Posts Tagged ‘Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery’

Let me begin by thanking you all sincerely for making this blog surprisingly popular. This started as a small research blog with a target audience of 7 of my classmates. It has garnered amazing traction and, according to my latest WordPress stats, has received over 2,000 hits in 58 countries. Again, I can’t thank you enough for your interest in my work.

For anyone who would like to read my final research report entitled Indian Sex Trafficking Supply Chain: Retailer Focus on the Exploitation of Nepali Victims, I am more than willing to share it with you and read your feedback. My contact information can be found at the bottom of this post.

In concluding my research for this project, I have made several important determinations that I would like to share:

  1. The retail stage is where the victim is commercially sexually exploited. This the only link in the supply chain where new revenue is generated. All revenue generated in the sex trafficking supply chain flows from consumers to retailers and outward from there: to traffickers and recruiters; to corrupt state officials; and to peripheral industries such as real estate and underground medicine, to name a few. Because retailers interface with the end-user and facilitate the consumption of the product, much of the power in the supply chain is vested in them.  Thus, retailing is the most pivotal link in the sex trafficking supply chain; it is where all of the supply chain efforts converge to benefit supply chain participants.
  2. The tactics used by retailers to control victims are an important business consideration because as victims are treated more poorly in a given market, “…more women are trafficked because within a short time period they cease to be marketable. Therefore, the volume of contemporary trafficking is shaped not only by demand but also by the treatment of the victims.” (Louise Shelley, 2010).
  3. Some means by which a victim’s exploitation comes to an end simply feed back into the sex trafficking cycle. For example in cases of abandonment or escape, a victim may be unable to return home, or even survive, without money, and be forced back into a commercial sexual exploitation situation–though potentially under better conditions. Alternatively, it is common for former victims to move on to work on a less exploitative basis in the sex trafficking supply chain. For example, in a study by India’s National Human Rights Commission, over two-thirds of brothel-owners interviewed had previously been victims of commercial sexual exploitation. Recruiters in Nepal are also frequently former Nepali sex workers. Like the sex work they were previously doing, victims are often coerced into these positions. Still, from a victim’s perspective this move in work is better than being raped on a regular basis.
  4. A new consensus on human trafficking simplifies the issue by postulating that it is demand-driven and more intervention must be undertaken to address consumer demand. This is encouraged by experts like Kara and Hughes, as well as organizations such as the OSCE. However, contemporary sex trafficking is propelled by a multitude of factors, not least of which include socioeconomic push factors that drive women into commercial sexual exploitation, and encourage the cycle of former CSE victims remaining in the industry as retailers, traffickers, or recruiters. Addressing consumer demand in a vacuum minimizes these complicated push factors, which are not easy to address.

Again, thank you. By working together to advance knowledge on this topic, we can contribute to the advancement of effective solutions for intervention in the sex trafficking supply chain.

Please email me at or for a .pdf copy of my research paper.


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. (accessed 02/29/2012).

Kara, Siddharth. 2009. Sex trafficking: inside the business of modern slavery. Columbia: Columbia University Press.

I suppose at some point we’ve all questioned the direction of our research, and that’s something I am in the process of overcoming.

To refresh your memory, my research is on the role of retailers in the sex slavery supply chain. By retailers, I am referring to the brothel-owners, pimps, and others who control the direct supply of  victims to end-users (a.k.a. consumers).

The structure of my paper is coming together well. It will walk through different stages of the supply chain before focusing on the retail stage and examining a few country-specific cases before going into a final summary and conclusion. But something seems to be missing. Never mind (for now) the trouble I am having finding data for my case studies (which I wrote about briefly in a previous post). I need to explain why my analysis actually matters; the “who cares?” question needs to be addressed.

This is what I am struggling with at the moment. What seems to make the most logical sense is to discuss the public policy implications of the analysis. After all, the greatest advantage brought by having a full picture of the sex slavery supply chain structure is that it can help “identify strategic points of intervention” (as Kara suggests in Sex trafficking: inside the business of modern slavery). On the other hand, I don’t want to distract from the business analysis that I have spent so much time on, or give the wrong impression that I actually conducted a full-fledged policy analysis. So here I stand, torn halfway between not wanting to distract readers with a public policy analysis but also making sure that my paper grows from a recitation of disparate facts and findings into a purposeful, logical argument.

At this point I am just about done with my research precis and have done a good bit of research on the business and economics of sex trafficking. One observation at this point is that some of the most helpful and informative resources have done a good job of categorizing the different players in the sex trafficking industry. Victims are known in some business analyses as labor, and in others as products. Traffickers are the distribution arm, and those who exploit victims regularly (such as brothel owners) are the retailers. Of course end users are the sex slave consumer, but it is interesting to look at the factors that inhibit demand, such as a spike in prices. Several sources have helped me with the classification of these supply chain nodes:

  1. Kara, Siddharth. “Supply & Demand: Human Trafficking in the Global Economy.” Harvard International Review 33, no. 2 (2011): 66-71.
  2. Kara, Siddharth. 2009. Sex trafficking: inside the business of modern slavery. Columbia: Columbia University Press. Kindle Edition
  3. Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. 2010. “Analysing The Business Model Of Trafficking In Human Beings To Better Prevent The Crime.” Aronowitz, Alexis, Theuermann, Gerda and Elena Tyurykanova. Vienna: OSCE Office of the Special Representative and Co-ordinator for Combating Trafficking in Human Beings. Print.
  4. Wheaton, Elizabeth, Edward Schauer, and Thomas Galli. “Economics of Human Trafficking.” International Migration 48, no. 4 (2010): 114-141.

I haven’t made it very far through Kara’s “Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery” yet, but he begins by providing a ton of valuable information and sources that I can use as a basis for starting my research on the business of human trafficking.

In class, we’ve been talking a lot about the role of demand in the human trafficking equation. Understanding and addressing demand is key if human trafficking is to be held in check. As has been demonstrated by the “war on drugs”, lopsided prevention strategies that focus on supply alone don’t actually solve the problem.  While recognizing this fact, I am personally interested in the supply side of the equation in human trafficking, especially from a management and finance perspective.

In my last post I discussed how human trafficking will be extremely difficult to address or prevent without targeting and eliminating the profitable functions. For example, Kara claims (without citation) that “the global weighted average net profit margin” of 70% makes holding sexual slaves “one of the most profitable enterprises in the world.” (p. 21).  He also notes that the costs of entering the human trafficking trade are relatively low compared to the cost of starting a business in other industries, making it an attractive alternative. On page 24 Kara claims that a sex slave can be bought in Asia for between $200 and $1,000 and in Western Europe for between $2,000 and $10,000. I thought it would be helpful to conduct a mental exercise with these numbers. So if a brothel owner buys a slave for $400 in Thailand, forces her to service 10 clients a day for $10 each, each day, every day, the brothel owner will have made his money back in four days. You with me so far?

Say this goes on for 18 months. The brothel owner’s revenue from this single victim now adds up to $54,000. Now he sells the victim to someone in Western Europe for $6,000. Even taking into account overhead costs such as minimal housing and food, transport, guards, bribes and incidental expenses, the brothel owner has still made some serious profit from this single slave. He likely owns more slaves, too.

Countries and families that are sources of trafficking victims are economically devastated,  socially immobile, and they often have corrupt governments and other ills, so it makes perfect sense from an economic perspective that there are willing and able facilitators of human trafficking in these places. However I think that given alternative prospects, many facilitators (and victims) would not be in this business. It’s ironic in a tragic kind of way that the same economic and social underpinnings drive both captive and captor towards each other.