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 Backpage.com.