The Perverse Politics of Four-Letter
Words: Risk and Pity in the
Securitisation of Human Trafficking
This article unpacks two constructions of human trafficking: as a
security threat and as a humanitarian problem. Restricting its focus
to trafficking of women for the sex industry, the article highlights the
double identification of these women as illegal migrants and victims,
prostitutes and suffering bodies. How are these schizophrenic
identifications possible? An analysis of the security and
humanitarian articulations as governmental interventions in Michel
Foucault’s sense of the term locates a perverse continuity. As the
bodies in pain governed by a ‘politics of pity’ metamorphose into
psychological cases to be governed by risk technologies within a
‘politics of risk’, the humanitarian and security interventions are
shown to be in no way mutually exclusive.
‘Central to the problem of policing THB [trafficking in human beings] is
the difficulty in clearly identifying the threat that THB poses to a State’.1
Thus starts a recent Europol report on human trafficking. The report
goes on to elaborate the threats that illegal migration, organised crime
and, by association, human trafficking pose to the state. Another report,
this time under the aegis of the International Organisation for Migration
(IOM), is more explicit in identifying trafficking as ‘the most menacing
form of irregular migration due to its ever-increasing scale and
complexity involving, as it does arms, drugs, prostitution and so on’.2As
these reports indicate, human trafficking has recently become visible on
I would like to thank Tobias Blanke, Jef Huysmans, Michael Merlingen, and Raia
Prokhovnik for attentive readings and stimulating comments. The editors and the
reviewers have offered thoughtful suggestions and raised challenging questions.
1. Europol, ‘Crime Assessment: Trafficking of Human Beings into the
European Union’, 2003 [http://www.europol.eu.int/index.asp?page=publ_
crimeassessmentTHB] (20 October 2004).
2 Frank Laczkó and David Thompson, eds., Migrant Trafficking and Human
Smuggling in Europe: A Review of the Evidence with Case Studies from Hungary,
Poland and Ukraine (Geneva: IOM, 2000), 19.
© Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 2004. ISSN 0305-8298. Vol.33, No.2, pp. 251-277
the European political agenda as part of a security continuum linking
illegal migration, drug trafficking, terrorism, and organised crime.3
Alongside the political visibility entailed in their securitisation,
these threats have also slowly but steadily colonised the academic
territory of security studies and captured the attention of scholars
already in a consensus over the multiplication of dangers and threats in
the post-Cold War world. The ‘new’ threats have been variously linked
with the disappearance of the communist enemy and the subsequent
need to reinvent a multitude of other enemies and dangers, with the
nation-states’ pathological reaction to globalisation by reasserting
sovereignty through controlling cross-border movements, with an
‘outdated’ imaginary of closed and homogenous communities, or with
This article will, however, neither explore the rationale for such a
proliferation of new dangers nor speculate on their symbolic or
imaginary status. It will attempt to understand how a humanitarian
discourse, spanning efforts to salvage migrants, boat people, asylum-
seekers or trafficked women, can be appropriated within a securitising
discourse where migrants, boat people, asylum-seekers or trafficked
women are integrated in a continuum of danger. This is not a matter of
simply pointing out a renaming of human rights as human security, as
that would only be a banal point. What concerns me here is how two
apparently incompatible discursive regimes are entwined and feed upon
each other. I shall attempt to shed light on their relation by looking at the
trafficking of women for sex work.5
3. The concept of ‘security continuum’ was formulated by Didier Bigo in Polices
en réseaux (Paris: Presses de Sciences Po, 1996), 263. Securitisation will be used in
the sense of the Copenhagen School. Barry Buzan, Ole Waever, Ole and Jaap de
Wilde, Security: A New Framework for Analysis (Boulder: Lynne Rienne, 1998).
4. See for example Didier Bigo, ‘Security and Immigration: Toward a Critique
of the Governmentality of Unease’, Alternatives 27 (2002): 63–92; Jef Huysmans,
‘Contested community: Migration and the Question of the Political in the EU’, in
International Relations Theory and the Politics of European Integration:Power, Security
and Community, eds. M. Kelstrup and M. Williams (London: Routledge, 2000),
5. There are numerous definitions of the phenomenon of human trafficking
and even more numerous denominations: human trafficking, human trade,
trafficking in human beings, trafficking in persons, trafficking in women,
trafficking of aliens, human commodity trafficking and the list could continue. I
shall use ‘human trafficking’ and ‘trafficking in women’ interchangeably, simply
because they are used as such in the politicisation of trafficking. Although it is
not exclusively women who are trafficked and sex work is not the sole form of
exploitation, it is women in the sex trade who are mainly categorised and
governed as victims of trafficking.
The security continuum in which trafficking is integrated intersects with
a humanitarian discourse which structures the situation of trafficking by
focusing on victims who are denied ‘their rights to liberty, dignity,
security of person, the right not to be held in slavery, the right to be free
from cruel and inhumane treatment’.6According to this latter discourse,
managing the phenomenon of trafficking should be reframed by tending
to the needs of trafficked women. Such re-structuring in terms of human
rights or human security redefines trafficking not as a diffuse threat to
the state, but as a threat to women: they have fallen victim to trafficking
networks and risk being re-victimised by states, which will attempt to
locate, identify and deport them. As illegal migrants, prostitutes and
(potential) criminals, trafficked women are a cause of insecurity; as
victims, they are also simultaneously vulnerable and made insecure
Despite an apparent logical incompatibility between these
humanitarian and security discourses, they are now happily married in
the European Union (EU) policies for the prevention of trafficking.
While promoting women as bearers of human rights was initially
devised as an NGO counter-strategy to the EU security discourse, a
coalition of NGOs and EU actors coupled the two discourses and
endorsed them as logically related and mutually reinforcing—thus
allowing the humanitarian discourse to be gradually taken up by the EU
itself. Yet, how can these different discursive regimes be reconciled, how
can trafficked women be an embodiment of threat to Western states
while simultaneously awakening sympathy as human beings threatened
by the same states?
To expose the perverse relation between the humanitarian and
security articulations, I shall consider them as governmental processes:
practical interventions with the purpose of managing the phenomenon
of trafficking. Coined by Michel Foucault, ‘government’ in this sense
refers to acting on the actions of individuals, taken either singly or
collectively, so as to shape, guide, conduct and modify the ways in
which they conduct themselves.7‘Governmentality’ is not a new import
for international studies; security and practices of statecraft have already
been conceptualised in governmental terms, most notably by Michael
The Perverse Politics of Four-Letter Words
6. Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE)/Office for
Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), ‘Trafficking in Human
Beings: Implications for OSCE’, background paper no. 3, 1999
[http://www.osce.org/documents/odihr/1999/09/1503_en.html] (25 October
7. Graham Burchell, ‘Liberal Government and Techniques of the Self’, Economy
and Society 22, no. 3 (1993): 267–281.
Dillon and Jef Huysmans.8More generally, governmentality has led to
illuminating analyses of practices, from refugee regimes to the ‘new
Understood as governmental, the humanitarian and security
articulations appear as practical interventions to particular ends,
constituting subjects to be governed. The humanitarian discourse will be
shown to function more specifically as a ‘politics of pity’, where
emotions are used to re-structure the situation of trafficking and govern
it to the benefit of trafficked women. The security regime can similarly
be thought of as a ‘politics of risk’, as it governs the phenomenon of
trafficking by means of technologies of risk management. A
governmental analysis brings the question of subjectivation/
identification (who are the trafficked women?) to bear on the
technologies mobilised by the security and humanitarian interventions
(how do they function?), showing that their liaison is not simply a
matter of contingency or immanent contradictions. Rather than
contingently opposed or mutually exclusive, these interventions will be
shown to share an uncanny complicity, structurally related by the logic
of their functioning.
Through specific constructions of the subjects to be governed, the
security regime appears as a symptom10 of the humanitarian one, as a
particular element which fissures and subverts it. Whereas a politics of
pity attempts to exteriorise the threat and divorce it from the body of
trafficked women, this paper will show how it is undercut by a politics
of risk that interiorises danger, relocating it within trafficked women.
Structurally, the paper will follow this symptomatic subversion of pity
8. Michael Dillon, ‘Sovereignty and Governmentality: From the Problematics
of the “New World Order” to the Ethical Problematic of the World Order’,
Alternatives 20 (1995): 323–368, and Michael Dillon and Julian Reid, ‘Global
Liberal Governance: Biopolitics, Security and War’, Millennium: Journal of
International Studies 30, no. 1 (2001): 41–66; Jef Huysmans, ‘Desecuritisation and
the Aesthetics of Horror in Political Realism’, Millennium: Journal of International
Studies 27, no. 3 (1998), and ‘Conceptualizing Spill-over Through a Foucaultian
Lens: Freedom and Security in the EU’, Journal of International Relations and
Development (2004), forthcoming.
9. See Randy Lippert, ‘Governing Refugees: The Relevance of
Governmentality to Understanding the International’, Alternatives: Global, Local,
Political 24, no. 3 (1999): 295–328; and Wendy Larner and William Walters, ‘The
Political Rationality of “New Regionalism”: Toward a Genealogy of the Region’,
Theory and Society 31(2002): 391–432.
10. I use here Slavoj Zizek’s definition of the symptom as the ‘point of
breakdown heterogeneous to a given ideological field and at the same time
necessary for that field to achieve its closure, its accomplished form’. Zizek, The
Sublime Object of Ideology (London: Verso, 1992), 21.
by risk. I shall start by discussing what pity means as a technology of
government, and go on to explore the implications of defining and
identifying trafficked women through a ‘politics of pity’, looking in
particular at NGOs’ practices of representing the suffering of victims in
order to trigger political reactions. The second part of the paper will
focus on the government of risk and use a Foucault-inspired conceptual
toolbox to show how women metamorphose from suffering beings
worthy of pity into risky beings who are to be contained and disciplined.
Emotions and the ‘politics of pity’
Despite the role that the politics of pity and emotions play in practices of
international politics, their potential, challenges or inconsistencies have
received scant scholarly attention. As Neta Crawford has recently
pointed out, International Relations (IR) has tended to ignore explicit
considerations of ‘the passions’, or of emotions more generally.11 Fear has
probably been the only emotion considered in the literature, although it
has also been mostly assumed in discussions of security rather than
problematised.12 IR generally has not taken stock of the emotional
models that drive political interventions and strategies of governance.
From the war on terror to interventions in crisis situations (e.g., famine
and natural catastrophes), political actions depend on and are limited by
emotions. A constitutive aspect of intersubjective relations, emotions
become a technology of government to the extent that they can be used
to steer citizens’ actions. We are to be emotionally affected and
experience solidarity with victims of catastrophes or terrorist attacks,
but to remain immune to the suffering of terrorists.
The ‘politics of pity’13 is such an ‘emotional’ governmental model
practised in relation to victims; in this case, the excluded and suffering
others of international politics. Emotions can foster new commonalities
in the face of diversity, creating solidarities beyond the traditional ones
The Perverse Politics of Four-Letter Words
11. Neta Crawford, ‘The Passion of World Politics: Propositions on Emotion
and Emotional Relationships’, International Security 24, no. 4 (2000): 116.
12. For a very interesting problematisation of the ‘double fear’ in relation to
security, see Jef Huysmans, ‘Security! What Do You Mean? From Concept to
Thick Signifier’, European Journal of International Relations 4, no. 2 (1998): 226–255.
13. Following Hannah Arendt’s distinction between ‘compassion’ and ‘pity’,
I have chosen the latter term for the‘politics of pity’ with the intention of
emphasising the mediation that pity implies. See Arendt, On Revolution
(Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1990), 59–114. Other authors, however, do not
make a distinction between compassion and pity. See for example Martha
Nussbaum, ‘Compassion: the Basic Social Emotion’, Social Philosophy and Policy
13, no. 1 (1996): 27–58.
of the nation-state and common morality. In conditions of
postmodernity, of fragmentation, discontinuity and inconsequentiality14,
suffering and emotions are at the heart of a new type of solidarity.
Richard Rorty has famously listed among the ungroundable desires of
the liberal ironist the hope ‘that suffering will be diminished, that the
humiliation of human beings by other human beings may cease’.15 Rorty
saw the possibility of new forms of solidarity which would downplay
the importance of traditional differences in comparison to pain and
Feminists have also reclaimed emotions as grounds for progressive
political action, challenging the equation of ‘unhealthy’ emotions with
feminity.17 Emotional responses are viewed as important sources of
human values and ethics and as a proper basis for political action.18 The
feminist literature has advocated an ‘ethics of care’19 to replace the
universalising assumptions of the ‘ethics of justice’. Unlike justice, care
is focused on concrete others and responds to specific situations.20 The
ethics of care—feminists have argued—forces us to place moral and
political concerns within the context of people’s daily lives.21
14. Zygmunt Bauman, Life in Fragments: Essays in Postmodern Morality (Oxford:
Blackwell Publishers, 1995), 266.
15. Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, Solidarity (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1989), xv.
16. Rorty, Contingency, Irony, Solidarity, 192. It is however impossible to divorce
a material understanding of pain and humiliation from ‘traditional’ differences
such as religion, race, customs that Rorty wants to surpass. On Rorty and
postmodern politics, see Honi Fern Haber, Beyond Postmodern Politics: Lyotard,
Rorty, Foucault (London: Routledge, 1994), 68.
17. For a different critique of the dichotomy reason/emotion, which shows
their mutual interdependence rather than reversing the polarisation of terms, see
Raia Prokhovnik, Rational Woman: A Feminist Critique of Dichotomy, 2nd edition
(Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002), chapter 2.
18. Deborah Lupton, The Emotional Self (London: Sage, 1998), 3; and Joan C.
Tronto, ‘Care as a Basis for Radical Political Judgements’, Hypatia 10, no. 2 (1995):
19. The ethics of care was initially associated with women’s emotional
development and thought to be incompatible with an ‘ethic of justice’. See Carol
Gilligan, In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development
(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982).
20. It is interesting that feminists have not engaged with the concept of justice
as it has re-emerged in ‘postmodern’ writings. Jean-François Lyotard, for
example, advocates a conception of justice which would permit the
differentiation between multiple language games and différends.
21. Tronto, ‘Care as a Basis’, 142.
For both feminists and postmodernists, emotions can therefore ground
new ways of radical politics, providing a bond for communities and
creating solidarity in conditions of fragmentation or fragmented
morality. Among emotions, pity as a response to suffering has a special
position. In Cynthia Halpern’s formulation, ‘[w]hat we can do is the
primal question that arises from the experience of suffering, either in
ourselves or in relation to what we see at a distance’.22 Besides
functioning as a crucible for empathy and intersubjective notions of the
self, suffering is clearly linked with agency and action.23 Pity thus
becomes directly linked with practical interventions, with actions that
envisage a re-structuring of the existing situation. A politics of pity
tackles the ‘disordered situation’,24 the social context which has led to
suffering by privileging particular others. In this sense it is meant to
fulfil a double role that commends it to political theory: it can create new
commonalities, while at the same time challenging existing social
relations which have been conducive to suffering. Here then, unlike fear
or hate, pity can be said to function rather as an anti-governmental
technology, concerned with emancipation from particular systems of
power, or from the effects of the deployment of particular techniques
Alongside its staunch supporters, the politics of pity also has harsh
critics who question its political potential. Wendy Brown has insightfully
warned that a politics of pity ‘delimits a specific site of blame for
suffering by constituting sovereign subjects and events as responsible’.26
Social constructivists, emphasising that emotions are themselves shaped
by social institutions, social systems and power relations,27 are also
critical of the transformative role that emotions can play. What suffering
becomes recognised in the public domain is a question of struggle and
The Perverse Politics of Four-Letter Words
22. Cynthia Halpern, Suffering, Politics, Power: A Genealogy in Modern Political
Theory (New York: SUNY, 2002), 10.
23. Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: the Making and Unmaking of the World
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985).
24. I borrow the term from Maureen Whitebrook, ‘Compassion as a Political
Virtue’, Political Studies 50, no. 3 (2002): 530.
25. Barry Hindess has formulated the distinction between the governmental
and the anti-governmental in Foucault’s concept of politics. Hindess, ‘Politics
and Liberation’, in The Later Foucault, ed. Jeremy Moss (London: Sage, 1998),
50–63. As there is a fine line between ‘ordering’, aligned with the purposes of the
state and ‘re-ordering’ as an emancipatory practise, for the purposes of this
article I shall keep the denomination of ‘governmental’ for both pity and risk.
26. Wendy Brown, States of Injury, Power and Freedom in Late Modernity
(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995), 27.
27. Lupton, The Emotional Self, 18.
construction and not of inherent ‘merit’. Even one of the most astute
defenders of a politics of pity, Luc Boltanski, felt it necessary to
formulate its downsides: ‘emotions can be discredited as foundations
and symptoms of a moral position due to their circumstantial
character—bound as they are with a particular situation in which they
are tethered to the real or imaginary presence of a particular
unfortunate—which does not enable or construct a moral duty with
Yet, all these objections can be thought to function merely as
warnings about the efficacy of a governmental intervention. In one of the
most cogent theoretical treatments of pity, Boltanski engages with
several of the tensions and criticisms of a politics of pity and translates
such theoretical objections into practical injunctions to strategise pity. I
shall therefore follow his cartography of practices of pity to understand
how pity functions for human trafficking. Boltanski acknowledges that
suffering is socially constructed and that certain types of suffering have
surfaced in various epochs, while others have passed unnoticed. He
translates this insight into a practical task for those who convey
suffering: to make it recognisable, to include it in a so-called repertoire
of recognisable suffering. Thus the social construction of emotions is
translated into a political struggle with Bourdieuean undertones.
Boltanski rightly points out that ‘[w]ithin the realm of political struggles
the conflict of beliefs supporting pity corresponds to a conflict over the
identification of the unfortunates whose cause is to be judged politically
worthy’.29 The politics of pity therefore needs to configure suffering as
recognisable, something the spectators can identify and sympathise
with. This socially constructed aspect of suffering and emotional
response is important inasmuch as expertise plays an important role in
training our sensibility as spectators and our emotional imagination
The accusatory mode implied by a politics of pity is actually meant
to reveal ‘a defect, flaw, a disorder, a chaos, either in the organisation of
society or in the constitution of the individual’.30 Boltanski does not
explicitly tackle this dichotomy of the disordered situation versus the
disordered individual in the politics of pity. Pity cannot work for those
who are deemed responsible for the ills that have befallen them or those
who are considered dangerous to the community. Suffering must be seen
28. Luc Boltanski, Distant Suffering, Morality, Media and Politics, trans. Graham
Burchell (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 100.
29. Ibid., 155.
30. Loralea Michaelis, ‘Politics and the Art of Suffering in Hölderlin and
Nietzsche’, Philosophy & Social Criticism 27, no. 5 (2001): 89–115.
as undeserved, since pity cannot be experienced towards the culpable
and the dangerous. William Connolly has rightly acknowledged in his
ethical considerations on pity that ‘[s]ome of the most difficult cases
arise when people suffer from injuries imposed by institutionalised
identities, principles, and cultural understandings, when those who
suffer are not entirely helpless but are defined as threatening,
contagious, or dangerous to the self-assurance of these identities’.31
The elimination or alleviation of suffering is part of a process of
governing, of social re-ordering, in which the causes of suffering are
eradicated, dealt with or transformed. In governmental terms such an
intervention has not only to represent and constitute a particular
situation, but also to confer particular identities upon subjects. As
Connolly has suggested, the subject of a politics of pity needs to be
divorced from a construction of danger. The most important task for the
politics of pity is therefore one of identifying trafficked women through
dis-identifying them from such a dangerous subject. To activate the
spectators’ pity, trafficked women must be specified as non-dangerous.
Michel Foucault’s analyses on the government of abnormals have
shown how governmental interventions have become dependent upon
the specification of the individual. Starting from the 18th century,
punishment was no longer to be meted out according to the crime, but
in close relation to the potential redemption and future danger of the
individual.32 The invention of the ‘dangerous individual’, neither mad
nor criminal, brought with it the need for expert knowledge to decide on
her identity. A governmental technology, therefore, depends upon a
particular description of the subject. Similarly, the politics of pity can
only function for certain categories of individuals, i.e., the non-
dangerous. Thus the question ‘who are you?’ is located at the heart of the
regime governing trafficking through pity.
Strategising pity: trafficked women and physical suffering
A politics of pity has been advocated and practised by various NGOs
involved in anti-trafficking campaigns with the explicit purpose of
challenging governmental practices that considered trafficked women as
illegal migrants and foreign prostitutes involved in illicit affairs.
Jacqueline Berman has recently shown that the particular combination of
the movement, ‘race’, and gender of migrant East European sex workers
The Perverse Politics of Four-Letter Words
31. William Connolly, ‘Suffering, Justice and the Politics of Becoming’, in Moral
Spaces. Rethinking Ethics and World Politics, eds. David Campbell and Michael
Shapiro (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), 129.
32. Michel Foucault, Les anormaux. Cours au Collège de France, 1974-1975 (Paris:
Gallimard/Le Seuil, 1999).
turns them into an external and internal threat by ‘disrupt[ing] the
ability of the state to adjudicate membership in the political
community’.33 In this, she argues, trafficked women represent the
threat of the other in the midst of the European social, political and
A politics of pity based on victimisation was supposed to challenge
this type of threat construction—or what NGOs had called the ‘law
enforcement’ approach to human trafficking, which considered trafficked
women as illegal migrants and promptly deported them. It was argued
that besides being victimised by their traffickers, women were also
subjected to increased suffering by the state. As a result of these practices
of second victimisation, victims of trafficking were thought either to fall
easily prey to traffickers all over again, or to experience suffering and
stigma when returned to their countries of origin. Pity was thought to
disrupt the first securitisation of human trafficking, which turns women
into dangerous illegal migrants, prostitutes and/or criminals; it was
harnessed to a re-structuring of social relations in the sphere of trafficking
and envisaged interventions specifically different from the repressive and
preventive strategies embraced by those primarily concerned with
migration and organised crime.
Just like the politics of pity generally, the specific strategies that
NGOs have devised for redefining and relocating the trafficking of
women in a different narrative have had their fair share of criticism. Jo
Doezema has identified a worrying similarity between anti-trafficking
campaigns and anti-slavery campaigns at the beginning of the 20th
century she faults the former for thus proliferating images of ‘innocent’
victims and excluding any claims to rights by ‘guilty whores’. While
condemning forced prostitution, such an approach offers nothing in the
way of rights for the ‘guilty’, ‘voluntary’ prostitutes.34 Doezema’s
objection points to the process of subjectivation I have already identified.
Pity can be deployed as a governmental strategy only by answering the
question of ‘who are you?’. The answer provided is initially delimited by
considering whether the women are ‘worthy of pity’ and ‘non-
33. Jacqueline Berman, ‘(Un)Popular Strangers and Crises (Un)Bounded:
Discourses of Sex Trafficking, the European Political Community and the
Panicked State of the Modern State’, European Journal of International Relations 9,
no. 1 (2003): 59.
34. Jo Doezema, ‘Forced to Choose: Beyond the Voluntary v. Forced
Prostitution Dichotomy’, in Global Sex Workers: Rights, Resistance and Redefinition,
eds. Kemala Kempadoo and Jo Doezema (London: Routledge, 1998), 34–50, and
‘Who Gets to Choose? Coercion, Consent, and the UN Trafficking Protocol’,
Gender and Development 10, no. 1 (2002): 20–27.
‘Worthy of pity’ needs to suspend the official distinction between
innocent and guilty women present in official discourses. For Willy
Bruggeman, deputy director of Europol, only a restricted category of
victims are ‘sex slaves in the truest sense’.35 Other victims have not been
entirely coerced or deceived. Although some would never have
imagined the slave-like conditions under which they would have to
work, they knew they were going to be employed in the sex industry.
Others thought they were recruited to work in the service or
entertainment industry, but were instead forced into prostitution. Often
depicted as ‘happy hookers of Eastern Europe’36, what connects all of
these women is that they knowingly accepted to be illegal migrants.
They are thus seen to be not entirely innocent and so not deserving of
The politics of pity manages to avoid this distinction between
guilty and innocent women that Doezema warns against by appealing to
an imaginary of common suffering. To promote understanding and
sympathy for their situation, the advocates of pity focus on the directly
physical pain and suffering trafficking causes. The main purpose of
these accounts is to promote identification with victims of trafficking in
a way that overcomes any internal divisions of trafficked women. Luc
Boltanski has identified two strategies that can make all women equally
innocent and deserving of pity.
One such strategy represents the suffering of trafficked women by
directing it to a cause: the perpetrator of violence upon whom emotions
and efforts will subsequently focus. This rather unproblematic topic of
denunciation makes violence directly attributable to responsible agents.
‘It’s a baptism of brutality. In every case, trafficked women are raped and
brutalised by their ‘owners’ and agents before they are put to work, to
make them compliant and terrified’.37 Emotional accounts of trafficking
focus on portraying the evil traffickers who exploit and reduce women
to an undignified state of slavery.
The second strategy, focusing exclusively on women, is the topic of
sentiment. Unlike the topic of denunciation, the topic of sentiment
dispenses with accusation and the search for the victimiser or
persecutor. It addresses the spectators who are to be moved by the
The Perverse Politics of Four-Letter Words
35. Willy Bruggeman, ‘Illegal Immigration and Trafficking in Human
Beings Seen As A Security Problem for Europe’, Speech at the IOM-EU
Conference on Combating Human Trafficking, 19 September 2002
%20Brussels%20IOM.19.09.02.pdf ] (26 October 2004).
36. The Spectator, ‘Happy Hookers of Eastern Europe’, 25 April 2003, 25.
37. Denise Marshall, Director of Eaves Housing for Women, London, quoted
in The Evening Standard, 10 October 2002, 16.
victims’ suffering and attempts to create a community of ‘visceral’
reactions, which pre-exist their principled justification.38 The physical
suffering of trafficked women is meant to trigger such visceral reactions,
to function as a ‘solidarity-inducing denominator’39 and anti-trafficking
campaigns have made extensive use of a symbolic of the body in pain:
pierced, bleeding, and defenceless. These images, arbitrarily chosen
from anti-trafficking campaigns, show how the suffering of victims is
made directly physical; it is integrated within an imaginary of bodily
suffering which cuts across any existing distinctions.
Besides effacing any distinctions between innocent and willingly or
knowingly trafficked women, the strategy of universalisable physical
suffering also has to function as a strategy of dis-identification. I have
shown that the subject of a politics of pity has to be divorced from the
dangerous subject. As trafficked women have been subjected to cruelty,
their undeniable suffering at the hands of traffickers makes them extra-
ordinary, beyond ordinary identifications with illegal migrants and
prostitutes. Where their trajectory might have coincided with that of a
migrant or prostitute, suffering is redeeming. Trafficked women are dis-
identified from categories of migrants, criminals or prostitutes by the
emphasis on raw physical suffering. Thus women who are trafficked
into prostitution should not be deprived of their rights on grounds that
they are undocumented migrants. The spectators’ prejudices or
prejudgements on illegal migrants, prostitutes and criminals are
suspended in the present of the politics of pity.
And yet, not all trafficking victims have been redeemed by physical
suffering. Despite these unifying representations of inflicted pain, not all
38. Ibid., 54.
39. Hans Boutellier, Crime and Morality: The Significance of Criminal Justice in
Post-Modern Culture (London: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2000), 68.
victims have been physically abused, abducted and then repeatedly
raped, beaten up, their bodies burned with cigarettes ends. It is almost
as if women need to be ‘purified’ through blood, as in the OSCE poster.
If some women are ‘innocent victims’, others would almost fit scenarios
of receiving ‘just deserts’: their suffering incurred as a result of their
reckless actions, i.e. undertaking a(n) (illegal) migration project. The
ambiguities or inexistence of suffering—ambiguities which are
increased when too much emphasis is placed on the lack of consent or
prior knowledge—often require supplementary strategies of making
‘innocent’. Beauty and religiosity are mobilised as ‘innocenting’
strategies where raw, physical suffering is absent. Rescued by a reporter
in London, Romanian Natasha is described in highly emotional terms:
A deeply religious girl, and stunningly pretty with dark blue eyes
andbeautiful olive skin, her hair braided into dozens of thin plaits
like a foreign exchange student, Natasha knows that she shouldn’t
have come to Britain and blames herself for what has happened. Yet
she still harbours dreams of Montreal and Marius. ‘I just want to be
an ordinary person,’ she says, crying gently. ‘A decent person with a
man who loves me.’42
The question of subjectivity does still not receive a final answer either in
the representation of bodily pain and physical suffering or of beauty. The
art of government requires knowledge of the individuals it is supposed
to govern. Who are the women upon whom pity should be bestowed?
The question ‘who are you?’ can never be completely answered by the
incriminated individual. The confessional answers the women
themselves provide, or the NGOs’ semi-confessional answers, need to be
backed up by expert knowledge. Although the ‘psychiatrisation’ of
criminal danger was based on procedures of confession, self-
examination, and revelation, as Michel Foucault demonstrated at length,
it also involved an expert assessment of the future risk that the
individual could pose. Such a doubling of confession by the knowledge
of risk was linked to the shift from thinking that punishment should
answer the crime, to thinking of it as a mechanism in the ‘defence of
society’.41 Thus, ‘Who are you?’/ ‘Who are the trafficked women?’
requires a supplementary answer. This answer, which addresses the
The Perverse Politics of Four-Letter Words
40. Official poster of the international conference ‘Europe Against
Trafficking in Persons’, Berlin, October 2001 [http://www.osce.org/odihr/
?page=democratization&div=antitrafficking] (13 November 2004).
41. IOM, ‘Information Campaign Against Trafficking of Women in the Baltic
(13 November 2004).
management and prevention of the phenomenon of trafficking,
mobilises technologies and knowledge of risk. The next section will look
at how the ‘politics of risk’ as a governmental strategy to ‘defend society’
and manage social problems operates through collectivisation as well as
individualisation of subjects.
Governmentality and the ‘politics of risk’
Although the language of risk is increasingly present in international
politics, risk as a concept or category of understanding has been under-
theorised in IR and—even more inexplicably—in security studies.
Didier Bigo’s work, probably the only serious Foucault-inspired analysis
of security practices as risk management, has only marginally crossed
the Channel.43 On the Anglophone side, analyses of security have been
mostly limited by a ‘fidelity’ to the Copenhagen School, whose
theoretical framework excludes in principle a risk approach by
rhetorically limiting securitisation to a structure of survival. As risks do
not threaten survival, they cannot be accommodated by the
Despite Jef Huysmans’s criticism of this reductionist approach to
security, conceptual analyses of risk have been eschewed.45 Recently Ole
Waever has advocated ‘risk’ as appropriate for security studies, given
the historical evolution of threats into risks.46 This ‘evolutionary’
approach is derived from the sociological literature on ‘risk society’,
which, inspired mainly by Ulrich Beck’s writings, has placed risk at the
core of post-industrial society. The main shift that Beck locates is a shift
42. The Evening Standard London, 10 October 2002, 16.
43. Michel Foucault, ‘About the Concept of “Dangerous Individual” in
Nineteenth Century Legal Psychiatry’, in Michel Foucault: Power, ed. James D.
Faubion (London: Penguin Books, 2000), 176-200.
44. Mikkel V. Rasmussen’s 2002 article in Millennium focuses on Ulrich Beck’s
concept of reflexivity rather than engaging with the nexus of security-risk or the
translatability of Beck’s understanding of risk to security studies. Rasmussen,
‘Reflexive Security: NATO and International Risk Society’, Millennium: Journal of
International Studies 30, no. 2 (2001): 285–309. See also the reply by Shlomo
Griner, ‘Living in a World Risk Society: A Reply to Mikkel V. Rasmussen’,
Millennium: Journal of International Studies 31, no. 1 (2002): 149–160.
45. Didier Bigo, Polices en réseaux, and ‘Identifier, categorizer et contrôler’, in
La machine à punir: Pratiques et discourse sécuritaires, eds. Gilles Sainati and
Laurent Bonelli (Paris: L’esprit frappeur, 2000), 53–85. Since this paper was
written, Huysmans’s article, ‘Conceptualizing Spill-over’, has felicitously
undertaken such an analysis.
46. An analysis of discourses/practices of risk is also lacking in the
poststructuralist and critical security studies literature.
from a society based on insurance to a society where technological
challenges have brought home ‘the historically unprecedented
possibility of the destruction through decision-making of all life on
Such an account reduces all practices of security to the common
denominator of one type of risk, explainable within a certain
understanding of modernisation/post-modernisation. It also limits risks
to certain categories of technological risk and ignores the genealogy of
risk and governmentality from the 18th century onwards. As Mitchell
Dean has emphasised, what is significant about the government of risk
is that it is a way of ordering reality that renders risk calculable.48 This
calculability of risk makes it interesting for governing society and
managing societal problems, such as, for example, human trafficking.
Unlike the sociology of risk, the literature which, in homage to
Michel Foucault, calls itself ‘the governmentality literature’ sees risk as
a ‘family of ways of thinking and acting, involving calculations about
probable futures in the present followed by interventions into the
present in order to control that potential future’.49 Following Foucault
this literature has applied the conceptual and methodological insights
offered by governmentality to various social locales, attempting to
understand new strategies for governing society by means of risk
management. In a governmental approach, risk is a component of
diverse forms of calculative rationality for governing the conduct of
individuals, collectivities and populations.50
From its beginnings in practices by the welfare state to insure
against work accidents, risk has become one of the main technologies of
neo-liberalism, which attempts to create prudential, autonomous and
self-regulating citizens. The complex regime of risk management today
owes a debt to the various technologies of risk which have gradually
developed over time in relation to the domains of insurance, work, and
mental medicine.51 The meaning of risk itself is a cluster that can be
The Perverse Politics of Four-Letter Words
47. Jef Huysmans, ‘Revisiting Copenhagen: Or, On the Creative Development
of a Security Studies Agenda in Europe’, European Journal of International
Relations 4, no. 4 (1998): 500-501.
48. Ole Waever, ‘Security: A Conceptual History for International Relations’,
paper presented at the British International Studies Association Conference,
London, 17–19 December 2002. Waever does not, however, question the
implications that an endorsement of risk would entail for the securitisation
49. Ulrich Beck, World Risk Society (London: Polity Press, 1999), 53.
50. Dean, Governmentality. Also Ewald, ‘Risk and Insurance’; and Lupton, The
51. Nikolas Rose, ‘The Politics of Life Itself’, Theory, Culture & Society 28, no. 6
disentangled only in its functioning: i) risk as a technical calculation
which indicates the likelihood of an event/catastrophe happening; ii)
risk in its everyday meaning, i.e., to describe a danger or a hazard;52 and
iii) a clinical appreciation of risk.53
François Ewald has shown that for a long time the domain of risk
has been co-extensive with the insurable.54 Risk as part of the insurable
was an invention of the 19th century, which discovered the accident—
something in-between nature and human will. Insurance risk therefore
becomes social and is deployed as a ‘technology of solidarity’ which
makes accidents, unemployment and other social problems collectively
borne through insurance.55 This solidarity that insurance risk was
supposed to foster in a collectivity, however, came to be opposed in
another rationality of risk management; namely, prevention of social
disorders. Formulated to deal with problems posed by ‘dangerous
individuals’, delinquents, and criminals, this other rationality of risk has
borrowed heavily from the expert knowledge provided by psychology
and psychoanalysis. Such clinical rationality of risk was therefore
initially focused on the likelihood of a person (in particular, a mentally
ill person) committing a violent act. But if psychological savoir was
taken out of the asylum and the clinic to govern the risk of dangerous
behaviour of criminals, mental defectives, sexual perverts, and
psychopaths, it has been extended to more and more ‘marginal’
categories, such as alcoholics, drug addicts, and children with learning
disorders. As the authors of The Psychiatric Society have aptly put it,
psychology colonised social life.56
Psychology and psychiatry have gradually taken up and
transformed political, economic and social problems, and have made
(2001): 1–30. Other important names for the governmentality literature are
Graham Burchell, Barbara Cruikshank, Colin Gordon, Mitchell Dean, Barry
Hindess, and Pat O’Malley.
52. Mitchell Dean, Governmentality: Power and Rule in Modern Society (London:
53. Monica Greco, ‘Psychosomatic Subjects and “the Duty to be Well”:
Personal Agency with Medical Rationality’, Economy and Society 22, no. 3 (1993):
54. Risks of this kind are not a statistical calculation, they are cultural constructs.
Ewald, ‘Risk and Insurance’, and Mary Douglas, Risk and Blame: Essays in Cultural
Theory (London: Routledge, 1992).
55. Lorna Weir, ‘Recent Developments in the Government of Pregnancy’,
Economy and Society 25, no. 3 (1996): 373–392; and Dean, Governmentality.
56. Ewald, ‘Risk and Insurance’, and ‘Two Infinities of Risk’, in The Politics of
Everyday Fear, ed. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press,
these problems thinkable in new ways and governable by different
techniques.57 In her astute analysis of how the therapeutic paradigm
functions in post-conflict societies, Vanessa Pupavac starts from the
premise that ‘social psychology’s perspectives have become central to
Western domestic social policy, to how Western governments relate to
their own citizens and also how individuals in the West understand
themselves’.58 However, psychology itself is colonised in a particular
way by the already existing technologies of risk.
The risk management approach is a specific combination of the
various rationalities and technologies of risk. In this preventive
approach, risks do not arise from the presence of a particular danger, but
are the effect of a ‘combination of abstract factors, which render more or
less probable the occurrence of undesirable modes of behaviour’.59
Robert Castel has documented a mutation of social technologies that
minimise direct therapeutic intervention, supplanted by an increasing
emphasis on a preventive administrative management of populations at
risk.60 Prevention means to anticipate the emergence of undesirable
social behaviours within a population. More specifically, strategies of
prevention are based on the assumption that if prevention is necessary,
a danger exists, even if only in a virtual state before being actualised.
As these correlations remain arbitrary and can only be proven a
posteriori, dangerousness becomes ‘a quality immanent to a subject’.61
The virtuality of danger is related to specific individuals and groups
who are to be categorised as ‘high risk’. Risk practices therefore concern
the qualitative assessment of people. Risk profiling is a privileged
technique in the assessment of risk, based on ‘procedures for the
allocation of individuals to risk groups, on a genealogical basis, in terms
of a family history of illness or pathology, and/or on a factorial basis, in
terms of combinations of factors statistically linked to a condition’.62
The Perverse Politics of Four-Letter Words
57. Dean, ‘Risk, Calculable and Incalculable’, in Risk and Sociocultural Theory:
New Directions and Perspectives, ed. Deborah Lupton (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1999), 140.
58 Robert Castel, Françoise Castel, and Anne Lovell, The Psychiatric Society,
trans. by Arthur Goldhammer (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982).
59. Nikolas Rose, Governing the Soul: The Shaping of the Private Self (Routledge:
London, 1989), ix.
60. Vanessa Pupavac, ‘Therapeutics Governance and Psycho-Social Interven-
tion and Trauma Risk Management’, Disasters 25, no. 4 (2001): 359.
61. Robert Castel, ‘From Dangerousness to Risk’, in The Foucault Effect: Studies
in Governmentality, eds. Graham Burchell, Colin Gordon and Peter Miller
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 287, emphasis in original.
62. Robert Castel, La gestion des risques: De l’anti-psychiatrie à l’après-psychanalyse
(Paris: Les Editions de Minuit, 1981).
Although linked with the risk management of populations, preventive
risk also involves a therapeutic objective in the administration of
individuals diagnosed as pathological.63
This double aspect of risk technologies, individualising and
collectivising, appears most explicitly in clinical risk management.
Clinical risk techniques, Weir has pointed out, ‘breach the distinction
between disciplinary governance that acts on individual bodies and
security governance that acts on populations’.64 They implement
population-based calculations, forming risk groups by applying risk
categories to the bodies of persons who are then placed under
surveillance or treatment. These risk techniques are based upon a
combination of the characteristics of individual case studies and
observation of patterns in a population and the identification of
associated risk factors.65 Some groups are to be defined as ‘high risk’,
with risk being defined as internal, due to their behaviour or biography,
rather than external.
Clinical risk management mobilises psychological expertise to
create risk profiles and contain the risk of various categories of people
deemed to have mental and/or emotional problems. To statistical
calculation, psychology has added a more important promise: ‘to
provide inscription devices that would individualise such troublesome
subjects’.66 Thus psychological expertise is needed to invent diagnostic
categories, evaluations, assessments; it is needed to provide an
individuated answer to the question at the heart of all acts of
government: ‘who are you?’. A risk identity is therefore constituted
through a combination of therapeutic interventions, pathological
categorisations and a statistical calculation of the incidence of certain
factors in a population group.
The preventive rationality of risk reveals an interesting dynamic
between the groups ‘at risk’ and the calculation of ‘high risk’. Clinical
risk first locates a series of abstract factors that are responsible for the
emergence of certain behavioural patterns, diseases, and mental
disorders. According to this logic, it is possible to say that children of
alcoholic parents are also ‘at risk’ of being alcoholic, and that by being
‘at risk’, they also pose a potential risk to the community: a risk related
with all the ‘disorders’ of alcoholism. Therefore those judged ‘at risk’ of
being a danger to the community are subjected to therapeutic (e.g.,
63. Ibid., 146
64. Rose, ‘Governing Liberty’, in Governing Modern Societies, eds. Richard V.
Ericson and Nico Stehr (Toronto: Toronto University Press, 2001), 8.
65. Weir, ‘Recent Developments’, 374.
66. Ibid., 382.
counselling, self-help groups, support groups) and disciplinary (training
and re-training) practices in an effort either to eliminate them completely
from communal spaces (e.g., by various forms of confinement) or to
lower the dangers posed by their risk.67
Technologising risk: psychological trauma(s)
If the ‘politics of pity’ introduced the question of identity and attempted
to offer a confessional or semi-confessional answer to the question, ‘who
are the trafficked women?’ (i.e., ‘who are you?’), the politics of risk
provides a scientific answer. Victims of trafficking cannot remain pure
presence; their risk identity needs to be specified for the purposes of
preventing human trafficking. Thus, the governance of human trafficking
relies on technologies of delimiting and categorising ‘high risk’ groups,
groups which are at risk of being trafficked.68 Trafficked women are
profiled for preventive purposes and it is these specific profiles,
developed in conjunction with psychological knowledge, that make
possible the constitution of these women’s identity as a subject of
governance. This representation of vulnerability is at first sight consonant
with the unifying representations of victims as suffering bodies, as the
risk is taken to be the risk to the women’s well-being. Yet, we shall see
that trafficked women also mutate into a risk to the state/society, just as
groups at risk were thought to embody a permanent possible danger.
The identification and calculability of risk depends on the
construction of risk profiles. Studies of risk practices have emphasised
the construction of biographical profiles of human populations for risk
management and security provision.69 Victim profiles have also become
ubiquitous in trafficking reports and studies of the phenomenon. The
Council Framework Decision on combating trafficking in human beings
identifies trafficked women as victims of coercion, force or threats,
including abduction, deceit or fraud, abuse of authority and
vulnerability70. A report by the European Parliament (EP) explicitly
defines and limits vulnerability as specifically due to ‘poverty, lack of
The Perverse Politics of Four-Letter Words
67. Lupton, 63.
68. Rose, Inventing Our Selves: Psychology, Power, and Personhood (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1998), 74.
69. Dean, Governmentality, 189.
70. On the construction of women as ‘at risk’/’risky’, see also my article,
‘Trafficking in Women: Human Rights or Human Risks?’, Canadian Woman
Studies/Les Cahiers de la Femme (cws/cf) 22, nos. 3/4 (2003): 55–59.
71. Richard V. Ericson and Kevin D. Haggerty, Policing the Risk Society (Oxford:
Clarendon Press, 1997).
education and professional opportunities’.71 It is interesting to see how
the impact of ‘objective’ conditions and social situations is
individualised in risk profiles.
In NGO analyses socio-economic conditions are being translated at
the individual level as ‘a strong desire to seek employment abroad’, thus
shifting the emphasis away from questions concerned with general
conditions of inequality to questions concerned with individual
psychological vulnerability.72 Other reports employ a similarly
psychological redefinition in terms of the victim’s ‘wish for a better
life’.73 A study by the IOM office in Romania found that 38 percent of
girls between 15 and 18 years of age in orphanages were ready to
‘emigrate to a foreign job’, thus putting them at risk of being trafficked.
The same study found that 38 percent of single women and girls aged 15
to 25, but only 20 percent of women and girls who lived with their
parents, were ready to emigrate to a foreign job.74 Even when economic
and social factors are concerned, a shift towards individualisation and
psychologisation becomes apparent. The latest IOM study of
vulnerability factors to trafficking in Romania even dismisses
completely the hypothesis of ‘an objectively poor environment as a
characteristic of vulnerability’.75
Even if socio-economic risk factors such as poverty, lack of job
opportunities, and gender inequalities are enumerated in the various
reports on trafficking, their role is not only redefined under the influence
of psychologisation, but also limited in practice. In interviews with the
IOM and three other NGOs in Romania working for the reintegration of
trafficked women in the country of origin, I found that because the
economic aspect of the risk governance is very difficult to tackle, it is
72. EU Council, ‘Framework Decision on Combating Trafficking in Human
Beings’, 2002/629/JHA, 19 July 2002 [http://europa.eu.int/eur-lex/pri/
en/oj/dat/2002/l_203/l_2032002080len00010004.pdf] (31 October 2004).
73. EP, ‘Report on the Proposal for a Council Framework Decision on
Combating Trafficking in Human Beings’, rapporteur Eva Klamt, A5-0183/2001,
30 May 2001.
74. Tanja El-Cherkeh, Elena Stirbu, Sebastian Lazaroiu, Dragos Radu, ‘EU-
Enlargement, Migration and Trafficking in Women: The Case of South Eastern
Europe’, Hamburgisches Welt-Wirtschafts-Archiv (HMWA) Report 247,
Hamburg Institute of International Economics 2004
75. These redefinitions are not limited to the NGO sector. A Europol overview
of trafficking also redefines poverty and the hope or expectations of a more
prosperous future as the vulnerabilities that are exploited by the traffickers.
Europol, ‘Trafficking in Human Beings—A Europol Perspective’, January 2004.
eclipsed by the more easily addressable concerns of psychological
rehabilitation and recovery.76 The NGOs have liaised with EU actors by
providing psychological expertise that could be more easily translated
into practice compared to large scale economic and social interventions.
Psychological counselling counts as one of the most important methods
for victim assistance and reintegration. The Report by the Regional
Clearing Point (RCP) on Trafficking in South Eastern Europe cites
medical care and psychological counselling as the first two strategies of
integration, while expressing concern about the little emphasis placed
on educational assistance and lack of vocational and training
programmes in transit and destination countries.77
In the general assemblage of risk factors used to govern specific
groups, trafficked women become mostly an assemblage of
psychological risk factors. From the NGOs perspective, this shift to
psychological profiling is not surprising, given that they understand
trafficking as a traumatic experience for women. For psychological
expertise, a traumatic experience is also linked with specific factors in
the victim’s past. Animus, the main NGO involved with returned
trafficked women in Bulgaria, warns that it is important to consider the
predispositions that exist in the personal history of women and girls.78
Typical risk profiles of victims of trafficking will therefore include past
biographical details deemed important by the experts:
The Perverse Politics of Four-Letter Words
76. Quoted in US State Department, ‘Human Rights Report on Romania’, 2003
6f] (27 October 2004).
77. IOM, ‘Who is the Next Victim? Vulnerability of Young Romanian Women
to Trafficking in Human Beings’, [http://www.iom.int/DOCUMENTS/
PUBLICATION/EN/Romania_ct.pdf] (28 October 2004). While it is beyond the
scope of this paper to consider the influence technologies of risk management
have had for the EU’s economic approach to the ‘root causes’ of migration more
generally, with respect to this I note that there an important literature that has
analysed neo-liberalism or advanced economic liberalism and the shift to
locating responsibility with the individual. For changes in the governance of
unemployment and how economic factors have shifted to individual
responsibility, see Mitchell Dean, ‘Governing the Unemployed Self in an Active
Society’, Economy and Society 24, no. 4 (1995):559-583.
78. In January 2004 I conducted interviews with representatives of the IOM
Bucharest, Ad Pare Bucharest, Reaching Out Pite_ti and Save the Children
Romania. Psychological counseling and therapy was foremost on their agenda;
all victims of trafficking have to go through a therapy programme. While all of
these NGOs were aware of the importance of the economic and social context,
the task of helping women find jobs or get out from poverty proved daunting for
most of them. Reaching Out is the only one that makes sure women have a job
before they leave the shelter.
Most (Central and Eastern European) victims of women trafficking
are between 18 and 25 years of age, unmarried and without children.
Relatively often, victims of women trafficking, especially Central
European victims, come from problem families—single parent fami-
lies, alcohol abusing parents, incest, mistreatment, financial and
housing problems, psychological problems.79
Significantly, victims are shown to have often experienced ‘exposure to
violence at home or in a state institution’.80 Most victims have been
abandoned by parents, friends, and/or husbands, and many have been
sexually abused.81 They often come from dysfunctional families.82 The
Bulgarian Animus also indicates that the groups most at risk of being
trafficked are women and adolescents who have suffered traumatic
experiences,83 e.g., victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, children
from orphanages, and children with a large number of siblings and only
one parent. 26 percent of the returned women at Animus had been
victims of incest or childhood psychological abuse and all of them had
untreated psychological trauma.84
Victims of trafficking thus suddenly begin appearing in reports as
doubly traumatised, both by the experience of trafficking and by
earlier/childhood experiences of abuse. This continuity of trauma is not
79. Counter-Trafficking Regional Clearing Point (RCP), ‘First Annual Report
on Victims of Trafficking in South Eastern Europe’, [http://www.iom.int//
] (31 October 2004).
80. Milena Stateva and Nadya Kozhouharova, ‘Trafficking in Women in
Bulgaria: a New Stage’, Feminist Review 76 (2004): 110-116.
81. Judith Vocks and Jan Nijboer, ‘The Promised Land: A Study of Trafficking
in Women from Central and Eastern Europe to the Netherlands’, European
Journal on Criminal Policy and Research 8 (2000): 383. Compare earlier accounts of
trafficked women: ‘Women originating from the CEE countries tend to be young,
below the age of 25, well-educated and in many cases multi-lingual’. EP, ‘Report
on the Communication from the Commission to the Council and the European
Parliament on Trafficking in Women for the Purpose of Sexual Exploitation’,
rapporteur Susan A. Waddington, A4-0372/97, 1997, 13.
82. Barbara Limanovska, ‘Trafficking in Human Beings in South-Eastern
Europe: Joint UN, OSCE and Unicef Report’, 2002 [http://www.unhchr.ch/
women/trafficking.pdf] (31 October 2004).
83. Centre for Prevention of Trafficking in Women (Centrul pentru prevenirea
traficului de femei), ’Trafficking in Women in Moldova: Reality or Myth’
(‘Traficul de femei in Moldova. Realitate sau mit’), 2002
[http://www.antitraffic.md/materials/reports/cptf_2002_05/] (31 October
84. La Strada, ‘Who Are the Victims of Trafficking?’ [http://free.ngo.pl/
lastrada/page2.html] (26 October 2004). ‘La Strada’ is one of the first NGOs
surprising for the psychological expertise. A classic of psychological
trauma and an oft-mentioned reference by NGO documents, Judith
Herman’s Trauma and Recovery states that adult survivors of child
abuse are at great risk of victimisation in adult life.85 The experience of
trafficking is thus an almost fated repetition of earlier traumas. Diana
Tudorache, from the IOM shelter on Kosovo, clearly connects the two
types of traumatic events: ‘The feelings of vulnerability and emotional
pain that are experienced by the VoT [victims of trafficking], combined,
often with a background of childhood abuse and mistreatment play a
significant role in the occurrence and severity of the acute reactions’.86
Within a short period (2001-2004), IOM Romania commissioned and
published two studies of the vulnerability of the ‘young female
population in Romania’.87 Based on interviews with women who have
been trafficked, IOM has also produced victim profiles which emphasise
their past traumas.
The past, however, especially a traumatic event in the victim’s past
such as childhood abuse, a dysfunctional family environment, domestic
violence and/or institutional abuse, activates another scenario of
psychotherapeutic practices. As Julie Brownlie has pointed out in her
remarkable article on the ‘young sexual offenders’, victimisation is not
only an indicator of likely further abuse, but equally an indicator of
future risky behaviour.88 Studies on victims of sexual abuse suggest that
adult females who were sexually abused as children experience a variety
of long-term sequelae including sexual disturbances, depression,
anxiety, fear, and suicidal ideas and behaviour.89
Victims of sexual abuse, psychological studies have shown us, are
likely not only be re-victimised, but they might well become
The Perverse Politics of Four-Letter Words
funded by the EU to prevent trafficking in women in Central and Eastern
85. Cathy Zimmerman, ‘The Health Risks and Consequences of Trafficking in
Women and Adolescents: Findings from a European Study’, 2003
[http://www.lshtm.ac.uk/hpu/docs/traffickingfinal.pdf], 34 (24 February
86. Stateva and Kozhouharova, ‘Trafficking in Women’, 112.
87. Judith Lewis Herman, Trauma and Recovery: From Domestic Abuse to Political
Terror, 2nd edition (London: Pandora, 1997), 111.
88. Diana Tudorache, ‘General Considerations on the Psychological Aspect of
the Trafficking Phenomenon’, in Psychosocial Notebook 4, 2004, [http://
www.iom.int/documents/publication/en/extract_ptr4.pdf], 23 (13 November
89. IOM, ‘Vulnerability to Trafficking in Human Beings of Young Female
Population of Romania: Main Findings of Sociological Research on Risk Factors
and Geographical Distribution’, (Bucharest: The Center for Urban and Regional
‘perpetrators’ themselves. In cases of child abuse or violence, the
necessity of abused children to defend themselves at an early stage in
life might evolve into offending behaviour later on.90 On a less extreme
level, women who have been sexually abused as children and those who
have been traumatised are more likely to engage in future risk-taking
behaviour than those who have not experienced abuse.91 Even those who
claim that survivors of childhood abuse for example are more likely to
be victimised than to victimise other people do not deny a connection
with adult antisocial behaviour.92
These are the insights that activate the rationality of risk
management, which is concerned with limiting the possibility of a risky
offender to re-offend. The spectre of potential offences, whether
understood as antisocial, risky or even criminal behaviour
surreptitiously infuses the politics of pity. If the continuity of trauma—
which still construes sexual exploitation as the undeserved surplus of
earlier, also undeserved, abuse and violence—could be thought of as
consonant with the politics of pity, the inscription of risky-ness inscribed
in the women’s biographical profiles ends up subverting pity. Strangely
reminiscent of the governmentality of drug- and alcohol-addictions,
‘rehabilitation’ is the motto for victim assistance practices. The expert
knowledge mobilised by NGOs with the purpose of helping trafficking
women becomes ‘hijacked’ by a politics of risk, which is based on risk
minimisation and containment. The women ‘at risk’ insidiously
metamorphose into ‘high risk’ groups and risk technologies are
deployed under the banner of therapy not just to help victims of
trafficking overcome their trauma and ease their suffering, but also to
limit the possibility of dangerous irruptions.
What is this dangerous irruption, what is the potential offending
behaviour of trafficked women? EU documents are un-ambiguous on
this point. If trafficked women are to re-offend, the offence is to be
understood as immigration. The Council Proposal for a decision to
combat human trafficking has explicitly stated that helping victims of
Sociology [CURS], the Institute for Life Quality Research [ILQR] and Mercury
Research and Marketing Consultants, 2001), and ‘Who Is the Next Victim?’.
90. Julie Brownlie, ‘The “Being-Risky” Child: Governing Childhood and
Sexual Risk’, Sociology 35 (2001): 517-537.
91. Kristin Schaaf and Thomas McCanne, ‘Relationship of Childhood Sexual,
Physical, and Combined Sexual and Physical Abuse to Adult Victimization and
Posttraumatic Stress Disorder’, Child Abuse and Neglect—International Journal 22,
no. 11 (1998): 1119.
92. Elisa Romano and Rayleen De Luca, ‘Exploring the Relationship Between
Childhood Sexual Abuse and Adult Sexual Perpetration’, Journal of Family
Violence 12, no. 1 (1997): 86.
trafficking or smuggling is a way of preventing them from lapsing into
an illegal immigration situation.93 The joined EU-IOM-NGOs Brussels
Declaration also harnesses victim reintegration to reducing the risk of re-
trafficking.94 While trafficked women are involved in psychological
therapy (often together with victims of domestic violence and rape), it is
important to remember that these programmes are seen by the EU as
part of prevention strategies and therefore need to be supplemented in
most cases by return to the country of origin.95 A commission discussion
paper on granting a short-term residence permit can even
unproblematically conceive of the fight against illegal migration as two-
pronged: through dismantling the networks as well as helping victims
get out of their illegal situation and avoid lapsing into it again (which
would also be linked with psycho-social measures).96
From the standpoint of women, such prevention can only be read
as a risk management of illegal migration which subverts and re-
appropriates the non-judgemental concerns of a politics of pity. The risk
of women migrating or being re-trafficked is thus to be contained and
prevented; they are to be surveyed and disciplined, subject to trauma
therapy with the purpose of turning them into subjects able to monitor
their own risk. Risk technologies have made possible the specification of
the victim—previously the object of pity—as inherently and perpetually
‘risky’, thus subverting the emotional promise of the politics of pity and
turning it into an abstract suspicion of risk.
Conclusion: Questioning IR
This article has explored the articulation of a ‘politics of pity’ with a
‘politics of risk’ in the securitisation of human trafficking. Against an
exclusively discursive methodological emphasis, it has endorsed a
‘governmental’ approach, which focuses on practical interventions and
The Perverse Politics of Four-Letter Words
93. Zimmerman, ‘Health Risks and Consequences’.
94. Herman, Trauma and Recovery, 113.
95. EU Council, ‘Framework Decision on Combating Trafficking in Human
96. STOP Conference, ‘Brussels Declaration on Preventing and Combating
Trafficking in Human Beings: Draft Recommendations, Standards and Best
Practices’, 2002 [http://www.belgium.iom.int/STOPConference/Conference%20Papers/
brudeclaration.pdf] (30 October 2004).
97. The conditions for obtaining temporary residence permits imply either the
cooperation of women in the prosecution of the trafficker or exceptional cases of
threat or abuse. Most women are either ‘voluntarily returned’ or deported.
98. EC, ‘Short-Term Permit to Stay Granted to Victims of Trafficking or
Smuggling Who Cooperate in the Fight against Smugglers and Traffickers’,
Discussion Paper A/2/IGE D(2001), 23 October 2001.
the constitution of subjects. I have attempted to understand how a
humanitarian discourse constructed around women’s suffering can be
reconciled with a logic of security, and have argued that the constitution
of subjects to be governed through pity or risk makes it possible for the
vulnerable body of trafficked women to become the site of potential
As governmental interventions with the purpose of (re-)structuring the
situation of trafficking, the politics of pity and the politics of risk each
confer specific identities upon trafficked women: the politics of pity
attempts to turn them into universally suffering bodies, while the
politics of risk provides a scientific explanation of their vulnerability.
Victims of trafficking are specified as groups ‘at risk’, bearing the
particularity of both social conditions and of biography. For the
rationality of risk management, the ‘discovery’ of the victims’ past
traumas and abuse becomes an indicator of future risk. This particular
construction of victimhood sees women as perpetuating a risk of illegal
migration to Western society; to contain and neutralise this risk, they are
to be surveyed and disciplined. Risk management becomes the
insidious, disavowed presence within the humanitarian discourse that
infuses and subverts the politics of pity.
This translatability of pity into risk raises an array of questions for
our understanding of politics and political interventions. Despite the
specificity of the articulation of strategies of pity with technologies of risk
in the case of human trafficking, such an articulation is hardly
exceptional in international politics. A politics of pity traverses concerns
as varied as those for starving people in Ethiopia, genocide in Rwanda or
the plight of refugees—and questions about the unacknowledged
subtending presence of risk management need to be asked. If both pity
and risk are governmental technologies, the symptomatic presence of risk
subverting the logic of a politics of pity requires further interrogation. Is
this conjunction of pity and risk a particular construction, or can one
speak of a structural logic which cannot extricate pity from risk?
What does this conjunction of governmental practices of pity and
risk entail for thinking political agency? If human rights have become
the rights of those who are too weak or too oppressed to actualise and
enact them, they are not ‘their’ rights. They are deprived of political
agency; the only rights are our rights to practice pity and humanitarian
interventions. Victims are therefore divorced from the very possibility of
political agency, turned into spectral presences on the scene of politics.
When agency exists even as a potentiality, they become risky beings.
Trafficked women are risky only in relation to their agency as migrants.
The political agency of the marginalised and the excluded, the powerless
and the silenced is thus either effaced or pathologised, expunged from
the truly political claims and implications it should have.
If the languages of emotions and risk have become the main political
dialects of (late) modernity, these perverse connections between forms of
governmentality ask for serious considerations of alternative concepts of
politics. Where can one locate an alternative, radically anti-
governmental politics in Michel Foucault’s sense? Recent attempts to
recapture a form of ethics based on care, emotions, or pity fail to
consider the constitutive role that psychological knowledge and risk
technologies play for political subjects. Moreover, the analysis
undertaken in this paper signals the inescapability of governmental
representations. Post-structuralist IR has extensively and compellingly
challenged fixed, taken-for-granted representations; yet new, multiple or
floating representations can be nonetheless consonant with
governmental practices. For power, it suffices to identify in order to
govern; ‘what’ is identified is immaterial for governmental purposes.
How can political subjects subtract from the governmental attachments
to representable identity? How can they avoid the claustrophobic fixing
of one identity and schizophrenic floating between multiple identities?
As the morphing of pitiable into risky subjects was made possible
by the development of psychological and psychiatric knowledge from
the late 18th century on, their epistemological effects in IR need to be
further assessed. Given the governmental effects of psychological
expertise, can one still use the language of psychology and
psychoanalysis in politics? Therapeutic practices, the re-scripting of
political events in the language of traumatic events or political
behaviour in clinical language, render such an analysis politically
dubious. However, this is not a blanket indictment of all ‘psy sciences’
as this paper itself has used a vocabulary indebted to several of the
psychoanalytical concepts popularised by Slavoj Zizek. What counts for
radical politics is to avoid the ‘normalising’ attempts of therapeutic
practices to adapt the subject to the ‘normal’ functioning of the existing
society and instead preserve the tension between the subject’s urges and
Claudia Aradau is a Research Student in in the
Social Science Faculty at the Open University Walton Hall, UK.
The Perverse Politics of Four-Letter Words