This article explores the difficulties around using the notion of consent to define ‘trafficking in women’. It does this through an examination of the recent negotiations around the UN Trafficking Protocol. ‘Consent’ was a highly contentious topic at the negotiations. One feminist lobby group argued that all prostitution, regardless of consent, should be considered trafficking. Another feminist lobby group insisted that coercion was a necessary element to any definition of trafficking. Government delegations tended to one or other of these positions. The final document attempts to compromise between these positions, with both lobby groups claiming victory for their position. This article looks at the arguments behind the interpretation of ‘consent’ in the negotiations, placing them in the historical context of early 20th century campaigns against white slavery. It suggests that views of female sexuality that see women as both more virtuous and more dangerous than men influence both historical and contemporary campaigns. It argues that current notions of ‘consent’, reflected in the ambiguity of the Protocol, are inadequate to serve as the basis for political strategies to protect the rights of sex workers and migrants.
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