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The Perfect Business?

The Perfect Business?: Anti-Trafficking and the Sex Trade along the Mekong

Sverre Molland
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  • Book Info
    The Perfect Business?
    Book Description:

    For those at the high end of the trafficking chain, the sex trade is an alluring and lucrative business: the supply of girls is constant, the costs of operations are low, and interference from law enforcement is weak to non-existent. Anti-trafficking organizations and governments commonly appropriate such market metaphors of supply and demand as they struggle with the moral-political dimensions of a business involving trade, labor, prostitution, migration, and national borders. But how apt are they? Is the sex trade really the perfect business? This provocative new book examines the social worlds and interrelationships of traffickers, victims, and trafficking activists along the Thai-Lao border. It explores local efforts to reconcile international legal concepts, the bureaucratic prescriptions of aid organizations, and global development ideologies with on-the-ground realities of sexual commerce.Author Sverre Molland provides an insider's view of recruitment and sex commerce gleaned from countless conversations and interviews in bars and brothels-a view that complicates popular stereotypes of women forced or duped into prostitution by organized crime. Molland's fine-grained ethnography shows a much more varied picture of friends recruiting friends, and families helping relatives. A recruiter rationalizes her act as a benefit or favor to a village friend; relationships between prostitutes and bar owners are cloaked in kin terms and familial metaphors. Sex work in the Mekong region follows patron-client cultural scripts about mutual help and obligation, which makes distinguishing the victims from the traffickers difficult. Molland's research illuminates the methods and motivations of recruiters as well as the economic incentives and predicaments of victims.The Perfect Business?is the first book to go beyond the usual focus on migrants and sex commerce to explore the institutional context of anti-trafficking. Its author, himself a former advisor for a United Nations anti-trafficking project, raises crucial questions about how an increasingly globalized development aid sector responds to what might more accurately be described as an extraterritorial development challenge of human mobility. His book will offer insights to students and scholars in anthropology, gender studies, and human geography, as well as anyone interested in one of the most controversial issues of development policy.

    eISBN: 978-0-8248-6582-5
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. 1 Introduction: The Perfect Business?
    (pp. 1-30)

    It is early morning. I am sitting with a group of project officers in a small office in Vientiane. All the participants work in aid programs that seek to combat trafficking in persons in the Lao Peoples’ Democratic Republic (PDR). I have previously proposed that one project manager, Tom,¹ arrange an informal workshop where I could share some case studies from my own research. I explained that I was curious to learn how anti-trafficking program workers would perceive these cases. Tom was enthusiastic about the idea, suggesting not only that this could be an opportunity for me to obtain data...

  5. I GLOBAL PERFECTIONS:: The Idealized Discourse of Trafficking

    • 2 Do Traffickers Have Navels?
      (pp. 33-49)

      The term “human trafficking” appeared in theNew York Timesfor the first time in 1976, in an article regarding trafficking in persons out of East Germany.¹ The same topic resurfaced in a 1978 story. Not before 1999 did the term “human trafficking” reappear inTimes’ pages. Since then, reporting on the topic has increased steadily. In 2010, no fewer than 118Timesarticles mentioned the term (table 1). In other words, by 2010 theNew York Timeson average was reporting on human trafficking more than twice a week, whereas about a decade earlier the term was not mentioned...

    • 3 The Market Metaphor
      (pp. 50-70)

      The anti-trafficking sector represents a tremendously diverse constellation of actors that include Christians and feminist groups who seek to abolish prostitution, state officials who are concerned with controlling borders, activists who seek to legalize migration and sex work, and aid workers who frame trafficking in terms of development and human rights. This heterogeneity is truly remarkable yet often remains unacknowledged. Underlying this diversity are several common denominators that are expressed through legal binaries and a market metaphor. I described these commonalities in chapter 1 as three concentric circles, consisting of a dyadic power relationship between a victim and a perpetrator...

  6. II LOCAL IMPERFECTIONS:: On-the-Ground Realities and Ambiguities

    • 4 Teens Trading Teens
      (pp. 73-109)

      Legal definitions of trafficking presuppose a dyadic conception of agency. Determining whether trafficking has occurred is primarily a question of whether a third party has applied deception or force in an active way with the intent to exploit a migrant. Whereas trafficking literature commonly implies that recruitment is inherently nonconsensual, academic literature on prostitution has tended not to address this question directly. Academics who research trafficking by and large ground their critiques of trafficking discourse in analytical and conceptual arguments, without reference to detailed empirical studies of how recruitment is carried out (Doezema 2000; Sullivan 2003). In contrast, scholars who...

    • 5 Hot Spots and Flows
      (pp. 110-141)

      During the course of my research, Phut and I revisited the Papaya Bar, which is located not far from the Factory, where Thia, Daeng, Sei, and Gop work. The following account is from one of those visits:

      Gin, one of the sex workers at the Papaya Bar, joins Phut and me at our table. We have met numerous times before, and our drinking companionship is now routine. Gin is of Khmu ethnicity and comes from Luang Prabang Province. Her journey into sex work exemplifies that of many Lao sex workers: an informed decision based on a mix of circumstance and...

    • 6 Profitable Bodies?
      (pp. 142-176)

      It is early evening. Distant thunderclouds darken the horizon over the Isaan plains. The sound of drumming raindrops fills the air. The local market has just closed down for the day, and the streets are gradually emptied of people. The mechanical sound of mopeds and cars is less intense. A barking dog and the squeaky noise of atuk tukinterrupt the monotonous rhythm of falling rain. Locals and visitors are gathering in eateries along the river for supper and evening drinks.

      Not too far away is a small house located along a back alley. Young women sit around a...

  7. III BETWIXT AND BETWEEN:: The Anti-traffickers

    • 7 Combating Trafficking, Mekong Style: Tales of Fishponds and Mushrooms
      (pp. 179-203)

      In 2004 a trafficking project held a meeting in Vientiane with its stakeholders to carry out a mapping exercise. UNIAP had in its first phase implemented several anti-trafficking programs, such as income generation and awareness raising in rural areas of Laos. However, due to the increasing numbers of anti-trafficking programs, the project wanted to play a stronger role in coordinating the anti-trafficking effort in the Mekong region. An important part of this strategy was called Program 1 in its project document: building the knowledge base on trafficking.

      The project had previously collected various information on all the trafficking projects, such...

    • 8 The Drifters: Anti-traffickers in Practice
      (pp. 204-227)

      “Hmmm . . . hmmm. This is interesting.” John is sitting behind his office desk, rereading a story about Nort:

      A girl called Nort was introduced by a friend to sell her virginity in a bar when she was seventeen. She got 25,000 baht for this and has been able to help her family with income. After selling her virginity, she continued to work in the bar selling sex. Nort is now eighteen, and she has assisted other girls arriving at the bar, some of them under eighteen, with selling their virginity. She receives a commission from the girls’ earnings...

    • Conclusion The Tenacity of the Market Metaphor
      (pp. 228-236)

      I am on the top floor of one of the most expensive hotels in Vientiane—it is situated on the bank of the Mekong River. I am nearing the end of my fieldwork, and an anti-trafficking organization has invited me to attend a large planning workshop. I am sitting with many other anti-traffickers, some of them former colleagues, as well as friends and acquaintances. The Lao government is developing its first national plan of action to combat trafficking in persons, and in this meeting we will provide input, with particular focus on monitoring and evaluation. In front of me is...

  8. Notes
    (pp. 237-248)
  9. Bibliography
    (pp. 249-270)
  10. Index
    (pp. 271-276)
  11. Back Matter
    (pp. 277-281)