Sverre Molland, "The Perfect Business? Anti-Trafficking and the Sex Trade along the Mekong" (U Hawaii Press, 2012)


Now and then we feature a book on New Books in Southeast Asian Studies whose author we ought to have had on the show some time ago. The Perfect Business? Anti-Trafficking and the Sex Trade Along the Mekong (University of Hawaii Press, 2012) is one such book. Sverre Molland wrote his tandem ethnography of traffickers and anti-traffickers while researching on the border of Thailand and Laos in the 2000s, after a stint in an anti-trafficking project in which the incongruities of identifying and criminalizing alleged human traffickers became all too obvious to him. Bringing an anthropological lens to the juridical and economic categories that are usually deployed both to explain and address the phenomenon of trafficking for sex, Molland shows that the premises on which anti-trafficking programs operate are unsound. The movement of women and girls in and out of the sex trade is deeply socially embedded. Only by attending to the many varied ways that recruitment into the trade occurs can it be understood. With that, moralizing and paternalistic projects for trafficking's elimination, as well as indicator projects for its enumeration, might be set to one side, and replaced with other ways of knowing and dealing with the phenomenon that might be rather more sensible, if less aspirational. Sverre Molland joins New Books in Southeast Asian Studies to talk about the many layers of deception and consent in sex work, bad faith among traffickers and anti-traffickers, the misguidance of the market metaphor, teens trading teens, agency, structural violence, and the trend towards privately funded anti-trafficking and anti-slavery projects in Southeast Asia. Listeners of this episode may also be interested in: Holly High, Fields of Desire: Poverty and Policy in Laos Denise Brennan, Life Interrupted: Trafficking into Forced Labor in the United States
Nick Cheesman is a fellow at the College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University and in 2016-17 a member of the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton. He can be reached at

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Nick Cheesman

Host, Interpretive Political and Social Science; sometimes contributor, Southeast Asian Studies
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