How Trafficking Became Sexy
by Yasmin Nair
Suddenly, trafficking is in the news. And it’s sexy. NBC’s “Law
and Order: Special Victims Unit” has dramatized the issue
twice this last year. In one episode, a predatory Russian trafficker
entices a barely pubescent American girl with e-mails so alluring
that she runs away to join him. Once in Russia, she begins a tangled
relationship with her captor, and he sells her body as she falls
into a drug-induced stupor. Eventually, of course, she is rescued
by NYPD’s finest but not before viewers get glimpses of the
explicit web photos the Russian uses to advertise her services.
Another episode is about children imported from Africa by a Nigerian
trafficker. Things go awry when one young boy dies from what looks
like a ritual hanging. Eventually, the detectives discover that
an art professor had rented the boy for sex and that he killed
the child when he feared his wife would discover his pedophilia.
Most of us think about trafficking in these terms, as a phenomenon
that locks women and children into sinister sexual relations with
unscrupulous foreign men or secretly sadistic liberal intelligentsia.
We also think of it as something that happens outside the boundaries
of the United States. However, the trafficking of human beings
as unpaid labor is in fact widespread within the United States
and not as solely sexual as mainstream media images suggest.
It’s not that stories about the sexual abuse of trafficked
humans and of many prostitutes are not true or relevant, but focusing
on the morality of prostitution or on highly individualized stories
does not explain the institutional and widespread nature of trafficking.
According to the Department of Justice, approximately 700,000 persons
are trafficked worldwide and about 50,000 of them are trafficked
into the United States. According to a 2003 Department of Health
and Human Sciences survey, 54% of those trafficked into the US
are male, 46% female. Only 4% are minors. Some may enter the country
on work visas but soon find themselves at the mercy of traffickers
who take away their passports and legal documents. They find themselves
stranded in a strange country and unable to speak to anyone outside
workplaces, which include farms and sweatshops. Actual numbers
are admittedly hard to pin down because trafficking’s success
depends upon its tightly-knit networks and its ability to deliver
laborers who will not reveal themselves for fear of retribution
from their captors. Depending on the sources, the numbers are either
higher or lower than those above. Regardless of where you look,
though, it’s clear that human trafficking is a serious
In terms of gender and the question of forced sex, the facts are
also hard to determine. Most males enter the country as agricultural
workers and most women become domestic workers, but their actual
work might be a combination of the two. Domestic work might include
conditions of sexual slavery and, for that matter, although less
obviously, so might agricultural labor. It’s impossible to
determine at what points the lines might blur between the kinds
of “work” that the trafficked are forced to do by their
captors, regardless of gender. The only thing that’s clear
is that trafficking includes but is not limited to sexual servitude.
Given the difficulty in determining the exact nature of this indentured
labor, how did trafficking become a media story primarily about
prostitution forced upon women and girls?
Trafficking became sexy in part because the most vocal anti-trafficking
activists are also often those who protest against prostitution
per se, arguing vehemently against the concept of sex work: the
exchange of sexual labor within consensual relationships. Among
these, Donna Hughes, a professor of Women’s Studies at the
University of Rhode Island, has written against the distribution
of condoms to prostitutes because it would legitimize prostitution.
Hughes’s call to eradicate prostitution was noted and echoed
by Nicholas Kristoff who chronicled, in his New York Times op-ed
articles in the early part of this year, his efforts to “buy
the freedom” of two teenage Cambodian prostitutes and return
them to their families. Kristoff’s sanctimonious pieces reminded
me of Americans who take candy to starving kids in places like
India, believing that a few nuggets of crystallized corn syrup
might alleviate systemic conditions of poverty and hunger. Hughes
and Kristoff present such personalized narratives about the supposed
evils of prostitution with only tangential discussions about the
economics of prostitution. Ultimately, their narratives imply that
trafficking is only about sex.
Peter Landesman’s story in the January 25, 2004 New
York Times Sunday Magazine further emphasized the sexual
aspect of trafficking in highlighting the extent of sexual slavery
within the United States. While such facts are important to the
public, the cover photograph echoed our collective ambivalence
about adolescent female sexuality: a young girl in a Catholic
School uniform sits on the edge of a bed with bare knees and
a bit of thigh tantalizingly exposed. Sex sells, and while that’s
not in itself a bad thing, the photo seemed at odds with a piece
designed to invoke the brutal sexual exploitation of young girls.
With regard to sex and trafficking, the United Nations Protocol
to Prevent, Suppress, and Punish Trafficking in Persons, ratified
in 2000, carefully separates forced sexual labor from prostitution.
The definition of trafficking is “the recruitment, transportation,
transfer, harboring or receipt of persons by improper means, such
as force, abduction, fraud or coercion, for an improper purpose,
like forced or coerced labor, servitude, slavery or sexual exploitation.” And
further on: “With the exception of children, who cannot consent,
the intention is to distinguish between consensual acts or treatment
and those in which abduction, force, fraud, deception or coercion
are used or threatened.” It’s clear that trafficking
is difficult to track and prosecute without clear guidelines that
encompass a range of forced human relations. It’s especially
hard to prosecute because most of those trafficked may risk their
lives or be criminalized and deported as illegal aliens.
Following the UN Protocol, the Clinton administration passed the
Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act (VTVPA) in 2000.
The Act provides for temporary Non-Immigrant T-Visas for victims
so that they might file charges against their captors without fear
of deportation. The detection and prevention of trafficking is
particularly complex because they have to happen within the nexus
of international law and domestic policies and those trafficked
may find it difficult to seek redress especially when, as is often
the case, they lack the social and economic means to argue for
their rights. For instance, the T-Visa application asks for $200
in application fees alone, along with other filing charges. Since
trafficking effectively creates a large pool of slave labor, how
is a trafficked person to gather the money to apply for a T-Visa?
Moreover, who are the traffickers and the trafficked? And, how
do people end up within the growing slave economy of the United
States and what keeps the system going?
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