Anthropological Perspectives on the Trafficking of Women for Sexual Exploitation


  • Lynellyn D. Long


Abstract The sexual exchange of girls and women embodies deep cultural practices and is historically embedded in many family and kinship systems. Contemporary trafficking operations transform traditional bride wealth and marriage exchanges (prestations) by treating women's sexuality and bodies as commodities to be bought and sold (and exchanged again) in various Western capitals and Internet spaces. Such operations are also global with respect to scale, range, speed, diversity, and flexibility. Propelling many trafficking exchanges are political economic processes, which increase the trafficking of women in times of stress, such as famine, unemployment, economic transition, and so forth. However, the disparity between the global market operations, which organize trafficking, and the late nineteenth century social/public welfare system of counter-trafficking suggests why the latter do not effectively address women's risks and may even expose them to increased levels of violence and stress. Drawing on historical accounts, anthropological theory, and ethnographic work in Viet Nam and Bosnia and Herzegovina, this essay examines how specific cultural practices embedded in family and kinship relations encourage and rationalize sexual trafficking of girls and young women in times of stress and dislocation. The essay also analyses how technologies of power inform both trafficking and counter-trafficking operations in terms of controlling women's bodies, sexuality, health, labour, and migration. By analysing sexual trafficking as a cultural phenomenon in its own right, such an analysis seeks to inform and address the specific situations of girls and young women, who suffer greatly from the current migration regimes.