Migration and sex work expert Laura Agustin (who, as some readers may know, recently left a brief comment on this blog), has published a scathing criticism of Siddharth Kara’s Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery, in which she launches into a tirade against Kara that alternates between valid critiques of his work and questionable criticisms of his personal motivations.
I’ve read Inside the Business of Modern Slavery from cover to cover myself, often citing it on this very blog . But I have hesitated to cite it as a primary source in my academic work because of its own questionable references and research methods. With these shortcomings in mind, Ms. Agustin tears into Kara with statements like: “Apparently unaware of over ten years of difficult debates reflected in hundreds of scholarly articles and journalistic reports, Kara is an MBA on a mission, using statistical sleight of hand to solve the problem of slavery,” and “the absence of academic supervision to control his preconceptions, critique his lack of methodology, or check his spin makes one wonder what Columbia University Press thought they were doing publishing it.” I agree that we should all demand much more of so-called “scholarly works” than Mr. Kara provides.
Unfortunately however, Ms. Agustin intersperses her review with reductionist theories that frame the interest of ALL men in the sex trafficking “rescue industry,” or rather all “Good Men,” (Ms. Agustin’s terms) as limited to a stereotypical desire to “prove themselves” and rescue “damsels in distress.” Citing Kara’s “exalted sensibility and anachronistic rhetoric” as a base for these claims, she frames this as the latest in a long tradition of mens’ chivalrous attempts, which apparently include “slaying knights and giants.” More than anything, Ms. Agustin’s own anachronistic rhetoric feeds into the sexist mindset she attempts to shed light on with her piece. Must men have a “damsel in distress” complex in order to care about the horrible phenomena of sex trafficking? Do not all people, including men, have the duty to be aware of the heinous nature of sexual slavery and mitigate its damaging affects on society? Here I refer to duty not in the traditional chivalrous sense that Ms. Agustin is so critical of, but in a contemporary sense of social responsibility and caring for others who share in the human experience.
In broader terms, I appreciate Ms. Agustin’s efforts to delineate the distinction between sex slavery and prostitution. And I agree with her that Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery was not scholarly and should not have been published by the well-respected Columbia University Press. But I fail to recognize how Ms. Agustin’s reductionist theories of male interest in the abolition/rescue industry movement contribute any substantive thought to the debates taking place today over human trafficking.
Agustin, Laura. Feb. 27 2012. “Sex trafficking: not inside the business of modern slavery.” Counterpunch. http://www.counterpunch.org/2012/02/27/sex-trafficking (accessed 02/29/2012).
Kara, Siddharth. 2009. Sex trafficking: inside the business of modern slavery. Columbia: Columbia University Press.