Are we obsessed with sex-trafficking?

If you scroll down the front page of Jezebel, you will see a whole column of stories devoted to talking about sex-trafficking. The popular website has a tag for the amount of stories that it publishes covering this particular human rights issue.

Activists attempt to call our attention to the problem of sex-trafficking in a multitude of ways. New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof  famously covers issues involving the global sex trade with personal and heart-wrenching stories from its “victims”. Recently, this innovative video has been circulating the internet, calling attention to the problem sex trafficking in Europe. Perhaps the most creepy is this film, The Candy Shop, a fairytale parable that makes young girls the focus of the problem of sex trafficking.

Human sex trafficking is an emotionally-charged issue that is deeply intertwined with issues of gender, consent, illegal immigration, underground economies, and slavery. This diversity of issues lends itself to many constructions of sex-trafficking as a problem. For example, this video, from the thought-provoking media campaign from Youth for Human Rights, subtly highlights the way we make parallels between what we view as the race-based slavery of the past and the gender-based slavery of the present. The comparison can be troublesome, but it highlights the moral clarity that is often created by the language we use when we talk about sex-trafficking.

There has also been intense debate surrounding the statistics that support claims about the problem of sex-trafficking today. Many claim that the problem is underreported, while others fight back and argue that the statistics are over-reported and the problem exaggerated. “In 2001, the FBI estimated 700,000 women and children were trafficked worldwide, UNICEF estimated 1.75 million, and the International Organization on Migration (IOM) merely 400,000″. ¹  Sex-trafficking statistics exist in a very controversial space defined by sexual morals and political motivations of the reporting organizations. I bring up these complicated issues not to deride activists efforts nor to make claims against fights for human rights. However, I would like to explore the way that we talk about sex-trafficking: its “victims”, their “innocence”, and the moral panic that is created around it.

When we talk about sex-trafficking, we often focus on its victims. They are nearly always women and children, “Very Young Girls” whose innocence is compromised by the sexual nature of the threat against them. Note that while the statistics on sex-trafficking are unreliable, more children are involved in illegal forced child labor than are involved in illegal forced sex work. Yet the moral panic –the headlines, the protests, the petitions– more frequently focus on sex-trafficking. It is easy for us to want to save a young girl from the sex trade, but this focus on children makes it harder for us to understand the more complicated situations that many women find themselves in. Many women who are trafficked enter the trade willingly, but need assistance when they want to leave situations that were more abusive or violent than they bargained for. This is why we focus on very young girls in literature on sex-trafficking. Our sympathy is given with much less difficulty to the young girl forced into sex work than to the mother of four who enters the trade for economic reasons and then wishes to leave it.

Our obsession with sex-trafficking is tied to Western conceptions of childhood innocence and gendered understandings of sexual innocence and sexual deviance. This does not mean that our concern for the obviously real problem of sex trafficking is invalid. It means that we must consider how to ethically “speak for” or “speak on behalf of” those who are working in the sex trade against their will. We must construct the problem beyond “victims” and understand how sex-trafficking truly functions in relation to the legal and illegal economy. It also means that we must acknowledge the spectrum of “choice” that is dictated by gender, race, nationality, and sexual orientation which informs the meaning of consent in sex work. We must look beyond “saving” children from sex trafficking and attempt to break down the systems that allow such abuse to occur in the first place.

For further reading and thought-provocation, I suggest this article  about

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Filed under children, feminism, gender, human rights, sexuality, social justice

2 responses to “Are we obsessed with sex-trafficking?

  1. There is a lot of controversy over the numbers of adult woman who are forced sex slaves. The real factual answer is that no one knows. There is hard evidence that the sex slavery/sex trafficking issue continues to report false information and is greatly exaggerated by politicians, the media, and aid groups, feminist and religious organizations that receive funds from the government, The estimate of adult women who become new sex slaves ranges anywhere from 40 million a year to 5,000 per year all of which appear to be much too high. They have no evidence to back up these numbers, and no one questions them about it. Their sources have no sources, and are made up numbers. In fact if some of these numbers are to believed which have either not changed or have been increased each year for the past twenty years, all woman on earth would currently be sex slaves. Yet, very few real forced against their will sex slaves have been found.

    Sex trafficking is illegal and the pentities are very severe. It is very difficult to force someone to be a sex slave, they would have to have 24 hour guards posted and be watched 365 days a year, 24 hours per day. Have the threat of violence if they refused, and have no one notice and complain to the authorities or police. They would need to hide from the general public yet still manage to see customers from the general public and not have the customers turn the traffickers in to the police. They would need to provide them with medical care, food, shelter, and have all their basic needs met. They would need to have the sex slaves put on a fake front that they enjoyed what they were doing, act flirtatious and do their job well. They would have to deal with the authorities looking for the missing women, and hide any money they may make, since it comes from illegal activity. They must do all of this while constantly trying to prevent the sex slaves from escaping and reporting them to the police. They would need to prevent the general public from reporting them into the police. This is extremely difficult to do, which makes this activity rare. These criminals would be breaking dozens of major laws not just one. Kidnapping itself is a serious crime. There are many laws against sex trafficking, sex slavery, kidnapping, sex abuse, rape, sexual harassment etc. If someone is behind it, they will be breaking many serious laws, be in big trouble, and will go to jail for many long years. And do you actually think that there is a long line of people who want to have a career as a sex slave kidnapping pimp?

    Here are some good websites about sex trafficking:

  2. An outstanding share! I’ve just forwarded this onto a colleague who had been doing a little research on this. And he actually bought me lunch simply because I stumbled upon it for him… lol. So let me reword this…. Thanks for the meal!! But yeah, thanks for spending some time to talk about this subject here on your blog.

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