Globalization, the Sex Trade and HIV-AIDS


Nineteen-year-old So-Young stands at less than five feet tall after being chronically malnourished in North Korea. A refugee, she crossed illegally into China with hopes of a better life, but found instead a nightmare of sexual exploitation. An “employer” offered her approximately $1.40 per day in exchange for work—money that So- Young planned on sending back to her family. Deceived by this empty promise, So-Young spent the next several months being passed between handlers. Just days before she was to be purchased by a forty-year-old Chinese man, So-Young managed to escape with the help of a local pastor. Three years later, she was forcibly repatriated to North Korea where she was imprisoned for six months before escaping once more to China. Traffickers kidnapped her once again, repeatedly raping her prior to her sale. Her new “husband” also raped her multiple times before she was able to escape. So-Young remains in hiding today: “There are many people coming out of North Korea, but they don’t have anywhere to go and no other choice but to go that route [into China].” (US Department of Labor)

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I entered –or, the first time I was prostituted I was eleven, when I entered the trade. So, very young. Younger than most. I was working the kiddie corner strip.” (Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter)

Main body

Two separate incidents but same destiny. Caught in the racket of sex traffickers both the girls end up as sex slaves. This brings us only to face with an increasing truth of trafficking of women globally. Thousands of women and girls are trafficked across borders to a country they hardly know to work not as prostitutes but as sex slaves. US Department of Labor estimates each year, more than 2 million women of different age groups are exploited in the global commercial sex trade.

Sex trafficking has been identified by US Department of State as “(a) sex trafficking in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age; or (b) the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery.” With increasing and prevalent demand for sex workers in the global market, there has been a boom in the commercial sex industry but has brought additional woes such as morality, criminality, and health threats of the victims. Presently the global commercial sex trade is an organized sector on which the economic successes of many countries like Thailand, Malaysia, Philippines, etc are depended on. The industry’s huge turnover is an indication of the industry’s commercial success but at the cost of lives of millions of women and children. This article discusses the success of the sex trafficking industry with globalization and impending health issues pertaining to HIV/AIDS.

With globalization of the world, economic order and business one of the oldest trades of the world are gaining international ventures. Sex trade in South East Asian countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand, Easterner European countries growing there are increased number of women and children being trafficked from these countries to the United States or Canada. Peter Landesman identified in his article in The New York Times magazine called The Girls Next Door recounts that these girls trafficked from Asia, Eastern Europe, Russia, all come with a dream and are shattered when they are forced into prostitution at very early age. The report also reveals the horrifying journey of the young girls and their plight. These girls are abducted, or bought, or shown the “American Dream” and transported through the porous borders of Mexico. The perpetrators of the crime are members of organized underworld crime racket who push young girls in this deplorable trade.

With the world becoming a global entity and increasing boons of globalization, there has evolved globalization of sex trade too. As globalization has reduced distances and the flow of information across borders, and allows its movement at high speed through impervious boundaries, sex trade too has evolved with ‘technoscape’ and ‘mediascape’ as identified by Elina Penttinen in her book Globalization, Prostitution, and Sex-trafficking. Elina believes that “Technoscape …enables the overcoming of distances meets its shadow in the global sex industry”. Like other trades that have benefitted from globalization, so has sex trade. Sex workers are treated as “human cargos” that have to pay their way through the trafficking process, and then earning revenue for her traffickers through sex enslavement. Similar fate is restored for sex slaves in Thailand. They are bought from poor farming villages in Thailand, as told by Kevin Bales, and are brought to cities as bonded labors, who are in debt for the amount they were sold:

Siri’s debt was 50000 bath rapidly escalated. Taken south by the broker, Siri was sold for 100,000 bath to the brothel where she now works. After her rape and beating Siri was informed that the debt she must repay, now to the brothel, equaled 200,000 baht. In addition, Siri learned of the other payments she would be required to make, including rent for her room at 30,000 baht per month as well as charges for food and drink, fees for medicine, and fines if she did not work hard enough or displeased a customer. The total debt is virtually impossible to repay, even at Siri’s higher rate of 400 baht. About 100 baht from each client is supposed to be credited to reduce her debt and pay her rent and other expenses; 200 goes to the pimp and the remaining 100 to the brothel. By this reckoning, Siri must have sex with 300 men a month just to pay her rent” (Bales 41)

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Sex trade thus has become extremely profitable, as has been identified by Elina too, who further identified sex trade similar to drug trade, with lesser risk associated. The financial benefits of sex trade have been accentuated with the utilization of information technology.

Another catalyst of trade through the globalization process is information technology. The possibilities produced through information technology, namely the Internet, are enormous. The Internet acts as the medium through which information regarding commercial sex is passed on and also serves as the venue for much of the sex business. It provides opportunities for accessing mail-order-bride catalogues, buy escorted tours in sex tourist destinations, and also acquire information regarding prices of sex workers all across the globe. “The sale of international prostitutes or brides and live strip shows on the internet,” as Elina points out, “decreases the cost of the business also makes these “services” more easily accessible for clients worldwide.” (46)Clearly there are no need to print expensive model portfolios, color pictured catalogues can be uploaded which can be viewed by all or live strip shows or pornographic videos can be transmitted to customers with minimum cost. This increased scope and accessibility of global sex industry and its developments, thus, can be associated with globalization.

The increase in globalization of sex trade and the deteriorating social and mental health of the world has evolved as a major concern. There is increased concern of AIDS problem among sex workers which is making their life even more miserable and ending their lives as social pariahs. Kevin Bales narrates the story of a fifteen year old girl:

Siri is very frightened that she will get AIDS. Long before she understood prostitution, she knew about HIV, as many girls from her village returned home to die from AIDS after being sold into brothels. (Bales 36)

The occurrence of AIDS among sex workers have increased considerably over the last few years. The UN Report on the Global Aids Epidemic, 2008 estimates that in virtually all regions outside sub-Saharan Africa, HIV disproportionately affects sex workers ( among other causes like injecting drugs, etc.) the most. The report points out that sex work is one of the major causes of the HIV/AIDS epidemic with an estimated amount of 20 percent of the sex workers being infected by the virus. The report also identifies that in many countries like Cambodia, Thailand, India the adoption of condoms during commercial sex there has been a marked decline in infection rate. In Cambodia, the adoption of condoms during commercial sex increased from 53 percent in 1997 to 96 percent in 2003 and there has been a subsequent reduction in HIV prevalence among sex workers from 44 percent in 1998 to 8 percent in 2003. But the scene is not very optimistic with only 14 percent of men who buy sex have reported to use condom. Clearly, the plight of sex workers remains to be exploited for the two or four years of their enslaved lives and then die with the fatal virus.

Even though the International covenants and protocols obligate criminalization of the commercial sexual exploitation, official data shows that sex trafficking amounts to a significant piece of overall trafficking and the in the end forms the basis of transnational modern-day slavery. Sex trafficking would not exist without the demand for commercial sex flourishing around the world. The U.S. Government adopted a strong position against prostitution in a December 2002 policy decision, which notes that prostitution is inherently harmful and dehumanizing, and fuels trafficking in persons. Turning people into dehumanized commodities creates an enabling environment for human trafficking.


The lives of girls who get entrapped in the vicious circle of sex trafficking seldom find respite. They are always haunted by their past, their present, and their future. Very few girls can escape the life of abuse, exploitation, and degradation. Even if they do, they have nowhere to go – – they do not have a family to go back for many will not take them in, or for the fear of being killed or getting their families killed, law enforcement authorities are the last place to go as legal system in many countries (even in the US) view them as anti-socials and trespassers in their country. These girls, still young, are broken. They resign their fate to destiny and live their life in brothels.

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  1. Bales, Kevin. Disposable People. London: University of California Press, 2000.
  2. Landsman, Peter. “The Girls Next Door.” The New York Times  2004.
  3. Penttinen, Elina. Globalization, Prostitution and Sex-trafficking. New York: Routledge, 2008.
  4. United Nation. Report on the global AIDS epidemic. XVII International AIDS Conference. Mexico City: UNAIDS, 2008.
  5. US Department of Labor. “Human Trafficking Reprot.” 2008. US Department of Labor.
  6. US Department of State. Trafficking in Persons Report. 2008.
  7. Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter. “Flesh Mapping: vancouver markets pacific women.” 2008. Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter.
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