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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 problem.

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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