The Shock of Modern Slavery

by on November 17, 2011 at 10:50 am in Current Affairs, Economics, History | Permalink

The great Nicholas Kristof has another difficult to, must-read piece today on human trafficking. Including this arresting statistic:

By my calculations, at least 10 times as many girls are now trafficked into brothels annually as African slaves were transported to the New World in the peak years of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

FYI, at its peak the trans-Atlantic slave trade was on the order of one hundred thousand per year. Figures on human trafficking differ widely but one million is on the lower end so Kristof’s estimate is sadly reasonable.

1 Neal November 17, 2011 at 10:57 am

Proportional to world population, is the sex slave trade as bad as the African slave trade?

2 Peter November 17, 2011 at 11:10 am

The peak was the post-revolutionary period of 1776-1800, when world population was roughly 900 million. 900/7000=0.12, which means using rough numbers about a 1 order of magnitude difference in population. So the proportion of women being trafficked is pretty similar to the number of slaves being kidnapped from Africa and moved to the Americas at its peak. Of course, the underlying data (both from the 1700s and now) are weak, so it’s hard to say much for sure.

3 doctorpat November 17, 2011 at 11:56 pm

Wouldn’t the most useful comparison be world slave trade now to world slave trade in 1800. Comparing world slave trade now to the slave trade in one area in 1800 is going to give you a warped result.

4 dan1111 November 17, 2011 at 11:34 am

What matters is not the slavery rate per population, but the total number of victims. Two people enslaved is twice as much evil and suffering as one person enslaved.

5 Yog Sothoth November 17, 2011 at 11:59 am

No, the proportion is more important because the non-slaves are a good thing and should also factor into our assessment of how troubled we should be. If I build ten widgets and they are all defective that is very bad but if I build one million widgets and ten are defectives that is very good. Let’s not get lost here.

6 Yog Sothoth November 17, 2011 at 12:02 pm

To complete my argument by analogy… In the case where all ten widgets are defective, you would change your widget making technique. In the case where ten out of a million are defective, you would not. Similarly, whether or not we see our institutions as bad and requiring change should be informed by the frequency of bad outcomes (e.g. slavery) relative to population.

7 TM November 17, 2011 at 12:49 pm

Brilliant, save for the difference that humans are not widgets and one in chains makes us all potential slaves.

8 Careless November 17, 2011 at 2:28 pm

Bad widgets are tossed in the trash or recycling. You really want to try going that way?

9 xysmith November 17, 2011 at 3:35 pm

TM – some of us have to be sadists…

10 Peter Schaeffer November 17, 2011 at 4:29 pm



11 matt November 17, 2011 at 7:25 pm

Strongly disagree. What’s important is how bad the situation is *to that person*. Presumably, each of the people who are currently enslaved values their life roughly as much as African slaves did theirs, a couple of hundred years ago. I think that what’s important here is absolute numbers, not proportion of world population.

An interesting upshot of your argument is that one way of tackling social problems like homelessness and poverty is for the best-off among us to have more kids, thereby diluting the misery.

12 harryh November 17, 2011 at 8:07 pm

> one way of tackling social problems like homelessness and poverty is for
> the best-off among us to have more kids, thereby diluting the misery

A Hansonian argument if I ever heard one!

13 Seth C November 17, 2011 at 8:52 pm

Matt’s argument seems to lead to Silenus: “What is best of all is utterly beyond your reach: not to be born, not to be, to be nothing. But the second best for you is—to die soon.”

Frankly, I’m not sure why anyone wants to argue about which slave trade is worse. Can our next topic be whether the Rwandan Genocide or the Armenian Genocide was a greater crime against humanity?

14 zrzzz November 17, 2011 at 11:50 pm

The biggest enemy of trafficked women is uppity western women who keep prostitution illegal.

When you make something in demand illegal, you force it underground. Liquor was extremely lucrative during prohibition. Just as illegal prostitution is now. Making it legal brings it out in the open so you can regulate it, monitor it and tax it, making the victimization stop.

15 dan1111 November 18, 2011 at 5:18 am

1) The assumption that only women oppose legalized prostitution is absolutely untrue.
2) The statement that opposition to prostitution is “uppity” reduces a serious moral argument to mere snobbery.
3) You can’t state the benefits of legalization without considering the costs.
4) Nor is it a valid assumption that illegal activities would stop just because there is a legal form of prostitution.

16 MP November 18, 2011 at 6:05 am

I once heard this argument in a debate on prostitution: “Some people say that selling sex is morally no different from selling a cheeseburger. But how many of them would say that forcing someone to have sex is morally no different from forcing someone to make you a cheeseburger? Sex is different.”

I probably heard that a year ago. I still don’t exactly accept it, but I haven’t been able to entirely dismiss it either.

17 Patrick Louch November 19, 2011 at 3:01 pm

Sex isn’t different.

Forcing someone to eat a cheeseburger has all the elements of forcing someone to have sex.
1) Lack of consent: forcing someone to have sex isn’t wrong because of the sex, it’s wrong because of the forcing. Watch this scene from Iron Jawed Angels (starts around 2:40) tell me that that isn’t as horrifying as a rape scene.

2) Violation of principles: forced sex can violate a person’s ability to enforce their own principles: oaths of celibacy, virginity, abstention from premarital sex, choice of partner. Ditto for forced cheeseburger-eating: it violates vegatarism, is not kosher, violates Hindu beliefs, may be bad you, choice of diet.

3) Physical consequences: similarly to how sex can leave diseases, injury, and pregancy, forced feeding can leave diseases, parasites, nausea, and injuries to the mouth and throat.

I guess the one counter-argument is that food is necessary for life, so keeping someone alive through forced-feeding might abrogate the moral failure of forcing them to eat, but I think that’s weak. Also, in a broader sense sex is also necessary for life

18 Gj November 23, 2011 at 5:49 am

There is one big problem with the argument. The first proposition relates to selling sex, the second to forcing. I really hope supporters of legalized prostitution don’t in fact support legalized prostitution with *unwilling* partners, ie. paid rape!

The argument is a piece of flawed logic but sex is different all the same, at least for most people. Biologically, you don’t provide sex like you would provide food. It’s not only a matter of cost. Sex is linked to many things beyond the gift and trade economy: intimacy, emotions, social values, personal values, (formerly) conception…

The main problem with real everyday prostitution is that it is in fact most probably a form of less-violent rape. The main problem with theoretical paid sex with a consenting adult is more diffuse and linked to values – not that different from sex without love (sugar daddies/mommies and sluts, etc), ie. generally socially frowned upon with reason but not a major social issue in a ceteris paribus world. Reality being what it is however, legalized prostitution will always be in majority less-violent rape, thus a major problem.

19 kebko November 17, 2011 at 10:59 am

Unfortunately, one of the best potential solutions – legalize prostitution – will not generally be accepted as a policy response.

20 mulp November 17, 2011 at 11:09 am

You assume incorrectly that the slave trade is driven solely by the sex trade.

21 Cliff November 17, 2011 at 11:29 am


22 Nancy Lebovitz November 17, 2011 at 1:54 pm

A good bit of modern slavery is for commercial and domestic labor that isn’t sexual.

This being said, legalizing prostitution and opening borders (part of the trap can be not having the legal right to be in a country) would eliminate a lot of misery.

23 DK November 18, 2011 at 2:02 am

“legalizing prostitution and opening borders would eliminate a lot of misery”

Hey, I hear that opening borders cures Alzheimer and cancer, too.

24 figleaf November 17, 2011 at 3:43 pm

Mulp is right. The slave trade worldwide is pretty evenly distributed between agricultural, industrial, domestic, “hospitality” (hotels and restaurants), sex work, and one other significant category I’ll get to in a moment. Kristof is right that there are on the order of a million people trafficked into sex slavery (not just girls but women, boys, and a surprising number of men.) But there are somewhere between 4 and 20 million people trafficked into all forms of slavery.

What always ticks me off about the framing of this debate (fueled by a weird coalition of religious conservatives, neoconservatives, and neoconservative feminists) is their determination to ignore or paper over non-sex slavery and, occasionally, to savage people who point out non-sex-slave trafficking as on the side of traffickers. What’s annoying is that their… fetish for enslavement into sex work pretty persistently blinds them to the ugly fact that trafficked and enslaved farm workers, carpet weavers, hotel maids, construction workers, and domestic servants, and again one other significant category are regularly and often haplessly subjected to sexual use by their traffickers, managers, and/or owners.

Oh, and that special category I keep mentioning? Forced mail-order brides and sold or traded brides. Who, since they’re generally legally married after being sold (often completely against their will) are of no, zero, none interest or concern to the evangelicals who are the backbone of the anti-slavery movement.

Anyway, yes, in both proportional and absolute numbers there are probably more slaves alive today than at any point since the African slave trade began. And as Dan1111 says, above, two people enslaved is twice as bad as one person enslaved. What really chaps my keister about the numbers the thoroughly well-intentioned Kristof was fed is that the real situation is the reverse! One person enslaved is bad, two, or four, or as many as 20 people enslaved is worse. For that reason I’d appreciate a little more recognition on all forms of slavery including but not limited to slaves trafficked into sex work.


25 byomtov November 17, 2011 at 11:45 am

Another libertarian using a hammer to tighten a bolt.

Let’s see.

The victim described by Kristof was sold into slavery by her parents.

Given the fact that libertarians don’t have many qualms about child labor, what objection would they have to the parents sending her to work in a legal brothel? Do you think that would be a lot better? Why?

Wait. I know. Market forces would solve everything.

26 Andrew' November 17, 2011 at 12:36 pm

Legalizing prostitution would move many margins.

Anyway, Bernie, you don’t see just a little difference between a kid who kind of wants to work in a shoe plant to help the family and selling a child? Just a smidge?

27 byomtov November 17, 2011 at 1:05 pm

Of course there’s a difference. But first of all, let’s note that you refer to a kid “who wants to work in a shoe plant.” At what age can we say the kid is consenting, rather than being, more or less ordered by her parents? And if they can order that why can’t they order her to work in a legal brothel? Say she’s 13 instead of 6. Now what?

28 Silas Barta November 17, 2011 at 1:23 pm

Wow, so any requirement by a parent that their child do any work is slavery and so should be prohibited?

Man, I should have played that card back in chore days.

29 Andrew' November 17, 2011 at 2:11 pm

I’m not sure where the line is exactly, but I know being tied down and raped and punished for trying to escaped when I see it.

And unlike a quasi-government official at a university I’d deck the guy.

30 Silas Barta November 17, 2011 at 3:08 pm

I agree Andrew, but we also have to avoid the other extreme of “children can never consent to anything so anything we make them do is slavery”.

31 Andrew' November 17, 2011 at 3:42 pm

Being tied down is pretty much good enough to know when they didn’t consent.

32 Rahul November 17, 2011 at 12:37 pm

One clear objection would be that the sale is non-consensual. The child hasn’t consented and at the age of 6 does not even posses the mental faculties for informed consent. There’s a huge difference between consensual prostitution and non-consensual.

33 byomtov November 17, 2011 at 1:07 pm

True, but as the article makes clear, if we didn’t already know it, there’s a demand for sex with young girls. That doesn’t go away if you legalize prostitution. Someone will supply it.

34 Finch November 17, 2011 at 1:59 pm

Presumably the great fall in price of a close substitute, sex with not-so-young girls, would cause demand to shift.

Analogous to available-pornography lowering rape.

I’m not sure how much weight to put on this argument, but it’s the obvious mechanism.

35 JWatts November 17, 2011 at 2:40 pm

And of course the legal prostitutes themselves would report it to police. Since it affects them monetarily they have a large incentive to reduce or eliminate the competition, whereas currently there is another incentive not to report it. The police might arrest them instead.

36 mrpinto November 17, 2011 at 12:43 pm

Presumably, legalization would result in the industry coming under the regulatory watch of relevant agencies, instead of hidden from their view as it is now.

Asking why a legal sex industry wouldn’t have child slavery is the same as asking why the current manufacturing sector of, New York doesn’t have child slavery.

You can throw around sweeping generalizations about Libertarians all you want, but that’s not what matters here. What matters is that black markets are removed from the scrutiny that makes life in legal industries much better.

You might also ask why those who sell heroin kill each other all the time, but those who sell coca cola do not.

Are you employed in the black market, or not? If not, why not? Would you support your current industry being made illegal? If so, why? Perhaps because you’re the opposite of a libertarian? Do you… HATE FREEDOM? =)

37 Andrew' November 17, 2011 at 1:03 pm

It’s pretty much about how abusive it is. Progressives can’t seem to tell the difference between anal rape, coal mines, textile mills, and lemonade stands.

38 Andrew' November 17, 2011 at 1:06 pm

That along with a healthy dash of Whiggish thinking.

Here’s a clue for you guys who can’t seem to get anything quite straight. If someone is tied down, and physically beaten for trying to escape, chances are that’s pretty much the opposite of libertarianism.

39 byomtov November 17, 2011 at 1:11 pm

If you don’t like generalizations about libertarians maybe you shouldn’t make idiotic generalizations about progressives.

40 Andrew' November 17, 2011 at 2:12 pm

Wrong again Bern.

I love generalizations as long as they are right.

41 byomtov November 17, 2011 at 2:28 pm

Yours are wrong.

42 Andrew' November 17, 2011 at 2:35 pm

Not without further explanation.

You argue that child sexual slavery is completely separate from adult prostitution except when you want to argue that they are on on a slippery slope for libertarians.

However, when you talk about child labor, you are lumping prostitution and slavery in with what most people think of when they think of what they think was eliminated by child labor laws, obvious exploitation. And child labor laws do in fact eliminate most child labor, with interesting exceptions, and many things that are obviously not exploitive.

43 byomtov November 17, 2011 at 6:13 pm

I’m not making a slippery slope argument at all. I’m pointing out that there is a need for libertarians to reconcile a few things here.

1. “Voluntary” child labor is just fine and should be legal.
2. “Voluntary” prostitution is just fine and should be legal.
3. “Voluntary” child prostitution is ???

Now, you can draw a line at some age if you want, or at some types of labor, or both, but you do need to say what line(s) you are willing to draw. Further, as often in these discussions, definitions of “voluntary” are important.

Note that I’m actually not saying libertarians endorse sex slavery of any type, contrary to your misreading of my comment. I’m pointing out what I think are some difficult points in libertarian arguments here.

44 Patrick Louch November 19, 2011 at 3:06 pm


I think those can be reconciled with the concepts of capacity to consent, and true consent.

Children (and invalids) don’t have the capacity to make certain decisions, so you can’t bind them to their choices (this is why children can’t enter contracts and it’s technically illegal to sell anything except the necessities of life to children). You also cannot hide behind the libertarian notion of “we’re all adults here, let’s make our own decisions.”

Also, you need to go to the actual voluntariness of decisions. “Your money or your life” says the highwayman is not a choice at all, but a robbery under the guise of a choice.

45 byomtov November 17, 2011 at 1:13 pm

Presumably, legalization would result in the industry coming under the regulatory watch of relevant agencies, instead of hidden from their view as it is now.

Why make that presumption?

The authorities don’t seem overly concerned about these activities now. What would change?

46 Andrew' November 17, 2011 at 2:19 pm

“The authorities don’t seem overly concerned about these activities now.”

Now we are getting somewhere. We can’t do anything if they don’t give a damn, except send in the predator drones. And I basically agree with you partly for this reason (except the nonsense part). However, directionally legalizing things would chip away at this for secondary effect reasons.

47 dan1111 November 17, 2011 at 11:46 am

“Srey Pov’s family sold her to a brothel when she was 6 years old.” Why would this change if prostitution was legal? Why would the general pattern of any of this change? Very poor girls and young women would still be exploited, and they would still have very little control over their lives.

Also, legalized prostitution brings a host of problems of its own, and is considered wrong and harmful enough to be outlawed by most societies. Your argument sounds a little like “If only we would make robbery legal, people wouldn’t get hurt in armed robberies.”

48 Ken B November 17, 2011 at 12:27 pm

It would change by changing the supply curve for paid sex. This would reduce the demand for such slaves.

Just because legalizing prostitution does not eliminate the problem doesn’t mean alleviating it is useless.

49 byomtov November 17, 2011 at 1:09 pm

How would it change the supply curve for sex with six-year olds?

50 Cliff November 17, 2011 at 1:57 pm

It would be way, way more expensive to supply 6-year-olds than to supply adults. You would have to enslave them, hide them, risk severe penalties instead of no penalty, etc. etc. It would make a lot less sense than it does now.

51 Andrew' November 17, 2011 at 2:15 pm

By decreasing the returns to illegal activity. Criminal infrastructure. Standard organized crime type stuff. Similar to “shoot the witnesses.” If you are already breaking the law, hiding out, bribing cops, what’s an additional charge?

52 Gj November 23, 2011 at 6:04 am

Lol. Cliff, your supply shift argument is crap. The prices for child prostitutes in South-East Asia is astonishingly low. I’m pretty sure the demand would barely budge at ten times the present price – which would still be only a fraction of the same “service” in a Western country. And the incentives for local corrupt police officers would be much higher. You can’t change policy in a vacuum.

53 Cyrus November 17, 2011 at 11:49 am

With the usual caveats that good data is hard to come by, European jurisdiction with legalized prostitution are still human trafficking destinations. Legalization can very well increase demand more than it does supply, and the magnitude of the shortage is where the illegal service steps in.

54 kebko November 17, 2011 at 12:03 pm

Thank you Cyrus. Interesting point.

55 mrpinto November 17, 2011 at 12:45 pm

Cyrus, to what extent? That is, is the rate of trafficking the same, higher, or lower? How do traffickers navigate local employment laws and/or competition from those who do?

Any cites?

56 DavidN November 17, 2011 at 3:11 pm

Legalising prostitution may increase slavery as legal and illegal prostitution are complements ie legalising prostitution increases demand for both legal and illegal sex (eg with minors or sex slaves ‘imported’ from east europe or asia). Cheaper to import sex slaves than pay wages.

57 Blaise Pascal November 17, 2011 at 11:03 am

Neal asked half of what I was going to ask.

The other question is: in the 18th and 19th centuries, was there slave trade other than the African slave trade going on? How big was it?

58 Wonks Anonymous November 17, 2011 at 11:08 am

There was an African slave-trade other than trans-atlantic. They were sent east instead of west.

59 Urso November 17, 2011 at 11:09 am

Are we really ok with saying “well yeah there are hundreds of thousands of girls being sold into sex slavery slaves, but *proportionally* it’s not as bad as it was in 1820 so all things considered we’re not doing half bad!”

60 Blaise Pascal November 17, 2011 at 11:38 am

I think saying that the slave trade today is 10 times larger than in 1820 without acknowledging that the world population is 10 times larger is disingenuous. It implies that our current situation is significantly more barbarous than it was in 1820 instead of as barbarous.

I think that comparing the current-day sex trafficking figures with the 1820 trans-Atlantic slave trade without acknowledging or quantifying the other forced-labor markets (e.g. coltan/diamond mining in Africa or child agricultural laborers today, other African slave trading in 1820) does not provide a complete picture for comparing the two times.

As a non-statistical point, I believe (but would appreciate correction on the matter) that the situation presented in the story (6 year old sold to a brothel and repeatedly raped for money and punished for attempting to escape) is currently criminal, even if corrupt law enforcement turns a blind eye. I believe that if the victim had been a slave in 1820’s US, the same use by her owners would have been considered legal, and sympathetic law enforcement would be powerless to help her.

61 dan1111 November 17, 2011 at 11:52 am

In 1800, somebody died. In 2011, another person died. Is the latter 90% less tragic because the population is so much larger now?

62 Mark M November 17, 2011 at 12:32 pm

dan111 – Yes. Exactly.

Frankly, the behavior and policies of overpopulated regions does seem* to value individual human lives less than other regions.

*Seems to me. I have only my own observations to go by and no objective way to quantify how societies and governments value human life for comparison purposes.

63 mrpinto November 17, 2011 at 12:48 pm

Who cares what percentage of tragadicity things are? Is the goal here to calibrate the precise amount of angst we’re supposed to be feeling?

Or is the goal to do things about stuff that we consider to be large problems?

If disease X kills 1% of the population, and disease Y kills 0.1% of the population, perhaps we should throw our resources at disease X.

Then I suppose you guys can sit around wondering how much more or less sad we should feel about X vs Y, and to what level of moral indignation, and how many angels fit on a pin, &c.

64 dan1111 November 17, 2011 at 2:31 pm

mrpinto, I would like to point out that I didn’t start this line of argument. I was responding to people who seemed to suggest that the numbers relative to population showed the problem was less serious.

65 josh November 17, 2011 at 11:55 am

How about *more* barbarous, whatever the numbers, given that we don’t live in a world of teetering monarchies, opium wars, colonial exploitation and the last gasps of medieval societies?

66 Gj November 23, 2011 at 6:09 am

Aren’t we “in a world of teetering pseudo-democracies, resource wars, neocolonial exploitation and the last gasps of rural societies?”. Doesn’t seem to different. As many past generations, we just often have a higher idea of ourselves although we are pretty much the same as lame a species.

67 anonymous... November 17, 2011 at 8:57 pm

Well, there was a trans-Mediterranean slave trade that did not quite entirely die out until the beginning of the 19th century.

68 Urso November 17, 2011 at 11:07 am

Hard to read indeed. As for the comment about legalizing prostitution as a solution (and for all I know prostitition is legal, or at least sanctioned in a wink-and-a-nod way, in southeast Asia), the girl in the article was SIX when she was sent to the brothel. I assume that even the most devoted libertarian would pause regarding legalizing the sex trade for six year olds.

69 Cliff November 17, 2011 at 11:31 am

No one would legalize child rape. The idea is that if normal prostitution was legal, it would be much easier to enforce the ban on child trafficking/rape and also there would be more resources to devote to it.

70 kebko November 17, 2011 at 11:59 am

Urso, and Alan below, do an excellent job of showing how unfortunately futile talking about the legal status of prostitution is.

71 Urso November 17, 2011 at 12:15 pm

I apologize if I hurt your feelings, but if you say something that you know will be controversial you should expect people to disagree.

More to the substance of the thread, according to wiki (yeah I know) adult prostitution is de jure illegal but de facto accepted and regulated in Thailand, which I assume is a fairly close substitute for Cambodia. Yet according to admittedly imprecise government figures, 40% of prostitutes in Thailand are children. Obviously decriminalizing adult prostitution hasn’t stopped child prostitution.

72 Rahul November 17, 2011 at 12:50 pm

A key input to the legalized prostitution debate is whether adult and child prostitution are substitutes, compliments or neither. Unfortunately this question might be impossible to answer empirically within the envelope of ethical-research.

73 mrpinto November 17, 2011 at 12:53 pm

It seems likely that legalizing prostitution among consenting adults would make the job of policing child prostitution easier. Give the police department less work and they can do a better job.

That said, if the police department doesn’t care to pursue the remaining work on their plate, no amount of work reduction will help.

Legalization should help, but it’s obviously not sufficient.

Likewise, if my local police department were tasked with inquisition-style religious enforcement, they’d probably not have the time to keep the local drunks from stealing things and heckling people at the softball field.

The local police department ISN’T tasked with inquisition-style religious enforcement, and that’s a GOOD THING, but they STILL don’t keep the local drunks from stealing things and heckling people at the softball field. So it goes.

74 Gj November 23, 2011 at 6:15 am


75 Jacio Kristofian November 17, 2011 at 11:08 am

The document you link to is for trafficking, not trafficking into brothels. And a one log difference in estimates usually means that methods for making the estimates are not yet scientific. Comparing slavery and trafficking is, sadly, Kristofian.

76 dan1111 November 17, 2011 at 11:57 am

Huh? Tyler provided the document for our reference. Kristof doesn’t claim to have used it for his calculations.

Anyway, what is your point? Are you suggesting that this is not a serious problem?

You may not like Kristof, but this pretty much the dumbest possible line of attack against someone.

77 dan1111 November 17, 2011 at 12:01 pm

Oops, it was Alex, not Tyler.

78 Nicked Kristoff November 18, 2011 at 7:34 am

You talkin’ to me?

79 Alan November 17, 2011 at 11:09 am

“I assume that even the most devoted libertarian would pause regarding legalizing the sex trade for six year olds.”

I don’t.

80 Xeth November 17, 2011 at 11:15 am

That’s monstrous.

81 ricardo November 17, 2011 at 11:20 am

I think Alan means he doesn’t “assume”, not that he doesn’t “pause”.

Perhaps that’s still monstrous.

82 Andrew' November 17, 2011 at 2:38 pm

It is highly repulsive. If it were monstrous, we would kill them on the spot. We don’t.

See, on the internet we don’t have to do that brainless signaling garbage.

83 Andrew' November 17, 2011 at 11:45 am

Asia and Somalia, it seems the only thing they have in common is they are libertarian utopias. You nitwits.

84 mrpinto November 17, 2011 at 12:57 pm

This. Treating nanny states and failed governments without rule of law as the only options is a false dichotomy.

85 jpd November 17, 2011 at 11:50 am

“Markets in everything”
and another example of “wealth creating values”

86 Turkey Vulture November 17, 2011 at 12:25 pm

I don’t understand why some of the commenters above assume that favoring legalized prostitution also means favoring completely unregulated and forced prostitution. I also don’t understand why they think most libertarians would think it’s appropriate for a parent to sell their child to a brothel.

As long as there is demand there will probably be some sort of black market attempting to supply it, so I would expect that some form of child sex trade will continue to exist regardless of our policy choices. But by legalizing prostitution generally, while attempting to prevent forced prostitution and underage prostitution, I think we would greatly contract the size of the black market and make it easier to enforce the regulations and prohibitions that continued to exist.

Most importantly, when you give vulnerable people (such as prostitutes) legal recourse, you make them less vulnerable to exploitation.

87 Ken B November 17, 2011 at 12:33 pm

TV: I think you do understand why some of the regulars here do say that. They seize every pretext to say libertarian= worse-than-hitler. And unless you add the caveat ‘and not boil puppies’ they will say you want to boil puppies.

88 JWatts November 17, 2011 at 2:43 pm


89 Mark M November 17, 2011 at 12:43 pm


Legalized prostitution means it’s taxed, so it’s additional revenue. We no longer spend money catching and prosecuting legal prostitutes. New income and savings means there are more resources available to focus on stopping illegal (child and forced) prostitution. I would hope we’d use those funds in that way, but you never know what politicians will decide.

90 rjs November 17, 2011 at 12:35 pm

“The Shock of Modern Slavery”
i thought the post would be about student debt…

91 Andrew' November 17, 2011 at 12:39 pm

That could never happen here…

92 Dan Gardner November 17, 2011 at 12:55 pm

The background Kristof never provides in his columns about sex trafficking:

93 Rahul November 17, 2011 at 1:05 pm

I followed the link to UNESCO trafficking data that Alex gave:

Is it symbolic that the UN’s “scientific” and “educational” wing uses the worst possible plot to display the data: A 3D-bar chart?! Sigh! Who uses those monstrosities other than MBA’s?

94 affenkopf November 17, 2011 at 1:22 pm

By Kristof’s own calculations? Why should I take his calculations seriously?

95 Andrew' November 17, 2011 at 3:54 pm

They’ve been totally vetted and verified by Asthon Kutcher.

96 juan November 17, 2011 at 1:44 pm

When does the forced prostitution typically end for the girls who don’t manage to escape?
Are they just dumped on the streets after they get too old? What is too old? 20? 30? 40?
What % of prostitutes in these countries are forced into it against their will?
What % are sold into it or kidnapped into it?
What % are illegal under-age (in that country’s laws, not the US laws.)? I’m presuming girls under 10 are illegal in every country.

What % of the girls are able to function in society after their release? What % are able to find husbands and bear children? I imagine the infertility rate due to STDs and forced abortions is very high. Not to mention the inability to form relationships with men.

How far is the typical girl taken from her home? Is the typical case being taken from a rural village to the big city in that same country? Do the girls return to their village after being released?

I’m curious what the typical case is. This story obviously focuses on the most extreme abuses to arouse public sympathy as a call to action.

Is a typical case a girl sold at age 15 and released at age 25? Or 8 and 20? Or 12 and 30? How many years is normal?
When they are released – are they released with any money at all?

97 Aaron Boyden November 17, 2011 at 1:46 pm

Kristof’s numbers look badly misleading, as others have noted. If any illegal migrant who goes into heavy debt to pay to be smuggled in or who is otherwise exploited by people using their illegal status to blackmail them into accepting working conditions they otherwise wouldn’t is counted as trafficked, the numbers are staggering. And I consider the abuse of illegal immigrants to be a very serious problem (one of the areas I completely agree with most libertarians is in favoring much more liberal immigration poilicies). But most of those are not sex workers, and the research I’ve encountered suggests that sex workers are no worse off than exploited illegal immigrants in other professions; indeed, they may on average be better off. If all sex workers are regarded as trafficking victims regardless of the other circumstances of their employment, again the numbers end up being huge, but there an awful lot of people are being counted who don’t seem all that exploited (one well-documented fact about efforts to “rescue” prostitutes is that only a miniscule minority seem to want to be rescued; the rest complain and fight bitterly against it). The kinds of cases Kristof uses in his lurid lead-in, of children sold into a state that can only be called slavery, appear to number in the thousands, not the millions or even hundreds of thousands. One would prefer there were no such cases, of course, but as others have mentioned in their comments, it would seem to be a small enough problem that if the authorities focused their efforts on those cases, instead of wasting most of their effort on hunting down the hundreds of times more numerous illegal immigrants and voluntary sex workers, they could probably come pretty close to eliminating it.

98 Abersouth November 17, 2011 at 8:01 pm

Yes, Yes, Yes! You get it. Another who gets it is a former prostitute who blogs as Maggie McNeill. Her blog is very libertarian and she rails about this skewering of this sort of data all the time. It’s a blog well worth a perusal.

99 Tomasz Wegrzanowski November 17, 2011 at 1:52 pm

1 million purely imaginary people a year. These numbers are ridiculously overstated, if numbers were anywhere near such levels these people would show up everywhere. They don’t.

100 Rahul November 17, 2011 at 2:16 pm

Think incentives. Do the organizations that estimate these numbers have an incentive to overestimate or underestimate?

101 juan November 17, 2011 at 2:02 pm

Also the lurid tale of torture for trying to escape seems beyond belief — the girl claims she was was kept in a barrel filled with human waste and scorpions. For a week. I understand the girl has been severely traumatized, but that is ludicrous. I’m kind of amazed Kristof can repeat that claim with a straight face.

I don’t doubt punishment is severely painful and likely would count as torture. But clearly that would be lethal for pretty much anyone. It’s understandable that a severely traumatized little girl would misremember her mistreatment in such a fantastical manner. Kristof is happy to repeat the lurid tale because he is on a moral crusade, and not trying to objectively uncover the scale and magnitude of the problem.

102 Becky Hargrove November 17, 2011 at 2:05 pm

I am a libertarian, and for me the solution is to maximize economic access for every individual alive, monetarily and non-monetarily in the course of our lifetimes so that sex slavery does not have to happen. Just sayin, libertarianism does not always have to look to the past, the future must be more pro-active on a massive scale to find ways out of this mess.

103 Flattus Maximus November 17, 2011 at 4:02 pm

That’s so helpful. Thanks!

104 Preisler Harrington November 17, 2011 at 2:47 pm

Interesting discussions. Legalizing prostitution won’t help anything. Most of the sex trafficked are underaged, as young as 5-6.
economic access won’t fix it either, perverts want what they want, and unless you are so rich no one can bribe you ever again, or protect your family so no-one would ever be kidnapped, that wont help.

I can tell you the numbers are in the millions and that is for against their will trafficked for sex. Sorry people, the nightmare is real. Some of the girls fight getting rescued because a ‘former’ sex worker, even if kidnapped and forced into it, is an outcast and in some societies attacked. Once a sex worker there is no other life you are allowed to live, you are permanently damaged goods.
Illegals? ICE doesn’t waste a second on non criminal illegals. Their entire budget and manpower is used for apprehending, processing and deporting serious criminal offenders that are illegal, and the 400k per year of those that are deported? Most are back in the country in a few weeks, in the same neighborhoods they were caught in.

I new about one slave, a domestic, kept locked up, she was chinese, I believe owners were chinese living here on a big property. Didn’t know she was here. Escaped one day running, running screaming down to the public road, only to find a normal neighborhood, people washing cars and children playing in their yards.

105 Aaron Boyden November 17, 2011 at 3:08 pm

Got any citations for these millions of underaged sex-trafficking victims? Any explanation for why high-profile law enforcement efforts arrest vast number of adult prostitutes, but normally find only tiny handfuls of underage prostitutes (and almost all of those teens), and only tiny numbers of prostitutes who show any sign of being coerced?

106 figleaf November 17, 2011 at 4:09 pm

Yeah, I’m kind of with Aaron on this one, Preisler. I’m generally more up on the slavery issue (pro, con, and hyperbole) than a lot of people but while a surprising number of early-elementary age children are trafficked (it’s very bad in Haiti, for instance) they are only very, very rarely sold into sex work. The primary use of children is for domestic labor and industrial and agricultural use. (For instance on the order of 400,000 children are trafficked into labor in the Indian subcontinent every year.)

And while it’s possible that some elementary-age children could be trafficked into sex work (*everything’s* possible) the vast, vast, vast majority of individuals trafficked into sex work are considerably older. Though of course still too young.

And yeah, it’s possible that there are trafficked sex workers who are trapped in barrels with human waste and scorpions, and who are forced to “service” 180 men a day, and so on the vast, vast, vast majority aren’t.

In fact, a fairly remarkable number of trafficked sex workers were sex workers in their countries or regions of origin, and only become enslaved upon arrival in their destination . (Same of course with a lot of trafficked farm workers, carpet weavers, maids and servants, construction workers, etc.)

The key factor, one that’s generally as important to libertarians as liberals or progressives or even some conservatives, is or should be the enslavement part, not what they were doing before enslavement or even what they’re forced to do in slavery.

Anyway, bottom line is that it’s just not true that most individuals trafficked into sex work are aged five and six because a) it shouldn’t make any difference whether they’re 5-6 or the more typical 15-25 for sex workers and b) it shouldn’t matter that very young children are instead sold to farmers and factory owners.

If the only thing that motivates you — and the only thing you believe motivates anyone else — is over-the-top lurid statistics and anecdotes then you have just. no. idea what real slavery is all about or how bad real slavery really is. Grow up.


107 Gj November 23, 2011 at 6:22 am

Many very good points. I do note however that in one of arguments you seemed to ignore that many slaves are “multifunctional”. I am under the impression that most Filipino maids in oil-producing Arab nations double as sex slaves for instance.

108 Andrew' November 17, 2011 at 3:53 pm

Okay, I’m convinced. We should stop raping children.

109 Roy November 17, 2011 at 5:03 pm

One way in which legalizing prostitution might help, is that the demand for adult, or at least lteenage prostitutes is probably a large chunk of the overall prostitution demand, the child prostitution trade hides itself in the shadows of the dominant parts of the sex trade. If you legalized prostitution for adults, the legal prostitutes would crowd out the underage, but post pubescent prostitutes, because they as regulated and licensed prostitutes would be coopted in turning in those who were not legal, the legal brothel owners would have little incentive to do anything but attempt to eliminate the unlicensed competition, as has been seen anywhere prostitution is legalized. Pros hate being undercut by unlicense amateurs. Also the client base would prefer licensed prostitutes on the whole because they would, in any barely well run licensing system they would be cleaner and safer.
This would then deprive the child prostitution providers of the shadows they need to hide in. The size of the underground sex industry would greatly shrink and the impression, especially inside the industry and its client base would begin to assume that anyone still in the illegal end of the business was covering up something. This would create more informers and make it harder to find customers for the illegal end of the business. In addition a legalized prostitution industry would remove much of the ancilliary crime associated with prostitution

All that said I am not that keen on legalizing prostitution, honestly having spent a considerable amount of time in rural Nevada, where it is legal, I really think that may not be such a good idea. It does get rid of a bunch of problems, but it can quickly create a lot of additional ones.

110 bellisaurius November 17, 2011 at 7:36 pm

Are we comparing apples and orange numbers here? One of the more interesting articles I’ve read on modern slavery discussed debt slavery in india, where a person has to keep working for someone until their debt is done, much like indentured servitude. For the sex trade, it’s not like prostitution and being forced into it is new (perhaps even less now), but that number isn’t being added into the african trade.

111 Mike November 17, 2011 at 9:29 pm

I am a 51 year old white man that is currently living and working in what is considered an African nation, an island in the Indian Ocean. A nation with a huge slice of it’s economy devoted to tourism. For the past three weeks I have been in India. I have stayed in fine hotels. I have stayed in crappy hotels. I have been in multiple bars and restaurants. I can’t walk down the street without being accosted by someone selling something. Cab drivers almost knock each other over trying to get me to hire them. I’ve been through many airports and a couple of train stations. I carry multiple year’s worth of the average annual wages in these countries in cash, in my pocket. Not. One. Single. Time. Have I been approached by a waiter, doorman, cab driver, bartender, etc. about hiring a prostitute.

It is horrible that even one child is sold into sex slavery. Anyone involved in such criminal activity should be punished severly.

My, admittedly, anecdotal evidence tells me that the numbers cited by those that want to convince us this is a huge problem are simply made up.

I am from Dallas. During the lead up to the Super Bowl we were treated to the same sort of spectacular news stories. You can see here what I’m talking about. Do you own search for how many arrests were made. It is a number very close to zero. Despite the publicity.

112 Ricardo November 18, 2011 at 12:25 am

India has a notorious sex industry in Calcutta and Bombay but it is very much targeted at locals. Thailand, on the other hand, is a very, very different story…

I’m not sure what accounts for these differences. Partly, India is a very socially conservative country and a real democracy so perhaps the idea of foreign sex tourists going there would be politically explosive and would force the police and politicians to act immediately to shut it down. Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries have very well-established industries allegedly run by powerful people and allied with business interests.

113 Gj November 23, 2011 at 6:24 am

Although the figures are going down, Thais massively indulge in paid sex. Prostitution was massive *before* the US army and before mass tourism.

114 Douglas Knight November 17, 2011 at 9:30 pm

Legalizing prostitution won’t make a difference because prostitution is legal practically everywhere. Invoking this is pure american provincialism.

115 Ricardo November 18, 2011 at 12:33 am

Prostitution is illegal in most of Africa and Asia (including India and China). See this chart, for instance. It’s even illegal in Thailand where it is generally assumed that pervasive corruption in the police among police and local politicians keeps the business flourishing.

It helps to do some research before accusing others of being “provincial.”

116 Borealis November 18, 2011 at 12:06 am

Why does a NY Times columnist feel like he has to make monster statistical projections? I can see why National Enquirer writers do that, but why NY Times columnists?

People will pay attention to real problems when people who advocate real problems act like they are trying to address real problems.

117 Miguel Madeira November 18, 2011 at 5:30 am

There is a big question that is being forgotten in this discussion – what exactly counts as “human trafficking”?

– People being sold in slavery?

– People in a kind of “indetured serfdom”, where they have to work for the smugglers to pay for the trip to the West?

– All people that enter in the West transported by illegal imigration networks?

Sometimes I have the suspicion that the anecdotes about human traffic came from the more restricted definitions and the data about the most broad definitions.

118 Petar November 18, 2011 at 2:22 pm

Fully agree.

119 panax November 18, 2011 at 9:05 am

People will pay attention to real problems when people who advocate real problems act like they are trying to address real problems…

120 MW November 18, 2011 at 10:24 am

See also, “FACT OR FICTION: WHAT DO WE REALLY KNOW ABOUT HUMAN TRAFFICKING?” by Ann Jordan, Program on Human Trafficking and Forced Labor
Center for Human Rights & Humanitarian Law at

121 youthair November 23, 2011 at 5:30 am

Legalizing prostitution won’t make a difference because prostitution is legal practically everywhere. Invoking this is pure american provincialism.

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