Rice University logo
Center for the Study of Women, Gender, and Sexuality

Laura Lederer Speaks on Sex Trafficking

  CSWGS was proud to co-sponsor Laura Lederer’s lecture, “In Modern Bondage: An Examination of Sex Trafficking as Gender-Based Slavery,” on February 9 at Kelly International Conference Facility in James A. Baker III Hall. Lederer’s talk emphasized the widespread nature of trafficking, both in sex and forced labor, in the U. S. and throughout the world. Through a tripartite image of demand, supply, and distribution, Lederer explained current national policies for combating sex trafficking and recommended a different approach that would target the demand side of trade in trafficking, attacking the root of the problem through education, social marketing campaigns, and undercover law enforcement operations. 

Lederer profile

 Lederer began her lecture with the tragic story of a woman named Liza who was prostituted by her foster parents over one thousand times in the space of five years. “Take this story and multiply it by hundreds of thousands in the U. S.,” she explained, “and millions worldwide.” Sex trafficking is modern-day slavery and affects far more people than anyone realizes, Lederer argued. Trafficking manifests in multiple forms, including forced labor, bonded labor, and the use of children as soldiers, but the boundaries between these different types of trafficking and sex trafficking are often crossed.

Trafficking is both a law enforcement and a human rights issue, which can make the prosecution of trafficking crimes difficult. Unveiling national statistics of the unequal arrests and convictions of crimes of prostitution, Lederer revealed that women are much more likely to be charged and convicted of sex trafficking crimes than men. As a way to address this inequality, Lederer proposed focusing law enforcement efforts on the demand side of trafficking. She unveiled the five ‘S’s of demand: sanctioning soliciting, second chance (or “John”) schools, sting operations, social marketing campaigns, and standards. Legalizing prostitution and criminalizing the patronizing of prostitution, Lederer argues, will help to ameliorate the gender bias in sex trafficking prosecution. Second chance schools will give first-time purchasers of sex a reeducation in the harmful effects of such transactions. Sting operations would discourage many “Johns” from purchasing sex and provide a way to catch lawbreakers. Social marketing campaigns and a focus on cultural standards would begin the process of educating the public with a new respect for women and women’s bodies, which are overly sexualized in the media. At the end of her lecture, Lederer left the audience with an appropriate analogy pertaining to the importance of focusing on the demand for sex trafficking: “The question is,” she asked, “do we want a fence at the top of the hill or a hospital at the bottom?” It is clear that addressing the triangle of sex trafficking from the bottom up is a necessary goal, but also a difficult one that will require years of public education, policy changes, and social programs.

 The question and answer section was especially fruitful for the night’s discussion, especially because the audience contained representatives of many of the organizations working to combat trafficking in the Houston area. Lederer’s lecture evoked a lively series of questions and responses from the audience. The Center’s own postdoctoral fellow Jenn Tyburczy asked an especially thoughtful question and the nature of the division between forced and unforced sex work—between sex work and sex trafficking. Lederer also answered questions about youth feminist education programs, Houston’s place in the trafficking industry, Texas laws for Johns, and pornography.

 Laura Lederer is Adjunct Professor of Law at Georgetown University, and has served as senior adviser on human trafficking for the U.S. Department of State.  She is the founder and former director of The Protection Project, now housed at Johns Hopkins University's Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies. As director of the project, she oversaw research on the trafficking of women and children, including foreign and national laws on trafficking and surrounding activities, country-by-country human rights reports on trafficking, and survivors' stories.  Lederer currently serves as president of Global Centurion, a Washington, DC-based nongovernmental organization that seeks to eradicate child sex trafficking by focusing on the demand for trafficked children. Professor Lederer is the third of this year's speakers in the Gray/Wawro Lectures in Gender, Health and Well-being