Politics & Policy

Debating Trafficking

In reference to Donna Hughes’s “Looking Beneath the Surface,” which criticized a recent Washington Post expose´ on the politics of human trafficking, some of her claims deserve rebuttal. But, first, some background: U.S. government estimates of the magnitude of the trafficking problem worldwide have changed radically in just a few years time. In 2000, the State Department claimed that there were as many as two million victims annually. Three years later, the figure jumped to four million, but in 2005 it was cut to 600,000-800,000 — where it remains today. Regarding the domestic, U.S. situation, there has been a parallel number jumble — with the estimates rising and falling inexplicably during a fairly short time span. The Washington Post reporter, Jerry Markon, is one of the first journalists to question these figures.

Donna Hughes’s most serious charge is that anyone who questions the mammoth estimates of the size of the trafficking problem, or any of the other claims made by anti-trafficking activists, must be a supporter of legal prostitution. It is common for social movement activists, and Hughes is one of the most prominent in the trafficking area, to brand all critics as sympathizers with the culprits (critics are routinely equated with pimps, traffickers, or the larger sex industry). Such activists refuse to acknowledge that critics may be operating in good faith, without any particular agenda. Hughes accuses the Post reporter of writing a “biased hit piece,” simply because he dared to question some of the unverified and highly dubious claims made by some activists and government officials. She then turns her sights on me, because I was quoted in the Post article. Hughes accuses me of being “a long time apologist for the sex industry,” which is both offensive and demonstrably untrue. She claims that I advocate decriminalization of indoor prostitution, but in fact I take a much more nuanced position — one that cannot be neatly reduced to “decriminalization” or “legalization” and is more in line with systematic harm reduction targeted at street prostitution. I doubt that Hughes has ever read anything I’ve written, because if she had, she’d know that her accusations are patently false. I have published a number of articles in respected academic journals, which are not reducible to soundbites, the discourse of choice of many activists and pundits.

It is also important to examine the quotation from me that appeared in the Washington Post story, which I quote in full here because it was missing from Hughes’s column: “The discrepancy between the alleged number of victims per year and the number of cases [the authorities have] been able to make is so huge that it’s got to raise major questions. It suggests that this problem is being blown way out of proportion.” Now, at first glance, you might wonder why this quote was so irritating to Hughes. Indeed, in her own October 2 column, she appears to agree with my statement. She writes that the fluctuating figures should “raise concerns about the validity of the estimates,” and she even believes that it is impossible to arrive at reliable numbers on the scope of the problem. I fully agree. This is a hidden trade and part of an underground economy, so attempts at even rough ballpark estimates are doomed to fail.

Even some government agencies have questioned the alleged magnitude of the trafficking problem. The U.S. Justice Department is one case in point, and the General Accountability Office, in a major report in 2006, took issue with the prevailing statistics: it concluded that all aggregate figures are problematic due to “methodological weaknesses, gaps in data, and numerical discrepancies” and noted that the “data are generally not available, reliable, or comparable” across time and place.

The Bush administration has spent approximately $500 million to fight trafficking, yet much of this appears to have been squandered — and on this, too, Hughes and I seem to agree. Tons of funds have been given to domestic and international organizations that have little or no expertise in the trafficking area, and there has been amazingly little accountability with respect to how the funds are used and whether the funded programs are making a difference in identifying and assisting victims. Markon’s Post article documents this questionable use of public funds, including the hiring of a PR firm at a cost of $12 million. The GAO report was critical of “the credentials of the organizations and findings of the research that the [State Department’s] Trafficking Office funded.” Taxpayers should be alarmed over this.

Human trafficking is a serious problem and evidence-based government efforts to combat it are welcome. But American government policy has largely consisted of throwing money at a problem whose magnitude is unknown, funds that might be better spent if more carefully allocated to groups and agencies with the greatest expertise in assisting victims of coercive trafficking. Markon’s Washington Post article is a refreshing antidote to current public policy and practice, and it is not helpful for Hughes to blame the messengers, especially since she seems to agree with a good deal of the critique.|

Ronald Weitzer

Professor of Sociology

George Washington University

Washington, D.C.

Members of the National Review editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”

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