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The Traffic in Women. Human Realities of the International Sex Trade.

The Traffic in Women. Human Realities of the International Sex Trade. By SIRIPORN SKROBANEK, NATTAYA BOONPAKDI and CHUTIMA JANTHAKEERO. London: Zed Books, 1997. Pp.viii, 124. Bibliography, Index.

The Traffic in Women is a research/policy publication arising from a three-year study of trafficking conducted by The Foundation for Women (Thailand) and the Women's Autonomy Centre of Leiden University (the Netherlands). The study commenced in 1993 and involved interviews with 131 sex industry workers in the urban contexts of Bangkok and Pattaya, and four rural villages in north and north-east Thailand. As a project addressing the "human realities" of the sex trade, the study is based on two "fundamental ideas" (p. 9):

Traffic in women is an aspect of transnational migration, and is a global issue. The study must, therefore, examine the evolving international division of labour, the migration policies of sending and receiving countries, and the impact of this on female labour migration, both nationally and internationally.

Traffic in women is a grave violation of human rights, and is a contemporary form of slavery. It is not simply a problem for the individual victim, but an international issue which cannot be separated from global economic, social and political issues.

In terms of the first "fundamental idea", the book details Thai policies on labour migration since 1977, as well as labour policies for guest workers in Europe and East Asia (particularly Germany and Japan). It interrogates the routes and networks through which women and information about the sex industry circulate, and draws examples not only from the infamous sex tourist districts of Patpong and Pattaya, but from the Thai sex district in Saphan Kwai in Bangkok and the Thai/Malaysian border as well. The authors offer a comprehensive analysis of the dynamics of rural to urban and international migration, its impacts on families and communities and how the migration of women to work in the sex industry has transformed family relationships in terms of hierarchy and gender roles. By describing the sex industry as an issue of transnational labour migration, however, and in comparing extreme cases of sexual exploitation with migration for work in the domestic service industry or marriage, the book represents all m igrant women as victims of sexual slavery. Given heated discussions on precisely this issue at the 1995 UN Conference on Women in Beijing (A. Murray, "Debt bondage and trafficking: Don't believe the hype", in K. Kempadoo and J. Doezema [eds.], Global Sex Workers: Rights, Resistance and Redefinition [Routledge: London and New York, 1988], pp. 51-64), it is surprising to find little engagement with these debates.

Furthermore, the second "fundamental idea" is a familiar trope that articulates the victimization of Thai women both within Thailand and internationally. For those well-acquainted with the rhetoric of organizations such as the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women (GAATW), this study echoes those imperatives (indeed, the book's Appendix details a "Draft of standard minimum rules for the treatment of victims of trafficking in persons and forced labour and slavery-like practices" prepared by GAATW and the Foundation for Women). In mobilizing the imagery of slavery, however, the researchers are blinded to the diverging opinions often expressed by their informants. In chapter six, for example, it is amazing to find statements such as "Most women who come to Patpong do so of their own free will" (p. 38) or "Most of the women who had come to Pattaya as sex workers spoke positively about their experience" (p. 41), when such case studies are activated as examples of the slave-like conditions of women in the sex i ndustry. Organizations such as GAATW and the Foundation for Women tend to conflate a diverse assortment of commercial sexual relations within a frame of coercive sex traffic, and disregard information about the variability of working conditions. In so doing, they refuse to hear the conflicting opinions expressed by sex workers themselves or by sex worker rights groups (see Kempadoo and Doezema, Global Sex Workers).

The Traffic in Women must be understood as part of a genre of policy research and documentation, and its strategic politics tend to simplify the complexity of the issue. It sits well alongside Truong's analysis of economic infrastructure of sex tourism (Truong Thanh-dam, Sex, Money and Morality: Prostitution and Tourism in Southeast Asia [London: Zed Books, 1990]), and Bishop and Robinson's analysis of the role of pleasure and fantasy in Thailand's sex industry (R. Bishop and L. Robinson, Night Market: Sexual Cultures and the Thai Economic Miracle [Routledge: London and New York, 1998]). Together these publications highlight the economic, social and cultural aspects of Thailand's sex industry, although each has a different agenda. They all, however, have the tendency to reproduce victim identities for Thai women. For those wanting to move beyond such debates, The Traffic in Women will provide little inspiration.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Law, Lisa
Publication:Journal of Southeast Asian Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1999
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