The Global Political Economy of Sexual Exploitation

I recently attended a workshop aimed at preparing a submission for a UN consultation on business & human rights on the role of the so-called ‘sex industry’ in Australia. One of the key observations made by scholars, practitioners, and activists was that this legal, regulated industry in Australia enjoys a special, exempted status from the scrutiny of business ethics such as the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights. While there is much to be said about the incongruity of the ‘job like any other’ discourse regarding the sex industry and mechanisms to ensure corporate responsibility for upholding basic human rights, one aspect I find far less considered is the way in which both legal and illegal forms of sexual exploitation seem to undergird so many aspects of our regular, licit economy.

It struck me from socializing with men and women in the banking and IT sectors how normal it is for workplace socializing to be conducted in strip clubs. A number of my friends and acquaintances admitted the regularity with which their ‘team’ would wind up after Thursday night drinks at a strip club, while others relayed rumors of their company holding corporate accounts with such establishments. It has made me wonder just how integral is sexual exploitation to lubricating our core economic sectors in an advanced, capitalist country?

With this ‘feminist curiosity‘ in mind, I came across an article about 50 formerly prostituted women suing Salesforce for facilitating their being sexually trafficked. Salesforce is an American Fortune 500 tech company perhaps best known for its ‘customer relationship management’ (CRM) software, used by millions. This week, fifty “Jane Does” have filed a lawsuit in San Francisco accusing Salesforce of “sex trafficking, negligence, and conspiracy” for providing CRM services to the notorious classified advertising site Backpage.com.

Last year, Backpage made international news when its CEO pleaded guilty to an array of charges associated with sex trafficking and money laundering as a result of publishing ads relating to prostitution, sex trafficking, and the sexual exploitation of minors. This new lawsuit against Salesforce alleges that the company and CEO, Marc Benioff:

engaged in nefarious activities while claiming to be fighting trafficking. “Behind the scenes … Salesforce kept taking Backpage’s money and supporting it with the CRM database of pimps, johns, and traffickers that Backpage needed to operate.”

Most perniciously, at the same time the company was attempting to paint itself as ‘good guys’ concerned with global corporate responsibility,

“Salesforce knew the scourge of sex trafficking because it sought publicity for trying to stop it. But at the same time, this publicly traded company was, in actuality, among the vilest of rogue companies, concerned only with their bottom line,” the suit alleges. “And human beings—many more than just these 50—were raped and abused because of it.”

“The Jane Does were forced, coerced, and made victims of sex trafficking by means of force, fear, fraud, deceit, coercion, violence, duress, menace, or threat of unlawful injury to themselves and others, including family members,” the lawsuit claims. “Salesforce committed acts at issue with malice, oppression, fraud, and duress.”

The claim of Salesforce’s complicity rests on the recognition that the industry of sexually exploiting women and children cannot operate alone, but requires all the same support services, technical services, and financial services as any other. Thus, the claim lodged by the 50 women accuses Salesforce of complicity in actively maximizing “customer acquisition” of johns/punters and aggressive marketing towards this acquisition. As such, the suit claims that not only did Salesforce’s technology provide “the backbone of Backpage’s exponential growth,” but it was also under Salesforce’s guidance that Backpage came to dominate the illicit industry in the trafficking and trade in women’s and children’s bodies.

Such recognition of the complicity of giants in our economy in the sex industry is an important first step. For as research has shown, the sexual exploitation of women and children isn’t done just by a handful of deviant, lonely men. Rather, it is sustained by both a widespread culture of acceptance that women’s bodies can be bought and used as commodities, as well as by an economic system that enables the trade.

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