Lydia Cacho is an impressive investigator renowned for pursuing stories often at great personal risk. She is best known for her book Los Demonios del Edén (Demons of Eden), in which she exposed a child pornography and prostitution ring involving senior Mexican politicians and businessmen. Her latest book, Slavery Inc, deals with sex trafficking.
Slavery Inc contains powerful testimonies from people who have been trafficked, police and others. The most compelling chapters are those where Cacho describes in detail the operations and mechanisms of trafficking, naming the individuals involved and explaining the relationships between traffickers, senior public officials, judges and politicians.
The book poses many questions about globalisation, poverty and migration and the role these play in creating a space where human trafficking occurs. Sadly, it fails to answer them. This is largely due to Cacho’s commitment to a feminist politics that opposes the legalisation of prostitution.
While no one would argue that slavery and servitude are not gross human rights violations that need to be addressed, the idea of what constitutes “trafficking” and the extent to which it occurs is heavily contested. While Cacho frequently makes reference to the fact that she is aware of these debates, the book does not rigorously examine them. It doesn’t, for example, reference the fact that the debate has arisen in an era of closed borders and hysteria about migration (particularly migration of women from the Global South to advanced capitalist countries) and has been used to feed ideologies that conflate trafficking with all prostitution.
Because she doesn’t question the role that borders and immigration controls play in shaping people’s lives – for example, creating the conditions where a person can be controlled because their passport has been taken from them, or where their exploiters can threaten to turn them over to police or immigration officials – Cacho ends up citing “porous borders” as part of the problem that creates trafficking.
Further, conflating trafficking with all prostitution fails to recognise the qualitatively different situation a trafficked person experiences compared with someone who has a relative degree of autonomy over their work in the sex industry. Around the world these ideas have resulted in anti-trafficking laws and measures that are directed more towards the eradication of prostitution than assisting and supporting trafficked persons. In England and Wales that has meant policies that result in the harassment, abuse, detention and deportation of women and men working in the sex industry and, ironically, a situation where sex workers are more reliant on criminal networks and more exposed to abuse and exploitation in the course of their work. Cacho is clearly committed to helping trafficked people but her adherence to a feminism that sees patriarchy and masculinity as central to the problem means that she is left advocating the eradication of prostitution as though it is a moral question that can be solved with a few laws and “a new masculine revolution”.
Slavery Inc is published by Portobello, £14.99
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