“For the rest, it is self-evident that the abolition of the present system of production must bring with it the abolition of the community of women springing from that system, i.e., of prostitution both public and private.”
–Karl Marx, “The Communist Manifesto”
Since 1989, the prophets of capital have proclaimed the coming of an age of peace, prosperity, freedom and human rights. Like most of their proclamations, nothing could be further from the truth. Human society has not become more compassionate or more respectful of human rights, nor has it become any less barbaric than a few decades ago. In fact in our modern world, it is estimated that there may be anywhere between 12 to 27 million people in some form of literal slavery. These forms of slavery include anything from debt slavery, where one is told they must work to pay off a debt incurred, usually via a human trafficker, to outright ownership of human beings. Of all the forms of human slavery currently in existence today, the one which still receives little attention in the press is sex trafficking. This generally takes the form of prostitution, but it may involve forced marriage or pornography as well. Sex slavery goes hand-in-hand with human trafficking, where victims are often promised jobs abroad only to find that they have been deceived. Their passports are taken, they are told they owe someone a large amount of money for their travel expenses and upkeep, and they are forced to work the debt off in a brothel. In some countries such as Moldova, girls have been literally snatched off the street on the way to or from school. The woman or girl in question may be auctioned off to another owner, and often there is an intermediary “training” process which involves brutal rape and humiliation as the thugs teach the women how to please clients. It is without hyperbole one of the most terrible offenses against womankind, and under capitalism it thrives.
Prostitution has often been referred to as “the world’s oldest profession.” This saying does not acknowledge the reality, that prostitution is rarely a profession but rather a last desperate attempt to survive in societies dominated by men. Where that is not the case, slavery has often been behind the prostitution business. If prostitution is so old, why do we need to focus more attention on it today? Isn’t it just part and parcel of the general horror that is capitalism? To answer these questions, we need to look at how sex slavery has changed in the modern world. There are several key factors which distinguish modern slavery from outdated forms. One obvious difference is the price; today a human being can be “bought” for as little as $100 in some countries, whereas a slave in 1850 would fetch a price equal to four times that much. Another key difference is that capitalism, together with prostitution (including legal prostitution in some countries) has made slavery more profitable. In 19th century America, profit off of slave labor took the form of an agricultural product. This meant that when one bought a slave, it was necessary to look after that slave for a long period of time until the master had realized a profit above or at least equal to what he paid for that slave. A sex trafficker on the other hand buys a woman, and within a few weeks he has already made back the money he spent on her—the rest becomes his profit. When she is dead or can no longer “work” for the pimp, he doesn’t need to wait for some boat to cross the Atlantic. The “hooks,” which consist of fake ads and agencies which promise foreign jobs or study opportunities are always baited.
The sex industry itself is one of the most profitable in the world. Just as capitalism transforms all aspects of life, it has transformed sex as well. Modern prostitution, including its legalized form, literally transforms a person’s body into a commodity. Just as commodities today trade on a global scale, so too do human beings. Capitalism has even provided Westerners and other well-to-do men with a sex tourism industry, letting the scum of the earth sample girls of virtually any ethnicity. In fact to be sure, this trade is not limited to women and girls but even boys as well. Held captive in a foreign country, often having experienced violence and threats of further violence, the victims of human trafficking may be forced to see as much as thirty clients a day, and the punishment for refusing to fulfill any sick fantasy can be severe, even lethal.
There is another key factor to consider when thinking about the problem of sex trafficking. Forced prostitution and sex slavery have flourished for decades, if not centuries, throughout the undeveloped world. Typically, forced prostitution tends to thrive in failed states under military occupation by foreign troops, for example under the aegis of the United Nations or NATO. It exists wherever the armies or fleets of developed countries use base or port facilities. It also thrives in countries that have large numbers of foreign expats from wealthy nations. Yet while this plague has been with the so-called Third World for centuries, its appearance in the formerly socialist and revisionist countries of Eastern Europe and Central Asia since 1989-91 comes as quite a shock for some. The formerly socialist countries, and most of the revisionist ones, actually managed to more or less eradicate prostitution during most of their existence, to the point where some Soviet citizens who traveled to the West after WWII could hardly believe that such a “profession” existed. At least one whole generation grew up not really knowing what prostitution was. The fact that since 1989 these Eastern Bloc and Central Asian countries have become hotbeds of sex slavery and trafficking also shatters the myth that capitalism has brought “human dignity,” “human rights,” and a generally better standard of living to people allegedly suffering under socialism.
In the global human trafficking trade, countries are often divided into three different categories. Source countries are those which provide the victims. Ukraine serves as a good example of a source country. With an estimated 120,000 men (who are typically used as construction or agricultural laborers), women and children trafficked abroad since the collapse of the Soviet Union, it tops any other former Soviet republic as a source nation. Some countries are transit countries, meaning that people are often trafficked through them on the way to some buyer abroad. It is often in these transit countries, such as those of the Balkans, where “training” might take place. Lastly, there are destination countries, where the women or girls are forced to work in brothels and on the street. Popular destinations are the Middle East, Western Europe, East Asia, the U.S. and Canada and wherever prostitution is in high demand, such as in popular tourist or business destinations. Again, military bases and occupations also provide major demand. It is also important to note that some countries may have all three functions at one time; Russia for example is a source, transit and destination nation.
The contrast between the formerly socialist nations and their status today is stark, and highlights the horror of modern capitalism for women, but at the same time we must not ignore the plight of tens of millions of women and girls in China, Southeast Asia, Africa, and Latin America. In fact, before the trafficking in Eastern European and Central Asian women, victims were usually from Asia and Africa. The fact that these other countries did not experience a socialist society and thus suffered an uninterrupted history of sexual exploitation does not mean that the plight of their women should be dismissed, even temporarily.
All of this leads us to the inevitable question of why Marxist-Leninists need to speak out more emphatically on this issue. Indeed, the APL has rarely found much specific treatment of the subject in the documents of various Marxist parties or organizations. At least one party, the revisionist Communist Party of Great Britain, advocates the legalization of prostitution, naively believing that once legalized these “sex workers” will be able to form unions and trafficking will end. To those familiar with the trade, this idea is little more than a delusion. Marxist-Leninist parties and organizations need to take a hard line stance against women trafficking and sexual slavery for a number of reasons, outlined below. In addition to these reasons, we will include some responses to common arguments from capitalist apologists and misguided “leftists” alike.
We need look no further than the Communist Manifesto to see Marx’s advocacy for eliminating prostitution “public and private.” Coupled with Marx’s other words on families, children and male-female relations, we see that Marx understood that prostitution exists in other, not-so-apparent forms. It is bound up in the oppression of women and centuries of a human society that has treated women as property and a means of entertainment and breeding. Still, from a Marxist-Leninist perspective it should be quite clear that if we oppose capitalism on the grounds that it converts workers and thus humans into “appendages” of machines, surely we must oppose that which turns the worker’s entire body into a commodity to be sold, especially against their will.
It is usually at this point that an apologist for the status quo, even some self-styled “leftists,” come forward and tell us that while they are opposed to sex slavery, many prostitutes choose their lifestyle. This in a way is true, but even if we exclude those who are literally forced by violence to work in this industry it would be ridiculous to ignore the fact that millions are involved not because they have a desire to do so, and especially not because they have some kind of personal greed and low morality, as idiotic libertarians and other reactionaries suggest, but rather out of economic necessity—in fact, survival. Many are orphans, homeless and sometimes cut off from their families. Westerners often assume that because there are local women who “go into business for themselves” and make large amounts of money in the escort business, the same must be true for millions of foreign women. In fact it borders on racism to suggest that the high rate of prostitution and trafficking among the women of Asia, Latin America or Africa is due to some inherent desire toward that profession which is lacking among Western women. Indeed, the fact that Eastern Europe and Central Asia have become major source countries for human trafficking and sex slavery, yet hardly had prostitution at all prior to the collapse of the USSR, makes the thought absurd. How realistic is it to believe that millions of women since 1991, for little apparent reason, decided to work in prostitution for pimps who abuse and exploit them?
Next there is what can be called the “feminist” argument regarding prostitution, called so only in the sense that it is advocated by some, but not all, feminists. The argument goes something along the lines of this: “We should refer to prostitution as ‘sex work,’ and the prostitutes themselves as ‘sex workers.’ This will reduce the shame these women suffer.” This argument is typical of various identity politics movements; rather than actually try to change a bad situation, they believe that changing the words and thus the way people think about it will actually amount to concrete change. The fact is that no other name can take away the humiliation that these women suffer, and many among the ruling class, often in countries with legalized prostitution, also welcome this idea of “sex work.” If it has any effect on social consciousness at all, it merely reinforces that it is perfectly normal to use a human being as entertainment without even considering how they got in that particular situation in the first place.
Here we come to the issue of legalization and “sex worker” unions. First, it is important to differentiate between the legalization of prostitution and the decriminalization of prostitutes. The former means legitimizing pimps as normal businessmen, whereas the latter means that women involved in prostitution are not penalized. The latter is very important because one factor keeping trafficked women in bondage is their inability to go to the police without being imprisoned. Legalizing prostitution has not helped fight trafficking; in fact it has increased the practice as it creates demand not only for more sex and thus more girls, but also cheaper sex and sex without restrictions like condoms. Even in countries where prostitution is legal and regulated, traffickers can profit by providing cheaper sex (as low as 50 Euros in some cases), as well as underage girls and boys. When prostitution is legalized it is very easy to conceal the true nature of the relationship between the pimp and the victim, making it seem as though she came willingly and that she is well-paid. This is even easier when the victim does not speak the local language. In a report provided by the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women entitled “Ten Reasons for Not Legalizing Prostitution: And a Legal Response to the Demand for Prostitution,” the author, Janice Raymond, provides the following pertinent information on the link between legalization and trafficking:
“Legalized or decriminalized prostitution industries are one of the root causes of sex trafficking. One argument for legalizing prostitution in the Netherlands was that legalization would help to end the exploitation of desperate immigrant women who had been trafficked there for prostitution. However, one report found that 80% of women in the brothels of the Netherlands were trafficked from other countries (Budapest Group, 1999) (1). In 1994, the International Organization of Migration (IOM) stated that in the Netherlands alone, ‘nearly 70 % of trafficked women were from CEEC [Central and Eastern European Countries]’ (IOM, 1995, p. 4).
The government of the Netherlands presents itself as a champion of anti-trafficking policies and programs, yet it has removed every legal impediment to pimping, procuring and brothels. In the year 2000, the Dutch Ministry of Justice argued in favor of a legal quota of foreign ‘sex workers,’ because the Dutch prostitution market demanded a variety of ‘bodies’ [Dutting, 2001, p. 16]. Also in 2000, the Dutch government sought and received a judgment from the European Court recognizing prostitution as an economic activity, thereby enabling women from the European Union and former Soviet bloc countries to obtain working permits as ‘sex workers’ in the Dutch sex industry if they could prove that they are self employed. Non-governmental organizations [NGOs] in Europe report that traffickers use the work permits to bring foreign women into the Dutch prostitution industry, masking the fact that women have been trafficked, by coaching them to describe themselves as independent ‘migrant sex workers’ [Personal Communication, Representative of the International Human Rights Network, 1999].”
As we can see, legalization cannot solve the problem. Marxist-Leninists are those who fight against the commoditization of human beings in any form. Another compelling reason why Marxist-Leninists must take up the fight against this kind of sexual exploitation is because it is not simply part of the woman question, but also the national question. How can there be an equality of nations when some nations provide thousands of girls for the pleasure of richer nations? Is there any justice in the idea that a Dutch girl may have hundreds of career opportunities available to her while a girl in the Ukraine or Thailand must consider prostitution as a viable option in life? Is it right that in some countries, Ukraine, Russia and other former Soviet countries have become so firmly associated with prostitution that the term “Natasha” has been coined as a slang term for prostitute? Were Germany or perhaps the U.K. beset with such an economic disaster that large portions of their young women found themselves in prostitution at home and abroad, would they still defend legalization and the “sex industry” so enthusiastically? Would it be too far-fetched to suggest that the reason why superficial bourgeois morality has made an about-face in favor of legal prostitution may have something to do with the fact that in the destination countries, the women are not native-born but rather Eastern European, African, East Asian or Latin American? Liberal values preach women’s rights for Western women, while less fortunate foreign women get treated like commodities.
As we continue to move away from the argument against legalization toward ever more compelling reasons why Marxist-Leninist parties should be at the forefront of the struggle against trafficking, let us again consider the ex-Eastern Bloc, and what has occurred since the fall of the USSR. The new capitalist class promised the people of Eastern Europe and Central Asia peace, prosperity and freedom. What they have actually brought is crime, corruption, hopelessness, instability, dictatorships, ethnic wars, humiliation, racism and literal slavery. The American/European establishment has for quite some time put much stock in the idea that they represent the leading force for human rights and all that is good in the world. Women trafficking and sexual slavery exposes this fraud like no other evidence could. It is no secret that rich Western bastions of “human rights” tend to be among the most prolific destination countries for sex slaves, but also provide a large portion of the sex tourists. If that weren’t enough, these nations and the international organizations they lead, via their economic and military policies, create and sustain the conditions in which trafficking and prostitution can thrive. When confronted with the reality of women trafficking, many enlightened European governments have favored or defended legalization, and/or simply washed their hands of the problem by claiming that the illegal acts against the women occurred outside their borders. In short, modern sex slavery is what reveals most vividly that the emperor is naked; this is to say that the cult of human rights, civil society and all empty phrases of modern capitalism are utterly worthless and false.
Next, we Marxist-Leninists are uniquely suited to lead this fight because we have a better understanding of the roots of this problem. If we ask why Ukraine suffers so much trafficking and prostitution, we need look no further than the fact that the majority of Ukraine’s unemployed have been women. Whereas the USSR provided quality health care, education, and employment in the past, young women cannot count on these anymore. They are at the mercy of the capitalist system. What this shows us is that if we think within the terms of the capitalist system, were we to somehow instantly liberate every Ukrainian girl or woman in prostitution, many of them would still be in a state of poverty, instability and in many cases homelessness. It is not in the interests of the capitalist class of Ukraine or Europe to provide these women with jobs and health care. It is in their interests to maintain a reserve army of labor, which in turn means a large mass of unemployed. What concerns the European, American and Russian ruling class is that Ukraine provides cheap labor and resources and a market for their goods. From their point of view, cheap women are just icing on the cake.
Capitalism also contributes to this trade in two other significant ways, though there are many more. Among the more significant are imperialism and military occupations. In his groundbreaking book The Natashas: Inside the Global Sex Trade, Viktor Malarek details how intervention in the Balkans, particularly in Bosnia and Kosovo, created a huge market for the human traffickers. In one chapter he describes an outdoor “market” in Bosnia at night where girls are auctioned off to various pimps. He poses a very interesting rhetorical question in one chapter, noting how during the Balkan wars there was a media obsession with mass rape as a war crime, yet after the wars were over, rape was going on all over the Balkans every night but nobody was interested anymore. Why would they be when the rapists weren’t already well-demonized Serbs but rather Americans, Canadians, Germans and other Europeans, or in other words, the “good guys?” Mass rape occurred on all sides during the Balkan wars, but the Western media wasn’t interested in the mass rape that occurred afterward, and which continues to this day.
The third significant factor to consider in the relationship between capitalism and sex slavery is organized crime, which is the soil in which the weed of trafficking grows. People tend to think of organized crime as something going back many centuries. In a sense this is true, but it helps to ask ourselves what gangsters truly are. What is the stereotypical defense that every gangster uses? “I’m just a businessman!” Indeed, most gangsters are businessmen, differentiated from other businessmen only by the fact that some of their business violates the law of the land. Yet it is their legitimate businesses, real or fake, which provide them the resources on which they thrive. Capitalist society bends over backwards for property owners, and Mafiosi are in fact property owners. The revenue generated from businesses both legal and illegal help afford top-notch legal support and a myriad of ways to conceal their illicit actions through intermediaries. This is why street criminals tend to get caught and locked up while mafia dons often succeed for decades without ever being indicted. When property is expropriated, and the political system is in the hands of an armed working class, organized crime gangs will no longer be able to arise because the soil in which they grow will have been eroded away. Moreover the revolution, wherever it may occur, will not only expropriate but physically exterminate the parasitical criminal enterprises.
This brings us to a final point, namely that Marxist-Leninists must come to the forefront of this fight not only because we see the big picture as to the causes of the problem of sexual exploitation, but also because we can offer a real, permanent solution to this plague. We did it once before and we can do it again. Organizations which fight against trafficking, like organizations which fight against any number of social ills, tend to view these problems within a vacuum, or at least they do not think to seek for the real causes within the very capitalist system itself. The work of these organizations and individuals who fight trafficking is admirable indeed, but we cannot delude ourselves into believing that charity and non-government organizations alone could ever even put a dent in the trafficking industry as a whole. These organizations tend to be limited by the fact that they are non-political and often in order to secure funding they must necessarily be non-political. Who provides funds for these organizations? Of course there are small donations but often the major grants come from either rich capitalists or organizations they have set up, often for the purpose of tax deductions. This should not be interpreted an attack on the organizations on the front line fighting against trafficking, it simply means we have to understand that while rich businessmen may donate large amounts to charity, whether to avoid taxes or to assuage a guilty conscious and attract positive attention to themselves, they will never support changes to the economic system in those suffering nations which would eliminate the problems altogether. Some of those very same businessmen may be responsible, at least in part, for the conditions in some of the source countries. We must also not forget that charity, relief and “nation-building” have become major businesses, industries even, and if any country should find a sustainable, permanent solution to its problems, its market for relief agencies would dry up.
Those who honestly work against sex trafficking and human trafficking, be they journalists, volunteers, teachers or religious clergy, are most often honest, and even heroic. Though they face a seemingly impossible task on their own, it is a shame that more Marxist-Leninist parties and organizations have not joined in this fight. We should be working with those honest individuals, explaining to them why we must seek a permanent solution rather than just treating the symptoms. Again, these organizations are, by nature of their business, non-political. Yet the only permanent solution to this plague is a political, economic, and cultural solution. Women must be liberated, people must have the right to work, the right to health care and education and the right to shelter. Private property and the criminal scum who take advantage of the benefits it provides must be abolished. To this end, we must also remember that just as we understand that the ruling class will not permit the social order to be upset via peaceful means, organized crime and human trafficking will not go without a fight either. The struggle against human trafficking and sex slavery must eventually evolve from the passive tactics of the organizations which treat victims to militant tactics of an armed populace ready to take vengeance on the pimps and traffickers. In some countries this may have to become a sort of war within the larger struggle of revolution. Communist parties in countries which are destination countries should take a more overt stand on the issue if they have not already, while those in source countries need to spend more time educating and training women to be strong, confident, defiant, and militant; they cannot rely on the protection of men. If the revolution fails women, then we have already failed halfway.
The author would like to close this article with the recollection of a story by way of Malarek’s The Natashas. It is the story of Olenka, a Ukrainian girl who found herself imprisoned in a bar in Tuzla, forced to serve various U.N. soldiers and employees for $50 a session (the money went straight to the pimp), as much as fifteen times a day. There were soldiers of various nationalities including Americans, British, French and German. This she suffered from the age of seventeen; she was told that if she did not do as she was told, she would be beaten to death. Often times she begged the clients to call the police for her, yet they refused. In total she estimated that she may have been raped 1800 times. Knowing how these women are typically forced to work, this is entirely plausible. This story doesn’t crop up when one sees something in the media about sex trafficking as one would expect.
The author has read other stories and accounts before, but for some reason I keep coming back to this one. I think of this story every time I hear some champion of the free market praising the capitalist system. I think of it every time I hear the expats and liberals in Eastern Europe praising the fall of the Soviet Union, socialism and the “freedom” that it has supposedly brought. I think of it when the same people fill their eyes with crocodile tears and speak of the “victims of the crimes of communism,” noting how easy it is for these hypocrites to get emotional over dead people they never knew while they could care less about living people so long as they aren’t businessmen or investors. I think of this story when I hear politicians of the Euro/American establishment preach about human rights while their soldiers enjoy more girls just like Olenka. I remember this story when I hear Ukrainian and Russian nationalists boast egotistically about their nations, ignoring the humiliation of half their population.
I remember this story when I hear any of those things and as you can imagine, I get pretty filled with righteous anger. I hope the reader will feel the same way. As materialists, we Marxists-Leninists often try to stand back and analyze society from an impersonal, unemotional standpoint. Still, when we speak about exploitation sometimes we need to connect on a more personal level; we need to understand the evils of capitalism beyond the cold calculation of constant and variable capital and surplus labor. We need to think of the millions of working class women and girls of Asia, Eastern Europe, Latin America and even the U.S. and Canada, and the hellish nightmare they go through as they find themselves literally bought and sold as commodities.
Women’s liberation cannot be some slogan, some abstract idea. If we are going to speak about women’s liberation, we must consider some of the concrete forms in which women are exploited and dominated, in other words, what are women to be liberated from. Clearly, sexual slavery and human trafficking is one of the heaviest chains wrapped around millions, if not tens of millions of women and girls worldwide. All revolutionaries, male and female, are charged with breaking those chains.
“The entire party and country should hurl into the fire and break the neck of anyone who dared trample underfoot the scared edict of the party on the defense of women's rights.”
–Enver Hoxha, 1967
Malarek, Viktor. The Natashas: Inside the Global Sex Trade, Arcade Publishing, 2004.
Raymond, Janice G. “Ten Reasons for Not Legalizing Prostitution And a Legal Response to the Demand for Prostitution” (http://action.web.ca/home/catw/attach/10%20Reasons%209-15-03%20FINAL%5B1%5D.doc).
“Invisible: Slavery Today” National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. (http://www.freedomcenter.org/slavery-today/).
APPENDIX A: Line of the American Party of Labor on Sex Trafficking & Prostitution.
The American Party of Labor takes a resolute stand on this issue—zero tolerance for sexual exploitation and human trafficking. Women, and men for that matter, are not meant to be commodities for the entertainment of those with money.
APPENDIX B: Organizations Fighting Against Human Trafficking & Sex Slavery
La Strada International Organization: http://lastradainternational.org/
Not For Sale Campaign: http://www.notforsalecampaign.org/
A.L.E.R.T. (Arizona League to End Regional Trafficking): http://traffickingaz.org/
Coalition Against Trafficking in Women: http://www.catwinternational.org/index.php