earn the money in prostitution. Her passport was confiscated, and she was threatened, beaten, and raped. When she didn't earn enough money for the first pimp, she was sold to another pimp who operated in the Brussels' red light district. When she escaped with police assistance, she was arrested because she had no legal documentation. A medical exam verified the abuse she had suffered, such as cigarette burns all over her body. [1]

Irina's story is not unique. Every day, in every region of the world, women are being trafficked for the purpose of sexual exploitation. Desperate for work, traffickers posing as modeling, marriage, and employment agencies lure them away from their homes with promises of highly paid jobs and financial security. Instead what they find is sexual servitude and violence. With few exceptions, poor women are trafficked to richer men. The heaviest flow is from the South to the North, but in recent years the traffic from the former Eastern bloc has grown substantially. Indeed, in some parts of the world, including Israel and Turkey, sex workers so often hail from the former Soviet Union that prostitutes are referred to as "Natashas." [2] The most popular destination countries are Germany, Hungary, Greece, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Yugoslavia, the United States, Canada, Japan, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates. According to the United States Agency for International Development (USAID):

 In Asia, trafficking supplies a growing international market for commercial sex and domestic labor, much of it involving children. In Africa, girls as well as boys are abducted and indentured by rebel armies and forced to take part in conflicts. In other instances children are taken across national boundaries, through force or deceit, to serve as agricultural laborers or to supply the sex trade. In the former Soviet Union and East and Central Europe, young women from economically stagnant rural areas and small towns in search of legitimate employment continue to be lured by traffickers into the sex trade or domestic servitude. In Latin America, as in the rest of the developing world, women and children are not only trafficked into prostitution and domestic servitude overseas, but within their own countries as well. [3]

The precise magnitude of trafficking is uncertain but even the conservative estimates are staggering. The U.S. State Department estimates that at least 700,000 persons are trafficked within or across international borders every year, and that each year at least 50,000 women and girls are trafficked into the United States. Congressional sources place the number at two million worldwide, and the United Nations' figures reach the four million mark. The percentage of these women involved in the sex trade is even less clear. International agencies estimate that each year over one million women and girls are trafficked for the purpose of sexual exploitation, but reliable statistical data are lacking. According to Donna Hughes, a leading expert on the international sex trade, "It is difficult to know how many women have been trafficked for sexual exploitation. The trade is secretive, the women are silenced, the traffickers are dangerous, and not many agencies are counting." [4]

Adding to these difficulties is the lack of consensus over the definition of a "trafficked" person. This lack of clarity is reflected in the varying and sometimes contradictory definitions of trafficking employed in local, regional, and international legislation, conventions, and resolutions, and in debates among academics and organizations concerned with trafficking. In essence, trafficking is the use of force or deception to transfer individuals to situations of severe exploitation. Where definitions differ is in their treatment of smuggling and undocumented migration, their distinctions between internal and international trafficking, and their understandings of the terms force, coercion, and deception. For instance, in the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000, the U.S. government broadly defines trafficking as:

(a) sex trafficking in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age; or (b) the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery. [5]

It is worth noting a few points about this definition. First, undocumented migration is not considered trafficking. Second, it recognizes that trafficking involves movement, but that movement can be cross-border or within national boundaries. Third, by distinguishing between "forced" prostitution and prostitution by "choice," it reflects the view that prostitution and trafficking are closely inter-related but not the same. Fourth, it casts trafficking as a labor problem and recognizes that people can be trafficked into a variety of jobs, not just the sex industry. What matters is not the type of work, but the presence of deception, force, or coercion as to the kind of work or the terms or conditions of labor.

In addition, there is wide disagreement over the meanings of fraud, coercion, and deception. For example, in discussions of the precise definition of "coercion," some argue that it is irrelevant whether the victim initially consented to sell herself into bondage while others argue that such contracts are no different from other labor contracts and should be equally enforceable. Some claim that "force" refers only to physical force while others claim that it encompasses more subtle forms of constraint, such as psychological force. (Click here to read the United States Central Intelligence Agency's (CIA's) interpretation of these terms.)

Thus, it is important to keep in mind that not all studies of trafficking measure the same phenomenon: some estimates focus on international trafficking only; some focus exclusively on child prostitutes; studies operationalize fraud, coercion, and deception in different ways; and frequently statistics related to sex workers or to women labor migrants are presented as trafficking statistics. Despite all these differences and discrepancies, however, research and anecdotal evidence make clear that over the past three decades there have been large increases in both the numbers of women entering the sex trade and in women's international labor migration generally.

How did these numbers come to be? According to Judith Mirkinson, in many regions of the world the expansion of the trade during the 1960s and 1970s is attributable to a combination of militarism, international development policy, local corruption, and sexist and racist beliefs. She explains:

During the 60s and 70s tourism became one of the big industries for developing nations. Promoted by the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and agencies like U.S.AID, countries were urged to exploit their natural resources by developing resorts and hotels to attract foreign capital. Part and parcel of the tourist attraction was sex. Package tours were developed to include airfare, accommodations, cars, and women or men for sexual pleasure. In Thailand, for instance, travel brochures promote "sun, sea, and sex." They build on the patriarchal and racist fantasies of European, Japanese, American, and Australian men by touting the exotic, erotic subservience of Asian women…

The war in Vietnam brought a military buildup in Asia that ironically proved fortuitous to many countries' economies. Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines, and Okinawa built up a burgeoning sex industry outside the bases. Rest and recreation ("R & R") actually created new cities and added much-needed capital to the overall economy of each nation. It is estimated that by the mid-80s the sex industries around the bases in the Philippines had generated more than $500 million. At the end of the war in Vietnam, Saigon had 500,000 prostituted women - this is equal to the total population of Saigon before the war.

Many of these countries developed policies and passed legislation to aid the sex business and "support the boys." Thailand, for example, passed the Entertainment Act, which included an incredible policy called "Hired Wife Services." By the mid-70s there were 800,000 prostituted Thai women.

Asian women were (and still are) looked upon as fragile, exotic, sexual flowers, there for men to do with as they wished. Men were convinced that practices that might be frowned upon or illegal in their own countries would be available in places like Bangkok and Manila. This has become true for both heterosexual and
homosexual men, for the sale of young boys is also big business…

Tourists arrived by the thousands, bringing in the much-needed yen, marks, and dollars. Almost 75 percent of the five million tourists who come to Thailand each year are males. Some companies go so far as to arrange special tours as incentives and rewards for their employees. Tourism has emerged as the single largest foreign exchange earner in Nepal, Thailand, and the Philippines. Men are
guaranteed a good time and, to sweeten the deal, are given the impression that they are actually doing good deeds…

Tax-free zones, industrial zones, and capital growth centers are also becoming centers for trafficking. One of the lures for businesses and for their employees is the promise of available women. The police and governments are completely complicit in the running of the sex trade. Sexual services are provided on a regular basis to government officials to keep them in line. Government
profits are so immense that they are loathe to complain anyway.

It's gotten to the point where entire villages in northern Thailand and southern Burma are being decimated of girl children. In a strange twist parents welcome, for the first time, the birth of a girl child rather than that of a boy, because they know they have a guaranteed wage earner. Most of these families feel they have no other choice than to give up some of their children. [6]

Over time, the economies of many third world nations have become dependent upon sex industry revenues. Women are now trafficked to, from, and through every region of the world, and estimates value the international sex trade at over $7 billion annually.

Who are the traffickers? According the recent studies, the sex trade is dominated by organized crime, from single families to international criminal syndicates. The U.S. Department of State reports:

Trafficking in women is a new business and source of strength for organized crime. Globally, the full spectrum of criminal organizations and shady businesses- from major criminal syndicates to gangs to smuggling rings to loosely associated networks- are involved. Overseas, major organized crime groups, particularly Russian, East European, and Asian syndicates, are heavily involved in trafficking. (Please see Appendix II for further information on organized crime and its involvement in trafficking in women abroad.) In the United States, trafficking in women is primarily being conducted by crime rings and loosely connected criminal networks. In many trafficking cases, the nucleus of these criminal rings is one family or extended family. Additionally, trafficking is perpetrated by a large number of loosely associated crime groups that focus on different aspects of the trafficking process, making detection and crackdowns difficult for law enforcement as the targets are much more amorphous. Though smaller crime groups may be involved in the trafficking industry in the US, this does not diminish the violence that the victims endure, nor does it mean that larger organized crime syndicates will not increasingly become involved in trafficking to the US. Compounding the current threat, law enforcement has also found that the trafficking in women industry is closely intertwined with other related criminal activities, such as extortion, racketeering, money laundering, bribery of public officials, drug use, document forgery, and gambling. Besides extorting from the women, traffickers have also sought to extort from the clients. In some Honolulu brothels, video cameras appear to have been used against the clients. [7]

[1] Account provided by Donna Hughes, "The 'Natasha' Trade: Transnational Sex Trafficking," National Institute of Justice Journal (2001), available at

[2]OPTIONAL READING: For more information about sex trafficking in the Eastern bloc, see Donna Hughes, "The 'Natasha' Trade: Transnational Sex Trafficking," National Institute of Justice Journal (2001), available at

[3]OPTIONAL READING: Trafficking in Persons: USAID's Response (2001). The full report is available online at

[4]OPTIONAL READING: Donna Hughes, "The 'Natasha' Trade: Transnational Sex Trafficking," National Institute of Justice Journal (2001), available at

[5]Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000, P.L. 106-386 (2000). The full text of the Act is available online at

[6]Judith Mirkinson, "Red Light, Green Light: The Global Trafficking of Women," Breakthrough, Spring 1994. The full article is available online at

[7]To read the full report, visit

Go on to Part B - Fueling the Trade

Return to VAW Module III



Please send all inquiries to:

Welcome | Registration | Discussion | Resources

The Berkman Center for Internet & Society