May 26, 2009

International Exploitation of Children and the Sweden Solution

Educating yourself about the international exploitation of children for sexual purposes is painful. It is much easier to turn your face away and imagine a world in which such evil doesn't exist. It is much easier to not know that even as you read this, there are many children being exploited and hurt, abused and used because of sex tourism, the international sex trafficking trade, and prostitution right here in the United States.

But not knowing doesn't help these children.

I recently read The Johns: Sex for Sale and the Men Who Buy It by Victor Malarek. Combined with a viewing of Sex Slaves, a Frontline documentary, I got a very balanced view of the sex trade. Malarek has an axe to grind, and his judgment of the Johns throughout the book is palpable, but nevertheless largely absolutely correct. He exposes how the hatred of women and backlash of feminism factors into the decision of so many men to participate in sex tourism. Often, these men turn a blind eye to the fact that children are also being exploited or that the women they are buying are not willing participants or may be underage. But some specifically seek underage children.

In a video put out by Foundation Peduli Anak, Indonesian street children discuss being hit on by older male tourists who attempt to win them over with toys and food or a small amount of money.

The Frontline documentary provided a better look into the way in which the trade works and how women are brought into it. Less focused on children's issues, the documentary instead shows how the trade operates, which is beneficial to understand if the goal is to consider what policies might reduce the trade.

Malarek's book upholds Sweden as the best example of policies that reduce the sex trade. Sweden decriminalized prostitution in 1999 and instead focused its efforts on prosecuting those who buy, not those who sell. Since the switch, the sex trade has virtually stopped in Sweden as it is no longer economically beneficial to the traffickers. Further, the number of prostitutes in the country has reduced by 2/3 since the law changed.

The Swedish solution certainly seems promising in result, but it was more than just the switch in policy. Sweden also attempted to switch the cultural understanding of prostitution by making official the position that all prostitution is violence against women perpetrated by men (this of course leaves male-male prostitution in an philosophically awkward position). Some feminists see this position as problematic in casting women always in the role of victim, when certainly some women do choose to use their bodies for economic gain.

For me, the risk of casting women into a victim role by changing the culture to perceive Johns as the criminal rather than prostitutes is one I am willing to take. The large majority of women engaged in prostitution are not doing so because they enjoy it, but because they are either forced by someone or by circumstances. Tolerance of the purchasing of women for personal exploitation,even for an hour, is a tolerance that permits sex trafficking of women and children to continue not only to exist but to thrive. A cultural, legal and political change toward vilifying the purchaser rather than the purchased would put children who are being exploited in a much better position to receive help, because it would make it easier for them to come forward and seek help and services when they are being abused. Further, it would reduce the demand for sexual services and would therefore automatically reduce the supply, including children.

In the meantime, I urge everyone to educate yourself about the issues of sex trafficking and support organizations struggling to end it. It is not a small isolated problem. It's global and it's huge, and it is absolutely catastrophic.

Some good organizations to get you started:

The Project to End Human Trafficking

The Polaris Project

Children of the Night

Foundation Peduli Anak

And consider joining the UN Blue Heart campaign against Human Trafficking.


  1. Well written! Thank you for allowing us to use this amazing, awareness-raising post for THE BLOG CARNIVAL AGAINST CHILD ABUSE. I hope you continue to be a part of it.

  2. I think its government to take strong measures against child prostitution and to launch a campaign to highlight the problem publicly.

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