Booze, Backpacking and Sex Trafficking

“The mechanics of violence is what destroys women, controls women, diminishes women, and keeps them in their so-called place”¹

Despite the fact that sex trafficking is banned under international law, and the laws of 134 countries, 20.1 million adults and children have been bought and sold worldwide, for the commercial sex industry². Moreover, women and girls account for 98%  of those trafficked for sexual purposes³. Globalisation has allowed the sex tourism industry to flourish, with more and more people travelling further afield for holidays, in addition to the free mobility of people across borders. Poverty further perpetuates sex trafficking as illiteracy, dependency, violence, social stigma, and gender disparity restrict women to powerless positions, where the sex trade becomes their only option 4.

So why does the sex trafficking trade continue to prevail, despite the condemnations of the international community and states themselves? Who is making money from this trade?

South East Asia is one of the prime hotspots for ‘sex tourism’. In 1990, for example, before sex tourism even hit its peak, the industry contributed some $27 billion to Thailand’s GDP5. Therefore it can be seen that governments continue to violate the human rights of trafficked victims and rarely succeed in catching or punishing the traffickers themselves, as it is not in their interest to restrict this industry which provides business and wealth. Moreover, while anti-trafficking legislation is is prevalent, it is failing to prevent this modern form of slavery, due to the fact that the consistent ‘need to protect women’, is maintained, generating legislation that disempowers and marginalises women through restricting their ability to move across borders.

So what causes human trafficking?

There is a ‘push-pull’ element within the sex trafficking trade which can be problematic when legislation is being produced to prevent this violence. Dire poverty creates a fertile breeding ground for sex traffickers, who are able to bribe, manipulate and threaten those who have nothing. The ‘pull’ side comes from the desire, particularly in South Asia, to emigrate to a big city, with the media luring young people towards it. Moreover, the sex industry in this part of the world continues to boom, as holidaymakers maintain and increase the demand for the business.

Asia has become the world’s epicenter for sex tourism, mail order brides, and prostitution. Due to the growing network of this industry, with huge business stakes for brothel owners, pimps, travel agents, airline companies, hotel companies, it is not difficult to see why anti-slavery legislation is failing to protect millions for human trafficking. Further, issues surrounding the definitions of sex slavery and sex trafficking are contested, with the difference between forced prostitution and ‘sex worker’ becoming blurred. Thus a number of terms have been given which somewhat glamorises and legitimises the work, such as ‘sex worker’, ‘entertainer’ ‘escort’, however the motive remains the same. Whether pushed or pulled, those working in or forced into this industry is a result of the unequal power dynamics between the Global North and Global South, and between Men and Women.

But aren’t the ‘customers’ just as much to blame?

Power dynamics play an important role in the sex trafficking/prostitution industry, with men who buy sex, needing to do so in order to strengthen their masculinity through exerting force and power over someone weaker themselves.6 Hence young females from poor countries fit the ideal criteria for recruitment into the sex industry as they are easily controlled by older people and males. In addition, there is an element of racial discrimination by the foreigner, to exert power and dominance over women in the ‘third word’, reinforcing the orientalist ‘Us Vs Them’ dichotomy.

Ultimately, while the sex tourism industry continues to boom, with the business stakes so high for many of those who are part of the networks which make up the industry, anti-trafficking legislation, and international law calling on the protection of Human Rights, will not have any precedence in preventing such violence. Moreover, those buying into the industry; holidaymakers and foreigners, should have a greater awareness of the issues and implications of buying sex. The need to exert one’s masculinity, further demonstrates that sex-trafficking is inherently gendered, and until prevailing gender norms regarding what it means to be a woman or a man are deconstructed, it is unlikely any legislation will go far in preventing such human slavery.


[1] Kristof, N. and WuDunn, S. (2010). Half the sky: How to Change the World. 1st ed. London: Virago Press.

[2] Equality Now. (2017). Global Sex Trafficking Fact Sheet. [online] Available at: [Accessed 12 Apr. 2017].

[3] Polaris. (2017). Polaris. [online] Available at: [Accessed 13 Apr. 2017].

[4] Huda, S. (2006). Sex trafficking in South Asia. International Journal of Gynecology & Obstetrics, 94(3), pp.374-381.

[5] Palet, L. (2017). This Is the New Sex Tourism Destination. [online] OZY. Available at: [Accessed 13 Apr. 2017].

[6] Samarasinghe, V. (2009). Female sex trafficking in Asia: The Resilience of Patriarchy in a Changing World. 1st ed. Hoboken: Taylor and Francis.



About School of Politics and International Relations

This blog has been set up for the students of PO665, Advanced Topics in Politics and International Relations: Global Gender Justice, which is a course for final year Honours students in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent. As part of their participation in the course, students submit blog posts that examine issues pertaining to gender justice within the family, the community, the state and global society. We aim to explore the extent to which gender inequality within the state has an impact on state behaviour, with a specific focus on state development and state security, and further aim to analyse the effectiveness and limits of international organisations, international human rights instruments, NGOs and activists to bring about greater gender justice.
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