What Human Rights Law Obscures: Global Sex Trafficking and the Demand for Children

67 Pages Posted: 4 Mar 2008 Last revised: 9 Dec 2008


This article takes as its starting point the global phenomenon of child sex trafficking. It notes that a huge and apparently growing demand for children to exploit sexually is found across cultures, and that end users of child sex trafficking are a far larger group than those generally considered social deviants. The article argues that child sex trafficking as a mass phenomenon offers a particular kind of challenge to our human self-concept, and raises questions about the nature of the male desire to dominate.

The article goes on to critique conventional human rights law as being particularly resistant to mobilizing around topics that do not offer opportunities for self-congratulation. The article refers to the Nuremberg paradigm, in which the true function of human rights norms and enforcement is at least in large part to make the victors feel virtuous. Where the mirror held up to nature reveals something as troubling as child sex trafficking, no such "feel good" factor is present, and so, the article argues, the issue remains, in human rights terms, a "niche" concern.

The article explores international anti-trafficking initiatives and, while not dismissive of the prosecution orientation of these approaches, finds significant limitations in the anti-trafficking criminal model. The article suggests that a generic anti-trafficking definition, such as that found in the UN Protocol on this subject, obscures important distinctions between types of trafficking (for instance, whether for forced labor or sexual exploitation), in that these forms of trafficking rest on very different modes of demand. The article makes the point that it is only through a close and honest examination of the issue of demand for children to exploit that there is any hope for mobilization of concern around this particularly heinous form of human rights violation.

Suggested Citation

Dillon, Sara A., What Human Rights Law Obscures: Global Sex Trafficking and the Demand for Children. UCLA Women's Law Journal, Vol. 17, p. 121, 2008; Suffolk University Law School Research Paper No. 08-41. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1101617

Sara A. Dillon (Contact Author)

Suffolk University Law School ( email )

120 Tremont Street
Boston, MA 02108-4977
United States

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