Echoes of victimhood: on passionate activism and ‘sex trafficking’


Cheng, Sealing. “Echoes of Victimhood: On Passionate Activism and ‘Sex Trafficking.’” Feminist Theory, Oct. 2019, doi:10.1177/1464700119881303.

The sexually violated woman has become a salient symbol in feminist discourse, government policies, the media and transnational activism at this historical juncture. In this article, I seek to understand the conviction of anti-prostitution activists that all women in prostitution are victims (despite evidence to the contrary), and their simultaneous dismissal or condemnation of those women who identify as sex workers. The analysis identifies the centrality of victimhood to the affective logic of women activist leaders in the anti-prostitution movement, and its embeddedness in discourses of suffering and redemption in Korean nationalist historiography. Sexual victimhood thus acquires the power to incite moral outrage, compel consensus and inhibit dissent. Sex workers further come to bear the historical and political burden of righting all that is wrong with the nation, making their elimination essential for the nation’s rescue. Critiques of capitalism and the state become footnotes and silences in this process. In effect, the victimhood of ‘prostituted women’ allows women activists to circulate effectively in the affective economy of the nation as well as in the global anti-trafficking campaign. The passionate activism of anti-prostitution women activists may say less about the state of prostitution than about the activists’ subjectivity as historical and global subjects, and the symbolic world that they locate themselves in.

This post was collated from Sex Work Research: A repository of writings on sex work, academic research, organizational reports, media reports, and independent research. Sex work research is not funded by any organization and it lives solely through the efforts, the time and work of currently two individuals Sonja Dolinsek (Twitter: @sonjdol) and Wendy Lyon (@wendylyon). Both are interested in spreading peer-reviewed research on sex work across various disciplines.  Click to read more about Sex Work Research here.

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