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Gender Inequality, the Real Driver of Sex Trafficking

Sex trafficking is a highly-gendered crime.

Key points

  • Combatting gender inequality is needed for combatting sex trafficking.
  • Women and girls in prostitution need to be seen as victims, not criminals.
  • A range of legal protections can decrease the vulnerability of women.
  • Attacking misogyny and sexism could shrink the commercial sex trade.

It is a stark fact of life: Most sex traffickers and their clients are men, while the vast majority of those who are sex trafficked are women and girls.

A Highly-Gendered Crime

That makes sex trafficking a highly gendered crime. Much of its prevalence can be laid at the door of gender inequality, says Yasmeen Hassan, founder of Equality Now. It’s women and girls who are more vulnerable, economically and socially, and it’s men who have increasingly normalized the buying of female bodies for sex.

In Hassan’s experience, efforts to combat sex trafficking need to be combined with efforts to combat gender inequality. Since its founding in 1992, Equality Now has been using the law to end gender-based violence and discrimination, including sex trafficking.

The organization has had its share of success. Equality Now has played an important role in changing more than 50 sex discriminatory laws – including those allowing rape, child marriage, and so-called “honor” killings.

A Highly Lucrative Crime

In addition to being highly gendered, sex trafficking is immensely lucrative – involving an estimated $99 billion a year. In the words of one trafficker: “Why would you traffic in drugs or guns that you can sell only one time when in women and girls you have a commodity that can be sold again and again!”

Hassan has a list of ways in which women and girls end up in the sex trade. A constant in all the situations is the exploitation of women that comes about from their unequal status. These include:

● Sold into prostitution because of poverty

Deceived into signing contracts for jobs and ending up in sex trade

● Tricked by “boyfriends” and trapped in prostitution

● Trafficked into temporary marriages for sex

● Sold into child marriages or trafficked as sex slaves during times of conflicts or natural disasters

● Advertised and sold on the internet

● Trafficked in organized virginity sales.

Criminalization versus Decriminalization

Adobe Stock Image
Source: Adobe Stock Image

Hassan notes that traffickers look for opportunities in places where the sex trade is legal. In these cases, it’s much easier for the market to flourish.

Sweden, Norway, Iceland, France, Canada, Northern Ireland, and Ireland have decriminalized women and criminalized traffickers. The result? Sex trafficking has been reduced, says Hassan.

On the other hand, in countries that have legalized commercial sex, such as the Netherlands and Germany, sex trafficking has increased. The result? There’s also an increase in international sex tourism and local demand.

Hassan notes that in addition to criminalizing traffickers, pimps and brothel owners, it is essential to address the underlying misogyny and sexism of the “johns” who normalize the purchase of women’s bodies.

Equality Now is working with a diverse range of advocacy groups focusing on poverty, addiction, homelessness, foster care, LGBTQI youth, to take this agenda forward.

Equality Now is also calling for urgent and collective action to address new threats posed by the misuse of the internet and digital technology. Hassan contends that governments must regulate the digital space to protect against abuse.

The experiences of women who have survived sex trafficking are instructive. Hassan cites the words of a survivor of sex trafficking from India:

“When people tell me that women choose this life, I can’t help but laugh. Do they know how many women like me have tried to escape but have been beaten black and blue when they are caught? To the men who buy us, we are like meat. To everybody else in society, we simply do not exist.”


Equality Now Web Site

About the Author

Author and speaker Mitzi Perdue is an 81-year-old war correspondent who writes about Ukraine. Most recently she authored Relentless, a biography of Mark Victor Hansen, coauthor of Chicken Soup for the Soul.

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GGG stands for "good, giving, and game." Think "good in bed," "giving of equal time and equal pleasure," and "game for anything—within reason."
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