my review of Siddarth Kara’s book Sex Trafficking

I reviewed Siddarth Kara's book. He is strong on structural issues but his book turns to salacious material and hero fantasies.

Here is a short excerpt from my review of Siddarth Kara’s book Sex Trafficking for the Women’s Review of Books.

Unfortunately, although Kara understands the variety of trafficking situations, he is stuck on sex trafficking. He meets trafficked workers in fields such as agriculture and construction, but pursues elusive sex slaves.  He never asks any of the people he seeks out—the poor women, sex workers, child carpet-weavers, or bonded-laborer families making bricks—what would actually help them. Although he is sensitive to their plights, he is insensitive and uninterested in their needs and desires. Rather than focus on structural issues, his book turns to salacious material and hero fantasies. A romantic outsider, he pushes ineffective remedies.
At one point, Kara attempts to pose as a brothel client in order to meet and interview “sex slaves.” He describes a process that he finds strange, since he is unfamiliar with clandestine activities, but that is common in illegal venues, such as those involving sex, drugs, or weapons. Would-be patrons are told to call for directions from a specific location, where the person answering the call can see them through a window, perhaps using binoculars or a camera. This is done to prevent too many people from learning the exact location, as many callers do not follow through with a visit. At the door, there are one or two intimidating bouncers, who may also run errands, and additional staff to answer the phone. Inside, it is smoky. These environments frighten Kara, but they are reassuring for sex workers who do not want to be visible to the public. Ultimately, Kara fails to meet sex slaves or even sex workers, but he insists they are there.
In the end, Kara simply does not understand what he observed in sex work venues. He cannot seem to move beyond what he believes should be effective into the realities of human trafficking that he witnessed. He recommends calling on law enforcement in response to trafficking, despite the fact that even he himself did not do so, because he believed it would harm the people he wanted to help. He documents that corruption undermines the enforcement of antitrafficking laws and that trafficked persons who testify against their keepers place themselves in danger. The question becomes why he could not move beyond the emotionally based model he advocates, when even his own experience proves its ineffectiveness.