Vital Juncture for Women’s Rights Policy at the State Department

Posted on January 25th, 2009 by Katherine Franke

In her confirmation hearing last week Hilary Clinton was asked by Barbara Boxer to talk about how she plans to use the office of the Secretary of State to better the “status of women in the world.” She was particularly interested in the problems of violence against women and sex trafficking, making explicit reference to the series of op-eds that Nicholas Kristof has published on these issues.

Not surprisingly, secretary-designate Clinton offered a strong response with respect to her agenda on women’s rights. She told the Senate panel:

I have also read closely Nick Kristof’s articles over the last many months, but in particular the last weeks, on the young women that he has both rescued from prostitution and met who have been enslaved and abused, tortured in every way: physically, emotionally, morally.

And I take very seriously the function of the State Department to lead our government through the Office on Human Trafficking to do all that we can to end this modern form of slavery. We have sex slavery, we have wage slavery, and it is primarily a slavery of girls and women.

So we’re going to have a very active women’s office, a very active office on trafficking. We’re going to be speaking out consistently and strongly against discrimination and oppression of women and slavery in particular, because I think that is in keeping not only with American values, as we all recognize, but American national security interests as well.

While these comments from now-Secretary of State Clinton gained applause from some precincts of the women’s and human rights community, they made some of us sit up in alarm. Not only was Mrs. Clinton misstating frequently repeated “facts” about sex trafficking, her answer to Senator Boxer signaled the continuation of the misguided Bush policies on this issue – policies heavily influenced by a particular camp in the women’s rights community that sees sex in general, and prostitution in particular, as the root of all evil for women. This ideology – one that has been shown all over the world to more often harm rather than help women in precarious situations – threatens to become the official policy of the Obama Administration if we aren’t careful.

No one denies that the traffic in persons, women and girls, but boys and men as well, for the purpose of sex or sexual enslavement is a terrible thing and should be stopped. Yet the Bush administration made the combatting of sex trafficking their premier human rights objective more as a moral crusade than as a way to address the real life oppression of the people involved. As Ronald Weitzer writes in The Social Construction of Sex Trafficking: Ideology and Institutionalization of a Moral Crusade

Moral crusades advance claims about both the gravity and incidence of a particular problem. They typically rely on horror stories and “atrocity tales” about victims in which the most shocking exemplars of victimization are described and typified. Casting the problem in highly dramatic terms by recounting the plight of highly traumatized victims is intended to alarm the public and policy makers and justify draconian solutions. At the same time, inflated claims are made about the magnitude of the problem. A key feature of many moral crusades is that the imputed scale of a problem (e.g., the number of victims) far exceeds what is warranted by the available evidence. Moreover, crusade leaders consider the problem unambiguous: they are not inclined to acknowledge gray areas and are adamant that a particular evil exists precisely as they depict it.

All these things were present in the old Administration’s policies. In a letter to the director of the State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, a group of researchers and policy advocates who were experts in the human rights of trafficked persons systematically showed how the State Department had misstated the prevalence of persons being trafficked for sex, cherry-picked data that substantiated their crusade linking sex trafficking to prostitution, and was otherwise “potentially damaging to on-going efforts globally to prevent trafficking and protect the rights of trafficked persons.” Other human rights organizations, such as Global Rights, have testified before Congress on the dangers and distortions of the Bush Administration’s trafficking crusade.

Unfortunately, nothing in Hilary Clinton’s testimony reassures us that the State Department under her leadership will improve upon the policies of the prior administration. What’s more, the voices from within the advocacy world who favored and pushed hard for the crusade linking sex trafficking to prostitution, such as Equality Now and their leadership Jessica Newirth and Catharine MacKinnon, have recently gained prominent appointments in the United Nations. In November MacKinnon was appointed as Special Gender Adviser to the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court in the Hague, and Jessica Newirth, the Director of Equality Now, has been appointed to head the New York office for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Senators Barbara Boxer and Carolyn Maloney have introduced legislation called The International Women’s Freedom Act of 2009 that would create a U.S. Commission on International Women’s Rights. The commission, modeled on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, would report to Congress and the President on the status of women worldwide. The bill would also establish an Office on International Women’s Rights headed by an Ambassador at large for International Women’s Rights and it would direct the President to conduct an annual review of the status of women’s rights in each foreign country, and subsequently designate ‘Countries of Particular Concern’ that have severe human rights violations.

The UN’s “women’s rights” and anti-trafficking work has been captured by the anti-prostitution crusaders, but Secretary Clinton has not yet filled out her staff on this issue. Let’s hope that she and the Obama Administration more generally are better able to appreciate the complexity of this problem than did their predecessor, and that their policies flow less from politicized research and more from reliable data that situates sex trafficking in a larger context of forced labor and migration. The advice of the authors of the letter to the Director of the Bush Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons remains valid: “the single-issue focus on prostitution, rather than on the exploitation that operates in all of the different sectors in which trafficking occurs (e.g., in agricultural work, domestic work, factory work and prostitution), seems to be moving the U.S. government away from the crime of trafficking and from responding to the needs of all trafficked persons.”


  1. I’ve been researching and analysing the development of ideas about sex trafficking since the early 90s, when I still lived in Latin America and we didn’t know what it was. I’ve been publishing on links between migration and the sex industry since the late 90s. I’m a realist, and don’t expect Obama and Clinton to NOT remain publicly attached to the trafficking crusade, because it’s become one of the most prominent social causes of our time. The most I would hope for would be some nuancing, some allowing for differences between completely deceived and abused people and those migrants who took sometimes huge and crazy risks and would rather sell sex than make money via other available job options.

    A recent article of mine published by the Guardian is called The Shadowy World of Sex Across Borders:

    Many of my writings from the past ten years are available on my website, for example The Sex in Sex Trafficking, from American Sexuality:

    What is most disturbing about Clinton’s comments is the imperialism, the idea that the US is needed by Rest-of-World as moral arbiter and leader. That US policy must meddle in everyone else’s business. This attitude is at the bottom of why the USA has become so unpopular around the world. I published an op-ed about that in the Philadelphia Inquirer a couple of years ago and I still stand by it:

    So I don’t expect this administration to abandon such a popular cause, but I hope they will not ignore all the evidence of diversity, agency and complexity in migration issues.

    Best, Laura Agustin

  2. You’re out of your mind. There’s nothing in Secretary Clinton’s testimony to support your conclusions. And, as is usual, your hostility to Catharine MacKinnon and Equality Now speaks more to your own agenda than any real knowledge or evaluation of Prof. MacKinnon’s actual work.

  3. Emma, of course we can disagree about the wisdom of the approaches various feminists take toward the role of sexual violence and exploitation in the oppression of women. Academics and activists have been doing so for years – whether in the sex wars of the ’70s or the issue of trafficking today.

    When we disagree, which we will continue to do, better that we offer arguments rather than broadsides.

  4. […] criminalizing sex work on the flawed hypothesis that prostitution “causes” sex trafficking.  See previous post discussing this problem. de Baca’s appointment is very good news.  Mr. de Baca, a lawyer who has worked as […]

  5. […] Franke, K. 2009. (Jan. 25th). “Vital Juncture for Women’s Rights Policy at the State Department.” Gender & Sexuality Law Blog. Center for Gender & Sexuality. Columbia Law School. […]

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