Sex trafficking is an exceedingly barbaric, highly profitable component of modern-day slavery. In the course of ten years of research across twenty countries, I have directly interviewed more than one thousand current and former slaves of all kinds, and some of the most heartbreaking tales I have heard were those narrated by individuals who have suffered years of sexual enslavement at the hands of traffickers and pimps. Despite recent improvements in antitrafficking activism and awareness, the crime of human trafficking remains poorly understood. With sex trafficking, this is particularly due to a tendency toward sensationalism rather than strategic analysis of how the crime functions. Like all forms of slavery, sex trafficking is a business, and understanding the business and economic functioning of the crime can provide insights into more effective ways to combat it.

In order to understand the sex trafficking industry, we must first outline its business model. That business model contains three steps: acquisition, movement, and exploitation. Acquisition of sex slaves primarily occurs in one of five ways: deceit (usually a false offer of employment, migration, or marriage), sale by family (whether out of economic desperation or greed), abduction, seduction or romance, and recruitment by former slaves.

Step two is movement. Traffickers move sex slaves from countries of origin through transit countries into destination countries. In the case of internal trafficking, the same country acts as origin, transit, and destination. When needed, traffickers pay bribes to border guards and fabricate passports in order to transport individuals almost anywhere in the world.

The up-front costs of acquisition and movement are minimal compared to the immense profits that can be gained in step three: exploitation. Exploitation of trafficked sex slaves primarily indicates the coercion of uncompensated sex services—ten to twenty times per day—though in essence, exploitation begins the moment the slave is acquired. Slaves are raped, tortured, humiliated, and drugged during transportation, and efforts to break their spirits continue once they are sold to pimps and brothel owners. This exploitation occurs in a handful of venues— brothels, sex clubs, massage parlors, hotels, street corners—and it can continue for months and years, resulting in severe physical, emotional, and psychological harm to the victim. It is an utterly contemptuous form of exploitation that lacks any modicum of human decency.

How do we stop it? The answer lies in understanding that the enormity and pervasiveness of the global sex trafficking industry is driven by the ability to generate immense profits at almost no real risk.

Modern-day slavery is immensely more profitable than old-world slavery, which is the key factor driving the tremendous demand to acquire new slaves through the practice of human trafficking. Whereas old-world slaves could be purchased for a global weighted average of $12,000 or more in today’s dollars and generated roughly 15 percent to 20 percent in annual return on investment, today’s slaves sell for a global weighted average of $400 and can generate anywhere from 200 percent to 500 percent or more in annual return on investment.

Above all, trafficked sex slaves are by far the most profitable slaves in the world. Even though trafficked sex slaves comprise only about four percent of the world’s slaves—the vast majority of whom are bonded laborers, forced laborers, and trafficked slaves exploited in industries other than commercial sex—they generated approximately 40 percent of the $95.4 billion in profits enjoyed by slave owners worldwide in 2009. When we consider that the global weighted average acquisition cost of a trafficked sex slave is approximately $1,900 and the global weighted average monthly profits generated through the commercial sexual exploitation of that slave are approximately $2,400, it is clear that the return on investment is staggering.1

Furthermore, there is little risk involved for perpetrators. In most countries around the world, the criminal penalties for sex trafficking are light on both prison terms and economic damages. (Only a handful of countries, such as the United States, the UK, the Netherlands, Albania, and Nepal, stipulate relatively robust statutory economic penalties for human trafficking offences. However, even in these countries, the statutory economic penalties remain severely insufficient in relation to the economic benefits of the offence.) There are always provisions for incarceration, but sentences are relatively short and can often be further reduced by small fines. Even where there are relatively stiff financial penalties in the law, as with the U.S. Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, prosecution and conviction of trafficking offences remain uncommon.

As a result, the real risk of exploiting sex slaves is almost nil. Put another way, the costs of exploiting sex slaves are miniscule compared to the immense profits that can be generated. Assuming that criminals are rational economic agents, it is reasonable to expect that they will flock to the opportunity to generate immense profits at almost no cost or risk. These conditions explain the powerful forces of demand to acquire and exploit sex slaves around the world.

What, then, does this business model and economic assessment of the sex trafficking industry tell us about how to stop it? Most antitrafficking activists continue to argue that sex trafficking is about poverty, gender bias, lawlessness, corruption, and economic globalization, and that to end it, we must address these problems first. On the one hand, they are correct. However, while such deeply rooted, cultural drivers of the sex trafficking industry should be addressed for any number of social-justice reasons, it is inarguable that it will take considerable time and resources to do so. To be most effective in the near term in combating this crime, I believe the focus must be on attacking the demand side of the sex trafficking industry.

There could be no sex-slave industry without male demand for commercial sex. While there are many initiatives intended to elevate the sensitivity and morality of male commercial sex consumers, I believe a more efficient attack on demand can be deployed against the economic drivers of demand for sex trafficking.

It should be no surprise that sex services are highly elastic.1 As prices increase, demand drops considerably, especially when low-end consumers such as tuk-tuk drivers and day laborers are priced out of the market, as they largely were a decade ago when I first began gathering data on price and demand in the sex trafficking industry.

From a policy standpoint, this drop in demand suggests that the most effective measure to eradicate the global sex-trafficking industry is to increase the slave owners’ costs, forcing them to drive up retail price or to accept a less profitable, hence less desirable, criminal business. The most effective way to attack profitability is to elevate real risk. In my book, Sex Trafficking, I discuss at length seven tactics that I believe will accomplish this goal:

  1. Create an international slavery and trafficking inspection force, modeled on United Nations weapons inspections and charged with searching for establishments that exploit slaves, freeing the victims, and detaining the criminals.
  2. Create trained and paid community vigilance committees, consisting of members of the community, taxi and tuk-tuk drivers, and other specially trained individuals, to seek out establishments holding slaves and report their findings to the inspection force.
  3. Initiate proactive law enforcement raids against establishments for which there is a strong suspicion of slave-like exploitation, with protections in place to minimize adverse effects on the individuals living in those establishments.
  4. Increase salaries for antitrafficking police, prosecutors, and judges in developing nations.
  5. Create fast-track courts to prosecute trafficking crimes, with international observers and judicial review to minimize corruption.
  6. Fund witness protection programs and provide living income support for slaves and their families for the duration of a trial and up to twelve months afterward.
  7. Significantly increase the financial penalties associated with sex-slave crimes, including asset forfeiture and victim compensation.

This increase in penalties, along with increased prosecution and conviction levels achieved through the above tactics, should elevate the real risk and cost of sex trafficking to an economically detrimental level. Put in criminal law terms, we are trying to elevate to a far more effective level the deterrent and retributive value of the real penalty associated with the commission of sex trafficking crimes.

It is critical here not to conflate the crime of slavery with the act of prostitution, which is legal in some countries. While a woman may choose prostitution, no one chooses slavery. No right-minded person would presume that we have to entertain a woman’s (or man’s or child’s) right to choose slavery. No one has ever chosen it in the history of humankind, unless coerced to do so out of duress or violence. Furthermore, the tactics I have suggested deliberately leave unaddressed the question of the legalization of prostitution, though these tactics directly and aggressively target something we can all agree is unacceptable: slave-like human exploitation. Cogent arguments have been offered that the legalization of prostitution would provide a more optimal environment within which to ensure that trafficking and exploitation of women and children does not occur. Several countries, such as the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, Denmark, and parts of Australia, have taken versions of this approach. But, when I traveled to many of these countries and investigated this point further, it became increasingly clear to me that theoretical arguments for legalization tend to unravel in the real world for the following reason: you can threaten, beat, and torture almost anyone into saying, “I am doing this by choice.” In a legalization regime, the conversation largely ends there, and it can be exceedingly difficult to reliably establish that an individual is not involved in commercial sex work by choice. This is not to say that there are not more effective ways of tackling sex trafficking from a legalization standpoint, but I have not seen them yet.

On the other side, countries such as Sweden and the United States argue that criminalizing solicitation or prostitution might be a more effective way to ensure that women and children are not exploited as sex slaves. Existing research does not support the counterargument that this approach will only result in the further persecution of prostitutes and sex trafficking victims, or only serve to push commercial sex operations further underground or into neighboring countries. In my experience, the typical consumer of low-priced commercial sex will go only so far “underground” to find it. To the extent that the exploitation will be relocated from a less favorable jurisdiction to a more favorable one, this simply validates the efficacy of the stricter approach and mandates its implementation more broadly, until there are few to no favorable jurisdictions remaining. Thus, the only option is to continue working to provide no quarter where human beings can be exploited as slaves, a mandate that we agreed upon as a civilization at least 150 years ago.

Whether the tactics I have set forth or different ones are ultimately deployed, the process of elevating the cost and risk of global human slave exploitation should be a top policy agenda of lawmakers around the world. To achieve this goal, the level of resources committed to the fight against contemporary slavery will have to be increased substantially. As a case in point, the U.S. government currently spends approximately $20 per human trafficking victim per year to combat these crimes, and around 350 times this amount to fight drug trafficking. This lack of resources will simply not get the job done. The United States must lead by example in the fight against all forms of contemporary slavery, otherwise countless millions will continue to be trafficked and exploited for generations to come.


Siddharth Kara

Siddharth Kara is the first fellow on human trafficking at Harvard University. His award-winning book, Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery, was named co-winner of the prestigious 2010...

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