Book review

The perfect business?

18 Mar 2013

Review Details
Date: 18 March 2013
Author: Jacqueline Parry
Publisher: ForMHub
Owning Institution(s): Swinburne University of Technology

Book Details
Title: The Perfect Business? Anti-trafficking and the Sex Trade along the Mekong
Publisher: University of Hawaii Press: Honolulu
Date Published: 2012
Author/s: Sverre Molland

In recent years there has been an increase in activities intended to combat human trafficking, many of which take aim specifically at the sex trade. In carrying out anti-trafficking initiatives, governments and development organisations often appropriate market metaphors such as “supply” and “demand” to explain how the sex trade works. But is market economism the best lens through which to understand the sex trade? And how does this discourse and the activities of anti-traffickers compare with the lived experience of individuals? Sverre Molland’s book tackles these questions through a detailed ethnographic study of the sex trade along the Thai-Lao border.

The book is divided into three sections. The first addresses what Molland refers to as “the idealised discourse of trafficking.” He situates the trafficking discourse within the broader literature on cross-border migration, and takes a critical look at its history and uses. He then highlights a number of assumptions that have arisen in relation to victims, perpetrators and organised crime. What is most interesting about this section is Molland’s detailed analysis of the market metaphor as used by anti-traffickers. He demonstrates that the market metaphor conceives of people as atomized, desocialised and frictionless, which obfuscates agency and creates a binary between traffickers and victims: the former being powerful and all-knowing, while the latter are simply commodities to be traded. He additionally looks in detail at the question of demand, unpacking assumptions around profit maximization, cost-cutting strategies and voluntariness.

The second section draws on Molland’s extensive fieldwork – he spent fifteen months throughout 2005 and 2006 conducting ethnographic research in Thailand and Laos – to flesh out his critique of these assumptions. We become aware of the ambiguities inherent in legal definitions: in real life, terms such as “victim” and “trafficker” are rarely clear-cut, and labels are often rejected or considered irrelevant by those to whom they are intended to apply. Molland skilfully weaves the voices of the women working in the sex trade into his analysis of how recruitment takes place, creating a real sense of how individuals themselves perceive their situation and make decisions. In particular, this section highlights that social networks – rather than economic rationalism – most often provide the impetus for decision-making, challenging the assumption that supply and demand is the driving explanatory force.

Finally, the third section looks at the practices of anti-traffickers. In particular, it explores how knowledge about trafficking is produced by anti-trafficking organisations, and how organisations determine if people fall into the legal categories of “victim” or “trafficker.” The categories and understandings generated by these organisations are then applied to Molland’s case studies (which were introduced in section two) to highlight the disjunct between the legal regime and anti-trafficking practices, and individual lives. Molland aptly demonstrates that it is not simply that the categories espoused by the international legal regime – and therefore, by the anti-trafficking organisations – are overly static or legalistic, but that the very concepts underpinning anti-trafficking are divorced from lived experience. What is refreshing about Molland’s work is that he doesn’t caricature the behaviour of the anti-trafficking organisations either, explaining in detail how anti-traffickers themselves grapple with the process of applying legal concepts and definitions to real lives. 

The strength of the book is found in its rich ethnographic detail, and Molland’s use of this detail to shed new light on understandings of trafficking and the sex trade. He adeptly demonstrates the inadequacies of market economism as a framework for understanding how recruitment and service provision takes place in local contexts. However, the book does not stop at comparing lived experience with existing laws and practices. Rather, it goes a step further to demonstrate the (unintended) effects and consequences of anti-trafficking discourse and practices. In particular, it shows that the everyday practices of anti-trafficking organisations drive attention away from what is essential for understanding trafficking along the Thai-Lao border: social relationships and social embeddedness of practice. As a result, the considerable divergence between the meta-language produced discursively by the anti-trafficking sector and the actual unfolding of sex commerce and recruitment on the ground is rarely breached.

I would argue that it is at this cross-section, where the legal regime, anti-trafficking organisations and individuals meet, that the book makes it most significant contribution. Ordinarily, in studies of trafficking, the focus is on either the behaviour of the “victim” and “perpetrator,” the legal regime, or on the problematic way that the two interact. But in this book Molland takes a far more holistic approach by introducing the intermediaries: the anti-trafficking organisations. It is through understanding the institutional response that we come to realise in much greater depth the inadequacies in common understandings of trafficking, the impediments – often related to institutional practices – inherent in existing responses, and finally, how we might see a way forward to a more nuanced approach towards the issue of trafficking.  

The book was reviewed by Jacqueline Parry. Jacqueline Parry is a PhD student at the Australian National University. She has a background in international law, and her thesis is exploring the relationship between refugees and transitional justice. 

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