Q and A with Berkeley College Professor of Social Sciences, Heidi Hoefinger, Member of Global Research Team on Migration, Sex Work and Trafficking

Wednesday, March 17, 2021
Contact: Ilene Greenfield
Director of Media Relations


Heidi Hoefinger

Photo Caption: Heidi Hoefinger, PhD, Professor, Berkeley College Division of General Education - Social Sciences, and Faculty Advisor, Gender and Sexuality Alliance, teaches courses in Global Conflict, Human Sexuality, and the Science of Addiction and Obsession.

As Berkeley College recognizes women trailblazers during Women’s History Month, we recognize Professor Heidi Hoefinger, PhD, Social Sciences, Berkeley College Division of General Education, and Faculty Advisor, Gender and Sexuality Alliance. Hoefinger’s latest research about migration, sex work and trafficking was published on March 10, 2021, in Ethnic and Racial Studies, a leading international scholarly journal for the analysis of race and migration. Hoefinger teaches courses in Global Conflict, Gender Race and Class, Human Sexuality, and the Science of Addiction and Obsession, among others. She actively includes her fieldwork experiences and global research in all her classes. Here are her insights on her latest subject.

What is the focus of your research?     

Hoefinger: For the last four years I have been involved in a large international study, looking at people’s experiences with migration, trafficking and sex work in eight cities, across four countries and three continents. We have been analyzing how cisgender and transgender migrants involved in the global sex trade understand and experience exploitation and violence, as well as agency and decision-making. I am the New York City-based researcher, and one of seven people on this global research team.  

How did you become so interested in this topic? 

Hoefinger: Gender and sexuality, health, drug use, nighttime economies, migration, social justice, and ethnography have always interested me. Prior to this project, I spent more than a decade researching professional girlfriends and bar life in Cambodia, which I wrote a book about called Sex Love and Money in Cambodia.  Then I was involved in a large European study researching the LGBT British-Asian dance club scene in London, and another project about Cambodian-American refugees who escaped the Khmer Rouge genocide by fleeing to the United States, but who now face deportation back to Cambodia for drug and gang crimes they committed as teenagers. The ways in which sexually and socially marginalized people form networks of mutual support and engage in community solidarity to fight the stigma, injustice, structural inequality, and social exclusion they face is a common thread throughout all of my research.

What is the top one or two key findings of your latest research?  

Hoefinger: When it comes to addressing sex trafficking, often the logic is: Let’s abolish all forms of consensual adult sexual work and prostitution in order to end sex trafficking. This logic has not worked.

Collectively, the global team has researched hundreds of migrants, sex workers, and trafficking survivors in the United States, France, Australia and New Zealand throughout this project, and interviewed more than 80 legal, health, and social service providers, police and law enforcement officers, court officials, anti-trafficking advocates, immigration officials, and politicians. With our focus on the complex interplay between gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, labor, health, and migration, we have documented the ways in which the criminalization of sex work and migration, and the stigma that results, make it difficult for people to navigate basic systems of survival, and subject them to violence. 

We have also learned that anti-trafficking policies intended to assist victims fall short as they do not address the economic precarity, discrimination, violence, systemic racism, xenophobia, and transphobia experienced by people. 

Basically, well-intentioned policies meant to “protect” people from trafficking and exploitation often end up exacerbating their vulnerability, causing harm, and making it difficult to work and survive. For this reason, communities, advocates, scholars and various global human rights organizations are calling for sex work decriminalization. 

Why is this important to women today? 

Hoefinger: This is a particularly feminist issue, and important to not only women, but all genders, because historically – and today – much of women’s labor has been devalued, and female sexuality has been shamed and oppressed. People involved in sex work know that reproductive and other labor traditionally done by women has been disparaged in similar ways. Globalization has created a feminization of both poverty and migration, whereby many people end up traveling and using their bodies to work. Whether it be caring for other people’s children, cleaning other people’s homes, or engaging in sexual labor, these female workers and migrants need protections and the ability to work and live safely, not criminalization and the violence and negative health impacts that go along with that.     

How can the key findings influence our actions/lives going forward? 

Hoefinger: It is sometimes hard for people to relate to these issues because they think, “I don’t know any sex workers or people who have been trafficked.” However, these issues disproportionately affect cisgender and transgender women, queer people, migrants, undocumented folks, people of color and disabled people. If we care about women’s rights, and women who self-identify with the above groups, then we also need to care about the rights of sex workers and trafficking survivors. People who end up in the global sex trade – by choice, circumstance or coercion – often are just trying to make a better life for themselves and their families. This is really an intersectional justice issue. 

You can read the most recently published article based on Hoefinger’s work here “Migration, sex work and trafficking: the racialized bordering politics of sexual humanitarianism” and the Policy Report published by SEXHUM to which she contributed here.

SEXHUM: Sexual Humanitarianism, Migration, Sex Work and Trafficking is a European Research Council funded international research project led by Professor Nicola Mai and based at Kingston University, UK, and at Aix-Marseille University, France. Researchers include Calum Bennachie, Anne E Fehrenbacher, Calogero Giametta, Heidi Hoefinger, PG Macioti, and Jennifer Musto.

About Berkeley College
Berkeley College, founded in 1931, is a career-focused institution accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education that offers students Master’s, Bachelor’s, and Associate’s degree and Certificate programs in more than 20 career fields. The College also offers continuing education programs to enhance career credentials. 

Berkeley College has campuses in Midtown Manhattan and White Plains, NY, as well as in Newark, Paramus, Woodbridge and Woodland Park, NJ, with more than 4,900 students enrolled. In addition, Berkeley College Online® serves a global population. U.S. News & World Report has named Berkeley College among the Best Colleges for Online Bachelor’s Programs and among the Best Online Bachelor’s Programs for Veterans, for eight consecutive years. The website address is http://www.BerkeleyCollege.edu 

The mission of Berkeley College is to empower students to achieve lifelong success in dynamic careers.


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