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  • Cited by 1
  • Print publication year: 2016
  • Online publication date: December 2016

7 - The Limits of Consent: Sex Traffi cking and the Problem of International Paternalism

from Part III - The Social Relations of Paternalism


Take up the White Man's burden, Send forth the best ye breed

Go bind your sons to exile, to serve your captives’ need;

To wait in heavy harness, On fluttered folk and wild—

Your new-caught, sullen peoples, Half-devil and half-child.

Take up the White Man's burden, Have done with childish days—

The lightly proferred laurel, The easy, ungrudged praise.

Comes now, to search your manhood, through all the thankless years

Cold, edged with dear-bought wisdom, The judgment of your peers!

“The White Man's Burden,” Rudyard Kipling, 1899

Sex trafficking is commonly represented by the image of a young girl, kidnapped and sold from hand to hand until she ends up in a brothel in a large city, or sold by impoverished parents to a criminal network. She disappears into a world of sex work where she services thirty men a night. Such stories have elicited an active rescue network, invading brothels, rescuing women, sending them to shelters, and sometimes repatriating them to their countries of origin if they moved across national borders. But the situation is far more complicated. Social scientists studying trafficking report that there are many paths into brothels in addition to those depicted in popular literature on trafficking. Many women who go into prostitution are seeking a better life or an escape from an intolerable one. Many are married to abusive husbands, or face starvation unless they migrate away from their community. Some go for the adventure and the money they can earn.

Despite this complexity, many of the activists in the contemporary anti-trafficking movement, which include NGOs, journalists, faith-based groups, radical feminists, liberal feminists, and humanitarians more generally, tell a simpler story, one that recycles the classic images of imperial-era paternalism. For example, Nicholas Kristof, the New York Times Pulitzer prize-winning correspondent who has been increasingly interested in covering sex trafficking in Asia over the past decade, writes newspaper columns in which he characterizes sex trafficking as a brutality that is largely the lot of the developing world, and from which it must be “saved.” His writings focus on the vulnerable victimhood of the Third World Prostitute.