Didn’t slavery already end?

When you ask someone when slavery ended, the typical answer would be after the Civil War in 1865 when congress amended the US Constitution, making the transatlantic slave trade illegal. The truth to this misconception is that slavery never ended — it just adapted. It transformed from a polarizing practice that collapsed under public pressure, to a secret criminal industry that thrives completely underground. Hidden in the shadows, slaves are transported across borders, shuttled from one clandestine compound to another, bought and sold right under the nose of law enforcement and invisible to the public-at-large. In fact, there are an astounding estimated 27 million slaves — the highest point in history — even though it has been outlawed in every country.  There are reports of slavery everywhere, including all 50 states of the US and all across every continent. 

 

What is sex trafficking?

One of the most profitable forms of modern day slavery is sex trafficking; the illegal sale of humans for the purpose of sexual exploitation. With widespread poverty across the world, there is no shortage of victims or accomplices to feed this enterprise. In 1809, at the height of the transatlantic slave trade, the average price of a slave was $40,000 (adjusted for inflation). Today it’s just $90. With the cost of a human life so low, these girls have become disposable assets; bought and sold easily, abused and discarded easily. Sex trafficking is now also the fastest growing criminal industry, only second to drug smuggling in terms of profits. Unlike selling an AK47 or a bag of heroin, traffickers generate huge profits by selling a girl hundreds of times. It tends to be a relatively low risk black market trade, as traffickers can always claim the girl is a willing prostitute to avoid jail time. Not having legal ownership is actually an improvement for slave owners because they still get total control over person without any responsibility or acknowledgement.

 

How are girls trafficked?

There are several documented ways girls are tricked or coerced into sex trafficking. Some are elaborate schemes to offer a girl a job in a distant city and then withhold her passport and force her to have sex — sometimes they even send some money back to her family to not raise suspicion. Some girls are knowingly sold by their destitute parents for money. Some parents are tricked into sending their girls off with trusted friends of the family. Some are sold by relatives, or neighbors that would know when the parents aren’t home. Some girls are drugged and abducted right off the street, particularly girls traveling alone on vacation. Sometimes a girl will meet a charming man who woos her and sends her a ticket to visit him in another country; once she is there, she is sold to a brothel. As stories of trafficking began to spread, traffickers started to employ women to recruit girls to get their guard down.

And let’s not forget the millions of girls who run away from an abusive, dysfunctional family only to end up in the arms of a pimp. Instead of buying girls on the auction block, pimps cruise the bus stations, waiting for young vulnerable victims to manipulate. These girls might not have been literally chained up, but they were coerced by a predator into a parasitic relationship and end up truly believing that they have to prostitute themselves for their pimp’s “love”.

How can sex trafficking still happen even if it’s illegal?

If there’s money involved, there’s bound to be many hands that want to reach into the pot — and if there’s a lot of money involved, the corruption will go deep into all levels of government and include countless people who would “look the other way” for a small bribe. One of the reasons the sex trafficking issue is so complex is because it happens completely underground and involves so many different people that have a financial interest in keeping it alive. We can petition and fight to have more laws put on the books but without complete cooperation, awareness and enforcement of the laws, sex trafficking will continue to thrive.

Who is a sex trafficker?

There is a veritable army of intermediaries and ‘service providers’ that aid and abet trafficking. The level of consent and participation further complicate the issue. People who facilitate the trafficking process include recruiters; transporters; ID and document counterfeiters; coyotes or guides to cross borders; insiders arranging other logistics such as bribing guards or officials; corrupt officials and judges that can be bribed; people involved liaising between the various parties; ‘bodyguards’ who ensure victims do not escape; business men who invest and profit from clubs, brothels, and massage parlors exploiting victims; the pimp who manages a brothel, police officers who collaborate with pimps; johns; law makers who fail to treat victims as such and offer protective services.

Why can’t the girls just leave?

Some slaves are literally kept in cages but others are put on the street to smile and beckon to clients. To an outsider she appears free to walk away from the brothel. But there are invisible ties of fear that bind her to the pimp. In his book “The Natashas”, Victor Malerek interviews a young woman named Sophia about her first day in the breaking grounds, “Sometimes they would rape girls in front of us. They yelled at them, ordering them to move in certain ways … to pretend excitement … Those who resisted were beaten. If they did not cooperate, they were locked in dark cellars with rats or no food and water for three days. One girl refused to submit to anal sex, and that night the owner brought in five men. They held her on the floor and every one of them had anal sex on her in front of all of us. She screamed and screamed.” After witnessing this scene Sophia decided not to resist. Sometimes it only takes a day to break a girl.

What is the virgin cure myth?

In some cultures, men believe the myth that having sex with a virgin prevents or cures HIV/Aids and promotes longevity. Since the pimp can make much more money selling a virgin, the girl will often be sewn up and sold as a virgin several times.

Aren’t sex workers happy and empowered?

Hollywood has influenced western ideas of sex work and some people assume this is the reality for trafficked girls. How many countless movies have you seen that feature high-class escorts that make a $1000 a night with rich businessmen? Hustle and Flow glorifies pimping, as a source of lyrical inspiration and Pretty Woman turns prostitution into a fairy tale. We acknowledge that not all sex workers are victims of trafficking, but the portrayal of a happy empowered feminist sex worker is far from the real-life, abandoned, vulnerable teen girls in the documentary Very Young Girls. We respect the decisions of genuinely consenting adults, and some women in southeast Asia definitely choose to work in the red light districts — but there are also thousands who are held against their will and denied basic human rights of freedom and dignity. We also seek to create safe space and support harm reduction education for women who choose to do sex work.

What happens to rescued victims?

As more people become aware of human trafficking issues, the stigma of being a victim lessens. Survivors have started to speak out as activists and advocates; educating the vulnerable girls and helping law enforcement. We hope the movement will grow to value their insight and embrace survivors in leadership roles.  If a girl is lucky she may find a way to exit the world of trafficking.  But simply freeing a girl from sex slavery is not enough — with no money, community, education or job skills, she will have little choice other than to sell herself again. Another hardship she must overcome will be herself. Trafficking has a harrowing effect on the mental, emotional and physical well-being of the women and girls; among the most distressing experiences a person can face. Because of the violent nature of the crime, the girls’ psychological existence is deeply and profoundly changed. The pain and memories will be unbearable and will echo through her life. Most survivors have have post traumatic stress disorder (but generally will not have access to treatment) and many attempt suicide.