America: Land of the Slaves

The numbers surprised me. Several thousands of women and girls each year routinely forced to have sex multiple times per day? 1 official and many unofficial trafficking circuits spanning the country? Over 5,000 brothels disguised as massage parlors? 13 as the average age of entrance into the trade? $200,000 in profit per girl per year? The land of the free? Yes, I'm talking about America.  Human trafficking is the fastest growing criminal industry in the United States (and the world). As of one year ago, I didn't even know that sex trafficking happened on our streets. Prostitution, yes- Nevada still has legal brothels- but not trafficking. Not the luring, kidnapping, drugging, routinized raping, and killing (homicide is the leading cause of death in prostituted girls) of young girls for money. Sadly, I was blinded by a Western paternalism that points fingers at the rest while quietly committing homegrown crimes against humanity in every single state and every major city in the country. Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, I'm shocked. The United States is one of the top trafficking destinations in the world, with girls coming mainly from East and South Asia, Central America, and internally from US neighborhoods. Girls that are trafficked internally are often from abusive homes and have stories similar to Gwen. In a very informative interview with a current staff member of an anti-trafficking organization in D.C., a look at how the industry works from the inside is gruesome. The largely controversial semantic arguments between what constitutes sex work and sexual slavery only entrap more girls. I will staunchly argue that no human being would choose to endure what these girls do on a daily basis for any amount of money. There is psychological imprisonment. There is moral degradation. There is physical torture. There is drug addiction. When this leaves a person with the perception that they only have one option, they have been denied the right to choose. Sex work may stand for the rare scenario in which there is a choice- maybe in a legal brothel in Nevada. Sexual slavery is everything else.

The United States' "Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act" was passed in 2000 and reauthorized in subsequent years to define protocol for intervention in trafficking and prosecution of traffickers. Unfortunately, this legislation has not been adequately expanded on. Substantial follow-up by our federal and state governments is lacking (10 states have yet to adopt sex trafficking laws), with much of the brunt being handled by a growing network of non-governmental groups around the country who are attempting to improve healthcare, rehabilitation, and reintegration services. 

Since 2001, the U.S. Department of State has released an annual Trafficking in Persons Report, only recently (and finally...) ranking itself within the system. The U.S. was placed in Tier 1-the highest level of compliance with the standards of the Protection Act- which gives one an idea of the trafficking situations in some of the several lower-tiered countries. Estimates from anti-trafficking expert Melissa Farley indicate that in the US, for every 50 girls arrested for prostitution, only 1 john (customer) is arrested. In short, the policies are flawed and must change. Sweden's decision to only criminalize the customer was extremely successful in reducing legal prostitution (which also protected the girls from being punished by the law) and it did not result in more illegal sex trafficking as was originally a concern. However, Sweden's market was easily replaced by the plethora of wealthy Western European countries that could serve as alternative destination points due to their geographic proximity, poorer anti-prostitution laws, and similarly well-off clientele. This is not the case with the U.S. as trafficking girls to Mexico or Central America obviously wouldn't be as profitable for traffickers.Thus, increased efforts to criminalize johns may not drive trafficking out of America as it did in Sweden, perhaps contrarily driving it further underground and rendering criminalization an ambiguously useful strategy. However, what is clear is that our laws must refrain from criminalizing the girls. It is an ethical duty to recognize the complex social, physical, and psychological abuses that led them to the street corner in the first place and to not further exploit this vulnerability. The 50:1 ratio must be reversed. With the Washington Times recently calling sex trafficking in the US an "epidemic," we need to act. There are hundreds of anti-trafficking NGOs which are growing along with the industry and welcome help, including the Polaris Project and Free the Slaves. News stations such as CNN and MSNBC have even devoted entire sections of their websites to publicizing human trafficking. Abolishing modern day slavery globally is the challenge of this century, and I urge that we start at home.

2 thoughts on “America: Land of the Slaves

  1. Yeah, it's definitely an important issue, and people are often surprised that it exists even in the U.S. However, it's very important to first understand the nature and scope of the problem. There's evidence that the 100,000-300,000 figure for child prostitutes that's used everywhere (whose original source stated that was the "at risk" population, including all runaways and such– not children actually engaged in it) is likely inflated by several orders of magnitude, trafficking may not play as large a role as previously imagined, and the population may contain as many males as females (which is very problematic if true, because all efforts, and media attention, focus on the narrative of the young girl being forced into slavery — which is understandable given it's a much juicier story, but not helpful in solving the problem).

    The other thing to keep in mind is how to appropriately deal with the issue — you'll notice, for example, that many of the people quoted in the media on such topics are people who use the topic to push broader cultural/religious agendas (e.g. anti-pornography), rather than social scientists who've studied the field with an impartial view and a clearer idea of what might be effective ways to address it. Some interesting reading:

    So overall I think this issue needs to be much better understood before further policy action is taken, especially given that current programs seem to have minimal impact or even direction, despite some pretty substantial funding and media coverage.

    • Great points and I originally had quoted the 100,000 figure to represent women and children that are sex trafficked and currently in the U.S., but as the Village Voice article and my own thorough search through several academic sources shows, the estimates are extremely unclear, expectedly so considering how much effort is expended trying to keep this industry underground. Thus, I've changed the estimate to thousands which is most likely accurate with regards to the magnitude of the number of sex trafficked women and children in total in the U.S. I hope that the anti-trafficking movement isn't just another media fad or celebrity image-boost that will fall through when another, more "sexy" cause shows up.

      As you and I talked about earlier, legal action is complex and without further research, it is difficult to make laws that reflect the notion that our government's sole duty is to protect our rights, even the right to sell our bodies for sex or the right to purchase sex from those willingly selling it.

      For everyone else, part of my argument as to why women should not be criminalized while johns should is that I see johns using prostitutes as a clear exploitation of a vulnerable group (whereas I don't see prostitutes "exploiting" johns for money). Many prostitutes are subjects of countless physical, psychological, and sexual abuses during childhood which in my opinion leaves them in an unfair position to make a decision that in many ways is irreversible (at least on a psychological level). Thus, if we allow regulated prostitution, at least a screen of psychiatric conditions, family history etc. should be implemented before allowing someone to become a legal prostitute. Then again, I don't know how we would ensure psychiatric screening for every person who declared they were considering prostitution. I think it's a difficult issue, but I do think the johns are in violation of a vulnerable group that doesn't want to be exploited but perhaps because of their background feel they have no other choice and no one should have to feel that way.

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