Trafficking, Prostitution and Inequality: A Public Lecture by Catharine MacKinnon

“Now, to be fair, most johns [buyers] know the women don’t enjoy it, and they [johns] know they [the women] are there out of economic necessity. They know they are buying their poverty, not their will. But – and get this – they consider that “consent”. This is what consent means. Someone they know has no choice, they know are poor, they know they don’t want to have sex with them, they know would never have sex with them if they weren’t being paid, these people without options, that, when they do that, they call that “consent”. In other words, when she’s found doing the one thing left after 99% of her options are precluded, when she is so desperate that she is out of any other possibilities, “consenting” is what she is doing!

Now this is an ideological position. From his end, it makes him feel better using her, and that makes it good for business. From her end, she is having the sex of the sexually abused child; that is, sex you would never have except that he has more power than you do. I say this is not just like every other job. Setting limits on the intimacy and intrusiveness of the demands that can be made on a person without recourse is one of the whole points of human rights law and labor law.”

@ 0:52:34 – 0:54:06


“So, what is trafficking? The definition includes being sexually exploited through force, fraud, or coercion for commercial sex, all of which indeed occurs in the sex industry. But that definition and the industry’s reality also includes (and extends to include) sexual exploitation through “abuse of power or a condition of vulnerability”. Now caste, race, or age can be conditions of vulnerability, as is extreme poverty; and so too in reality are sex and gender.

Trafficking is defined as transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of a human being for purposes of sexual exploitation. In other words, it is straight-up pimping. Movement across jurisdictional lines is not and has not been an element of the international definition of trafficking since at least 1949 (although most people seem to have missed that). The definition of trafficking is thus neither border crossing nor severe violence, it is third-party involvement in sexual exploitation. And this is why Sigma Huda, who was the UN special reporter on human trafficking from 2004 to 2008 observed, “Prostitution, as actually practiced in the world, usually does satisfy the elements of trafficking.”

Now this person (the buyer, who makes it possible for her to be sold to someone) is usually almost never prosecuted and in most places he is not a criminal. I would say that, officially, having the prostitutes (who are women) be criminals and for him not is official sex discrimination, unrecognized as such. What Sweden has done is situate prostitution as violence against women and strongly criminalized the buyers accordingly, making purchasing sex a crime, and then they enforced it, together with extending some help, although not yet enough, to those who want to leave [the prostitution industry]. So what this says, essentially (against his demand to buy her for sex) [is], “We don’t sell people here, not even women, or for sex.” Eliminating her criminality raises her status and criminalizes him, lowers his privilege, that’s why I call it a sex-equality law […]. Now they arrest and surveil buyers and the result has been in cutting street prostitution in half or and the lowest trafficking rate in Europe; the trafficking rate has disappeared there. The stigma of prostitution may be shifting toward the john [buyer], and … it is the only legal approach to prostitution that has ever even partly worked in the history of the world.”

@ 0:59:41 – 1:03:31

MacKinnon [the speaker] notes that this “happened in Sweden because Andrea Dworkin and [her] went there in 1990 and proposed it. That’s the simple answer. The real answer is women there didn’t give up until 2000, when they got it, and there was a majority of women in parliament, which I think is probably not a coincidence.” See more about the Kvinnofrid law here. MacKinnon’s answer as well as the question is @ 1:17:44 – 1:19:27 of the video. MacKinnon pictured below.



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