Volume 12, Issue 12. July 2 - 16 2001

Leah Platt

Regulating the Global Brothel

On the night of September 10, 1997, Toronto police officers raided more than a dozen apartments suspected of being houses of ill repute. Twenty-two women, including the alleged madam, Wai Hing "Kitty" Chu, were charged on a total of 750 prostitution and immigration-related charges. All of the women were Asian and spoke no more than a few words of English.

The press accounts of the raid were by turns titillating and full of moral outrage. According to the San Jose Mercury News, the women were helpless victims, "pretty, naive country bumpkins" who were exploited by an international crime syndicate (the U.S. police collaborated on parallel raids in San Jose). In a piece for The Toronto Sun, with the lurid headline "Sex Slaves: Fodder for Flesh Factories," a reporter profiled "Mary," a Thai prostitute, who obligingly described her first trick, a fumbling failure made to sound almost endearing.


It is a familiar story by now: poor, vulnerable women from Thailand or the Ukraine promised jobs as nannies or models in Western cities, only to find themselves pressed into service as prostitutes to pay off travel debts and line the pockets of their traffickers. As long as the women were portrayed as misled innocents, it was easy for Toronto readers to sympathize.

But readers' pity quickly turned to anger when it was revealed, a few days later, that most of the women had known exactly what kind of work they had been recruited to do. As the Toronto Star summed up a few months later, "public opinion did an instant about-face" when police revealed that the women "had willingly come to Canada to ply their trade; wiretaps caught them boasting, long distance, about the money they were earning." Now, the women were considered "hardened delinquents, illegal immigrants, tawdry, dismissible, selling their bodies of their own free will."

Nothing became of the initial allegations of labor abuses. There had been rumors of debt bondage, a form of indentured servitude that requires migrants to finance their travel expenses (which are frequently in?ated) by working without pay; of confinement; of shifts that lasted 18 hours. But before these charges could be investigated, the women were released on their own recognizance and disappeared from view, dismissed by the media as common whores.


What is it that separates a Thai woman turning tricks in a cramped Toronto apartment from a Mexican immigrant toiling in a sweatshop in the suburbs of Los Angeles? Why does the former draw our scorn, the latter our sympathy? Clearly, many people react uncomfortably to the idea of sex as just another good that may be purchased on the open market. Yet for the women who make their living as strippers, escorts, prostitutes, and porn stars, sexual activity at the workplace is a job — a repetitive task that can be as unerotic and downright boring as cutting pork shoulders on an assembly line or sewing sneakers in a Nike factory. As such, doesn't sex work deserve the full protection of U.S. labor laws?

One reason that sex work doesn't currently benefit from such labor protections in the United States is that the feminist community, which is the champion of women's rights in the workplace in many realms, remains bitterly divided over prostitution. On one side are the abolitionists, who call prostitution a crime against women, akin to rape or domestic abuse; on the other side are the pro-choicers, for whom the rhetoric of victimization is itself demeaning, and who say that women should be able to do whatever they want with their own bodies, including renting them out for pay.

The two sides talk past each other, particularly at the extremes. Prostitutes, the controversial firebrand Camille Paglia has said, are "very competent, very professional. They look fabulous! I've always felt that prostitutes are in control of the streets, not victims. I admire that — zooming here and there, escaping the police, being shrewd, living by your wits, being street smart." To Donna Hughes, on the other hand, the director of the women's studies program at the University of Rhode Island, the idea of selling a sex act like a trip through the car wash is inherently degrading, and in practice is often accompanied by rape, intimidation, and cruelty. "A lot of people don't know what prostitution is," she told me angrily. "They don't know what it really takes to have sex with five strangers a day. What most people know about prostitution is based on myths and misinformation."

But while feminists debate the "sex" part of sex work — is it degrading or liberating? — they generally ignore the "work" part. Neither Paglia's paean to the hooker-as-rugged-individualist nor Hughes's lament for the little-girl-lost captures the often mundane reality of illicit prostitution: It is a job without overtime pay, health insurance, or sick leave — and usually without recourse against the abuses of one's employer, which can include being required to have sex without a condom and being forced to turn tricks in order to work off crushing debts. Given that the sex industry exists and probably always will (they don't call it the oldest profession for nothing), what should be done about its exploitative conditions?

Sex Work Goes Global

That question was vexing enough when prostitution was primarily a local issue. But sex work is an increasingly global service. In the language of international trade, sexual services are commonly "imported" into places like the United States from the developing world. Men from wealthy countries frequent the semi-regulated sex sectors in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Thailand — a phenomenon known as "sex tourism." And women from countries in Southeast Asia, Africa, and eastern Europe migrate to the industrialized world to work in the domestic sex industries. The United Nations estimates annual profits from the trade in sex workers like the Thai women arrested in Canada to be $7 billion.

While there are no precise statistics on the number of women who enter the United States from abroad to work as prostitutes — either voluntarily as immigrants or involuntarily as victims of trafficking — a recent report by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) estimates that roughly 50,000 women and children are brought into the country by traffickers each year. (This figure includes trafficking victims who work in brothels as well as those who work in sweatshops and as domestic servants.)

The crime of trafficking in women has recently attracted a great deal of attention from policy makers in Congress and the international community. The European Commission highlighted action against the "modern day slave trade" as part of its commemoration of International Women's Day this March. The UN Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime, which was signed in December, included a separate protocol on the prevention of trafficking in women and children.

Here at home, Congress passed the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Prevention Act in a nearly unanimous vote last October, a move that President Bill Clinton hailed as "the most significant step we've ever taken to secure the health and safety of women at home and around the world." Minnesota's liberal Senator Paul Wellstone, one of the bill's co-sponsors, said that "something important is in the air when such a broad coalition of people — including Bill Bennett, Gloria Steinem, Rabbi David Sapperstein, Ann Jordan, and Chuck Colson — work together for the passage of legislation." And what's not to love about a bill that can be dressed up alternatively as a victory for women's rights, a way to get tough on crime, and a curb on immigration? As Ann Jordan of the International Human Rights Law Group puts it, "there is no way that any politician could say he is opposed to this bill. It was a win-win bill for everyone." Even the Christian right was satisfied; Jordan explains that "evangelicals took on trafficking as one of their big projects" in order to rescue innocent women from the sin of prostitution.

But in all this self-congratulatory rhetoric about protecting innocent girls, some of the harder questions never got asked. What is the distinction between "trafficking," say, and alien smuggling, or between trafficking and labor exploitation? According to the CIA report, trafficking "usually involves long-term exploitation for economic gain," whereas alien smuggling is a limited exchange — an illegal immigrant pays a smuggler to be transported or escorted across the border and there the economic relationship ends.

But in practice the two crimes blend together: Hopeful migrants often can't afford the price of their passage and arrive in the country in debt to their smuggler; the smuggler in effect becomes a trafficker. As migrants try to pay off their loans, they are often caught in abusive situations, forced to work long hours in unsafe and unsanitary conditions. The most notorious example of this mistreatment is the El Monte case, named for a town in Southern California where 72 Thai migrants were found in 1995 held against their will in a warren of apartments that doubled as a garment factory. To pay off their travel debts, the migrants were stripped of their passports and forced to work at sewing machines for more than 80 hours a week at a negligible wage, surrounded by barbed wire. After the operation was raided by federal and state agents, the perpetrators pleaded guilty to indentured servitude in order to avoid more severe kidnapping charges and were sentenced to between two and seven years in prison.

The facts of the El Monte case parallel the alleged misdeeds in the Toronto brothel: The perpetrator helped immigrants enter the country illegally and the immigrants were forced (either through violence or because of mounting debts) to work in substandard conditions for below-minimum wages. But addressing Toronto-type situations with specific legislation like the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Prevention Act implies that foreign women working in the sex industry are different in kind from foreign laborers in other exploitative industries. There is arguably something to this implication; sex workers are more susceptible to rape and other forms of violent degradation. Yet legislation like the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Prevention Act implicitly seems to exempt sex workers (and their exploiters) from the labor laws that already exist to protect them — making them instead subject to the specific crime of "sex trafficking." Such laws obscure the fact that for the most part the abuses that af?ict prostitutes are the sort that can befall all migrant workers.

"Prostitutes," writes Jo Bindman of Anti-Slavery International, "are subjected to abuses which are similar in nature to those experienced by others working in low-status jobs in the informal sector." In her 1997 report, "Redefining Prostitution as Sex Work on the International Agenda," Bindman argues that mistreatment of prostitutes — everything from arbitrary arrest and police brutality to pressure to perform certain sexual acts at work — should not be thought of as hazards of the trade or as conditions that loose women bring upon themselves but as abuses of human rights and labor standards.

In other words, rather than design new legislation to combat the crimes of "sexual slavery" or "trafficking in women," we should prosecute alien smuggling, trafficking, debt bondage, and labor exploitation under existing national and international codes. The International Labor Organization (ILO) has signed conventions on forced labor (1930), holidays with pay (1936), the protection of the right to organize (1948), the protection of wages (1949), and migration for employment (1949), but because of our intuitive sense that sex work should be marginalized as immoral and degrading to women, none of these rules has been applied to the gray market in sexual services. Our well-meaning desire to "protect" women forces the prostitution industry underground and out of the reach of established labor statutes.

Why Prostitutes Migrate

As hard as life can be for prostitutes who lack formal labor protections, it is often still harder for migrant prostitutes, who as both illegal immigrants and participants in an illegal industry are doubly marginalized. The Network of Sex Work Projects, an informal alliance of human rights organizations, warns that the dual "illegality of sex work and migration" allows smugglers and brothel owners to "exert an undue amount of power and control" over foreign sex workers. Employers threaten migrant sex workers with deportation if they inform the authorities about inhumane labor practices — and even if women could report their situation, the authorities might not take it seriously.

The migration of sex workers to the developed world is part of a wider pattern that sociologists call the "feminization" of migration. Until very recently, most labor migrants were men who worked in mining, manufacturing, and construction. If women migrated, they did so under family reunification statutes, often with children in tow. As industrialized economies become more service oriented, the jobs available to migrants are increasingly in the "female" sector, which includes everything from maids to nannies to exotic dancers. "The latest figures from the ILO indicate that more than 50 percent of labor migrants are women," says Marjan Wijers, a fellow at the Netherlands' Clara Wichmann Center for Women and Law in Utrecht. "But the economic situation is different now than it was for men a generation ago. Male migrants entered the formal labor market through formal channels. They didn't have the most attractive types of employment," she notes, "but at least they had work permits. Women have been relegated to the informal sector in traditional women's work: domestic and sexual services, either in the sex industry or in arranged marriages. These jobs are often not recognized as 'work'; there are no labor protections for them, no access to legal working permits."

Despite the very real conditions of abuse, Wijers is careful not to call all low-paid female immigrants — or all migrant prostitutes — victims. For many women now, as has been the case for men for centuries, migration is a calculated financial decision, with prostitution seen as a way to make money. Sex work, like providing paid domestic services and child care, is a way to support family or children back home or to start a new life in the West. "These women made a conscious decision to improve their situation through migration," Wijers explains. "It is possible that they expected another job — and of course, no one expects to be held in slavery-like conditions. But these women are intelligent, enterprising, and courageous. It is quite a step to leave your family and your security to go abroad, into a situation where you don't know exactly what to expect."

Wijers has staked out a defensible middle ground between the strict abolitionists and the prostitution-as-self-expression promoters: She supports a woman's right to control over her own body, as well as a prostitute's volition as an economic actor, without valorizing sex work as a liberating profession. As one of the chief investigators for a report on trafficking prepared for the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, Wijers is one of the world's foremost experts on forced prostitution, but she finds the narrative of victimization supported by the United Nations to be sentimental and overly simplistic. The reality in her native country, the Netherlands, is more nuanced. "Some of the first women to come from abroad were from the Dominican Republic and Colombia," she says. "They were clearly disadvantaged, recruited in cruel ways, forced into terrible conditions — all the clichés. But when you have spent some period of time in a country, you start to make contacts and to organize. Soon these women were sending for their aunt or their sister — they were organizing the migration of female friends and relatives. Within a few 'generations' of migration, this group of women learned Dutch and became more independent."

One of the most reliable studies of sex tourism, conducted by the ILO in 1998, corroborates Wijers's observations. Based on interviews with thousands of sex workers in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Thailand, the report concluded that "while many current studies highlight the tragic stories of individual prostitutes, especially of women and children deceived or coerced into the practice, ä many workers entered for pragmatic reasons and with a general sense of awareness of the choice they were making." Almost all of the women surveyed said they knew what kind of work they would be doing before they began; half, in fact, responded that they found their job on a friend's recommendation.

The Benefits of Legalization

In order to use labor laws to protect women in the sex industry, the legal status of prostitution and its offshoots — brothel keeping, pimping, soliciting, paying for sex — would need to be re-examined. After all, the Department of Justice does not ensure minimum wages for drug runners or concern itself with working conditions in the Mob. But whether or not we approve of sex work or would want our daughters to be thus employed, the moral argument for condemnation starts to fall apart when we consider the conditions of abuse suffered by real women working in the industry. Criminalization has been as unsuccessful in dismantling the sex industry as it has been in eliminating the drug trade and preventing back-alley abortions. Sex work is here to stay, and by recognizing it as paid labor governments can guarantee fair treatment as well as safe and healthy work environments — including overtime and vacation pay, control over condom use, and the right to collective bargaining.

A decision to re-evaluate the legal status of the sex industry in the United States would not be without international precedent. Prostitution is legal (while subject to varying degrees of regulation) in England, France, and many other parts of Europe. In 1999, Germany eliminated the legal definition of prostitution as an "immoral trade," thus allowing sex workers to participate in the national health insurance plan. Prostitution is also legal in parts of South America and the Caribbean, and in some counties in Nevada. Prostitutes' unions have sprung up in Cambodia, Hong Kong, India, and Mexico, and groups like COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics) advocate for sex workers' rights in the United States.

In areas where prostitution is legal, brothel keeping — or profiting from the proceeds of prostitution — remains a crime. Even the Netherlands, a country notorious for its laissez-faire attitude toward sex work, legalized brothels only in 1999; and the concern that, as sanctioned businesses, brothels would sprout up on every street corner there has proved unfounded. Brothels are now subject to the same building codes and municipal ordinances as any other business — including zoning laws that keep brothels contained in established red-light districts.

As one of the only countries with a fully decriminalized sex industry, the Netherlands provides the fullest illustration of how legalization can operate. Amsterdam's red-light district occupies a maze of narrow streets in the oldest part of the city. Residents who have no interest in frequenting the sex shops can avoid the area without inconvenience. Inside the district, which is marked off with strings of red lights, prostitutes sit in storefront windows to display their wares (100 guilders, or roughly $50, for a 15-minute "suck and fuck"), alongside topless bars, porn and sex toy shops, and the neon lights of peep show emporiums. Even in the dead of winter, packs of foreign men gather in the narrow alleys to gawk and knock on windows. Some of the women behind the windows look Dutch, but Marisha Majoor, who greeted me at the Prostitution Information Center's storefront, corrects this impression. "Most of the blond girls are from other European Union countries, like Sweden and Germany," she says. Dutch women, who can work in the comfort of their own homes, don't bother with the hustle of the red-light neighborhood.

Until last year, Amsterdam's windows were full of illegal immigrants from Africa and eastern Europe. Brothel and club owners estimated that between 40 percent and 75 percent of the women in the red-light district were working illegally. All of that changed with the legalization of brothels. "Of course," says Marieke van Doorninck, a research fellow at the Mr. A. de Graaf Stichting Institute for Prostitution Issues in Amsterdam, "brothel owners were technically never allowed to work with illegal migrants, but the practice was condoned for years. If an illegal worker was discovered, all that could happen is that she would be deported and the club owner would be given a fine. There was no real incentive for the brothel owners to deny jobs to illegal migrants. Now they can lose their license."

There are still a few African women working in the red-light district. Some of them have married Dutch men; others have forged passports from Italy or Greece, allowing them to work in the European Union. One landlord, a gray-haired, heavyset man known as Marcel, owns 20 windows; his "tenants" are mostly from Africa. He claims that all of his "girls" have legitimate papers and, when pressed, pulls out a blue binder stuffed with photocopied passports from Ghana and Nigeria.

The passports may very well be real, but according to van Doorninck, the working papers could not have been. "In other lines of work," she explains, "if a boss can show that there is no person from the EU that can do the job, then he can hire someone from outside." Farmers, for example, regularly request allowances for agricultural workers. "But the sex industry is shut out from this regulation. There is no legal way for a woman from outside the EU to work in prostitution." Sex workers are also specifically excluded from the immigration regulations governing the self-employed. Potential immigrants from outside the European Union "can apply for working papers if they show a viable business plan and can prove that they are capable of taking care of themselves without becoming dependent on the state," says van Doorninck. "But foreigners who apply to settle in the Netherlands as self-employed prostitutes are in principle rejected on the grounds that their activities do not serve the country's interests."

The women working in Marcel's windows are lucky. Most of the Asian, African, and eastern-European women left in Amsterdam are working on the street or in unregulated black-market brothels. "By making it more difficult for foreign women to work in legal places, where they have been condoned for ages, they are forced to leave or to work in an illegal setting," van Doorninck points out. "In a way, the government stimulates trafficking by leaving no options for the women who are already here."

The Dutch government's decision to regulate brothels was based less on morality than on economics. The sex sector had long been "officially tolerated" (or in Dutch, gedoogt); by legalizing its activities, the government is able to collect revenues from licenses and taxes. And from the workers' perspective, legalizing the sex industry — and thus barring foreign women from working in licensed brothels — follows from a classic trade-protectionist motive. Why offer jobs to non-Europeans when there are plenty of women in Holland and elsewhere in the European Union who are willing to work in the Dutch sex industry?

Before the change in brothels' status, "there was definitely tension between Dutch prostitutes and the migrant workers, a competition over prices," remembers Wijers. "Because the illegal women had no documents, they were willing to work for less and Dutch women started to feel uneasy." Foreign women "spoil the market," the Prostitution Information Center's Majoor told a team of American and Dutch college students researching the condition of illegal prostitutes last year. "It makes you furious when some guy keeps knocking at your door, saying, 'Okay, but a little way down the street, they are only asking 25 guilders." Majoor, like most of the Dutch women who work in the sex industry, belongs to the Red Thread, a lobbying group akin to a union. The Red Thread does not allow illegal migrants to join. "When a hotel like the Hilton suddenly brings in an Hungarian pianist who is willing to work for less money, longer hours, without social insurance, Dutch pianists will complain," Wijers notes. "It is the same mechanism in the sex industry as in other labor sectors."

The Dutch experience with decriminalization suggests that the reaction of the sex industry to the stresses of globalization is not unlike that of, say, the garment industry here in the United States. Domestic workers resent immigrants, who are eager to find work at any pay and consequently create downward pressure on wages. Arriving in the country with few resources and little command of the language, immigrants are often shunted into the informal economy, which in this case means shady makeshift brothels and back-of-the-bus-station encounters.

Legalization may be limited in what it can do to reach the nearly invisible population of illegal migrants who work internationally in the sex industry. But that's also true of the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Prevention Act and the protocol included in the UN Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime. Both of the latter measures define trafficking as an explicitly sexual crime — an act of violence against women — rather than as a by-product of an ever more global marketplace and the increasing feminization of migration. Any policy that will truly improve the often deplorable working conditions in the international sex industry must confront the economic realities of the profession without getting distracted by the sexual ones.

To those who feel their moral hackles rising at the prospect, Ann Jordan of the International Human Rights Law Group presents a compelling analogy: "We don't support a woman's right to choose because we think abortion is a great thing," she says, "but because we believe fundamentally that women should have control over their own reproductive capacity. The same argument can be made for prostitution. Women who decide for whatever reason to sell sex should have the right to control their own body" — and should be assured of basic protection on the job. As with abortions, we can dream of a day when sex work is safe, legal, and rare.

Leah Platt Copyright © 2001 by The American Prospect, Inc. Preferred Citation: Leah Platt, "Regulating the Global Brothel," The American Prospect vol. 12 no. 12, July 2, 2001 - July 16, 2001. This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission from the author. Direct questions about permissions to

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