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Modern Slavery - Human Trafficking

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Women are dehumanization in the sex trade.

The issue of sex trafficking has been widely discussed by politicians, sociologists, financial analysts, feminists, journalists, and a number of other interested parties, covering everything from acquisition, to transport, to sex slavery, to escape (via rescue, old age or lack of marketability, sickness, and death), to rehabilitation. In order to bring something new to the table, it is necessary to formulate both a cohesive focus on one specific area of sex trafficking while also highlighting a side of the issue that most reports fail to cover: demand. With that in mind, this study analyzes the issue of immaterial (emotional, spiritual, psychological) borders, the nature and role of “othering,” the rhetoric of victimization, and the manner in which male desire fuels the sex trafficking industry. 

Sex Trafficking as a Border Issue[]

Today’s booming human trafficking business serves as an especially important border issue, not merely for the United States, but for the world at large as well. The primary reason for this is because trafficking actually requires the presence of borders and boundaries—physical, theoretical, psychological, cultural, and emotional—to exist. And since the intersection of opposing ideologies and groups is in fact at the heart of all border rhetoric, human trafficking becomes a major factor in border rhetoric as well. 

Human trafficking is best defined as the illegal transport of individuals for the purposes of slave labor, but since such activity is transnational and transcontinental, not only is it a matter of human rights, but that of immigration rights as well. Yet as an immigration issue, human trafficking poses exceptional problems, as people are often smuggled well away from a countries extremities. Despite the fact that immigrants are not literally on the border, however, does not mean that it is any less a border issue. In “Borders that Travel,”  Kent A. Ono writes: “The border already exists, sometimes incipiently and sometimes manifestly, where migrants move and on all of our bodies. The border moves with migrants into those social spaces where they live: in the interior of the nation, their workplaces, and their homes” (24). Taking Ono’s position on the migrant body as a form of the border, because human trafficking occurs everywhere on the planet, borders are literally crossed everywhere.

As a major sub-section to the current human slave trade industry, sex trafficking deserves particular emphasis for three important reasons: equality (gender, ethnic, cultural), health, and morality. As these three elements are all tied to border issues in some fashion, it is in the best interest of the world to have full awareness of how sex trafficking is not just an obscure problem that other countries happen to suffer from, but a global phenomenon with pandemic ramification. 

In order to successfully combat sex trafficking, it is necessary for the governments of the world to take steps that not only improve educational and work opportunities for women, but also by discouraging male demand of purchasable sex. This would of course require the teaching and nurturing of a new form of masculinity that moves away from sexual gratification being the primary method for male validation.

Overview of Sex Trafficking[]

Media exposure to the realities of sex trafficking have emerged with more and more frequency in the past decade, and, partly as a result of this exposure, several governments (such as United States) have passed resolutions and laws against human trafficking and sex traders. In an address to the United Nations in 2003, President George W. Bush, who had recently signed legislations agains human trafficking, spoke at length regarding the issue, as well on the sex trade:

There’s a special evil in the abuse and exploitation of the most innocent and vulnerable. The victims of sex trade see little of life before they see the very worst of life—an underground of brutality and lonely fear. Those who create these victims and profit from their suffering must be severely punished. Those who patronize this industry debase themselves and deepen the misery of others. And governments that tolerate this trade are tolerating a form of slavery. 

We must show new energy in fighting back an old evil. Nearly two centuries after the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade, and more than a century after slavery was officially ended in its last strongholds, the trade in human beings for any purpose must not be allowed to thrive in our time. (Bush)

In that same address, President Bush also called for increased resolutions against human trafficking, and for the support of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), who work not only to rescue victims, but also to help rehabilitate them, provide medical care, counsel, as well as offer job training and other victim supports. Yet despite the passage of anti-trafficking laws around the globe, and the awareness campaigns, and the various agencies involved, trafficking continues just as fiercely as ever. In fact, it seems to only be getting worse. 

Facts & Statistics[]

One of the elements most often referred when discussing slavery is the transatlantic slave trade. However, estimates today suggest that the numbers of slaves worldwide has far surpassed previous amounts in a far shorter amount of time: “It took the transatlantic trade four hundred years to import 12 million African slaves to the New World. Twelve million too many. But now consider that in Southeast Asia an estimated 30 million women and children have been trafficked—in the past ten years” (Naím 88).

Accurate totals for the actual number of trafficked persons across the globe vary and are almost impossible to provide. According to a United Nations report produced in 2009, it is impossible to provide any sort of realistic number, as “there are no reliable estimates about the scale of human trafficking” (UNODC 14). The cause of this glaring deficiency in knowledge comes in part from the lack of cooperation with several nations not associated with the UN, as well as due to the fact that immigrants often do not report being trafficked: “There will never be an accurate census of trafficked persons, because of the ramifications of their illegal status: they are mobile, may have illegal papers or lack documents such as national cards or social security numbers, and will not answer phones or mail” (Cwikel and Hoban 313). And as long as victim are unwilling to communicate with governmental or outreach agencies, trafficking totals will always be hypothetical. There are, however, some estimates out there suggesting “that between 600,000 and 800,000 people are trafficked across international borders each year. Of these, 70 per cent are female, 50 per cent are children, and most are sold into the commercial sex trade” (Samarasinghe and Burton 52). It should be noted that this estimate is based on data almost a decade old, implying that the number could be well over a million today. Furthermore, although the United States of America is often viewed as the most progressive in freedom and equality, it too is not exempt from trafficking: “The U.S. faces a serious problem: each year an estimated 20,000 people are trafficked into the country, entering by air on bogus travel documents or smuggled overland through Canada and Mexico” (Malarek 209).

Financial Benefit[]

The employment of rhetoric that vilifies and admonishes sex trafficking as “evil” or “morally repugnant,” such as used in President Bush’s speech, is nothing new, but it does not fully address the realities involved. Sex trafficking, like all forms of trafficking, is about economics, which dictates that where there is demand, there will be supply, and vice-versa. The United States, and other countries as well, should understand that the same economic principles apply to human trafficking. With slavery, humans are viewed as the commodity. With sex slavery, sex is the commodity. And since human trafficking and the sex trade are viewed from a business perceptive, it is difficult to appeal to a trafficker’s sense of empathy: 

We are quick to resort to moral language to condemn illicit trade. It is true that many of the characters involved in illicit trade are abominable criminals. But what drives them are profits and a set of values that is often impervious to moral denunciations. Illicit trafficking is an economic phenomenon, not a moral one. And the tools of economics do better at making sense of it than do the insights offered by the study of ethics and morals. Supply and demand, risk and return, are trafficking’s primary motivators. (Naím 239)

And an unfortunate byproduct of globalization is the inability to know who is involved in trafficking: “Illicit trade has broken the boundary and surged into our own lives. We can no longer even be sure—not sure of whom our purchases benefit, not sure of what our investments support, not sure of what material or financial connections might tie to our own labor and consumption to goals or practices we abhor. For traffickers, that spells triumph” (Naím 17).

But surely some other element is at work that has enabled such an absence of morality. Decent human beings do not wake up one day and decide to enter the slave trade. “Human trafficking is on the rise, due in part to the globalization of capitalism, free-trade agreements, and porous borders. However, the rise in demand for human beings can, above all, be attributed to deterioration in interpersonal relationships” (Cacho 242). The heartbreaking truth is that as long as people continue to desire purchasable sex (in the form of pornography or prostitution), traffickers will continue to supply that demand. Therefore, in theory, if enough people changed their viewpoint on prostitution, pornography, and sexual slavery as being immoral, illegal, and unacceptable (thereby reducing demand), there would be fewer numbers of persons trafficked for sex worldwide. 

(Ab)Uses of Technology[]

One of things that enables traffickers to work so efficiently today, and thereby elude both the attention of the authorities and capture is technology. Cell phones, GPS, and the internet have all found their way into the hands of traffickers, who utilize the technology to create a cleaner running slave trade. Above all, the internet has also been deemed most responsible for the ease in acquisition of new “product”, as traffickers can easily keep in contact via email in distance cellular dead-zones, and can conduct business using online banking services, making for smoother transactions between supplier and buyer. Because trafficking is often a global or transnational endeavor, this makes the internet all the more powerful. But it is not utilized by traffickers alone. “The fullest use of new technology, however, is in the sex trade. The boom in trafficking women and children for sex has utilized the Internet to display the wares in the cyberspace equivalent of slave auctions” (Naím 102). Searching the internet for purchasable sex is simply too easy. And the fact that the internet caters to all types, it is merely a matter of locating the right product for the customer, all from the convenience of home. 

Women at Risk[]

Much of the attention to sex trafficking in the media and in research deals with those who are at risk.  Noted elements that make women vulnerable to sex trafficking “include the profound disadvantages for women in terms of poverty, education, and wage employment” (Samarasinghe and Burton 54) within their own countries. 

The people who endure the grossest forms of commercial sexual abuse throughout the world are those who are at the bottom of lots of different, and very complicated, hierarchies. They are female, they are from poor families in poor communities, and they belong to despised racial and ethnic minorities. They are abused and exploited, and a proportion are locked into sexual slavery precisely, and simply, because they can be: they are society’s most vulnerable people. (Brown 3, italics not mine)

Such places are literally everywhere in the world. In the 1990s, after the fall of the Soviet Union, many of the women from the outlying smaller countries were trafficked. Other popular areas have proven to be Southeast Asia, Africa, and South America—places of poverty and gender inequality.  Likewise, “[w]omen’s unequal rights and access to formal labour, the restricted control they exercise over their own lives, and the gendered aspects of poverty all lead women to seek work abroad”  (Wennerholm 12). Often because of the economies of richer nearby countries, persons in poorer areas resort to migration: “Migrants can be driven by opportunity, hope, despair, or simply the need to survive. Human traffickers prey on these impulses and, thanks to their ability to elude government-imposed obstacles, they can turn human impulses into profits” (Naím 89). And because such an enormous part of of human trafficking is the sex trade, each day hundreds of women are drawn in as unwitting victims of sexual enslavement.

The Rhetoric of Victimization[]

Breaking the Will

The existence of forced prostitution and sexual slavery is hard for most to fathom, but what is even more shocking is the sheer amount of women who are perpetually caught in that sordid life, even after they have been physically freed from captivity. Many women turn around and actively choose to be a part of the continuance of sex slavery, acting as madams, recruiters, or even just staying on as prostitutes within the system. The obvious question for this sort of behavior is: what is it that makes women submit to that sort of lifestyle? The answer is that though it seems illogical to accept or welcome enslavement, such outcomes are a byproduct of system of controls that sex slavers utilize: “An essential part of the brothel business model is to break the spirit of girls, through humiliation, rape, threats, and violence” (Kristof and WuDunn 10). It is a process that begins almost immediately and is designed “to ensure they [victims] will serve clients submissively and never try to escape” (Kara 12), and it continues on even after women have been released from bondage. Thus it becomes simple for slavers: if a woman fears for her life and also suffers from terrible shame, she cannot fight back. The most appropriate term for this is conditioning, best achieved “by means of drugs, beatings, and repeated rape” (Naím 92). The resultant of this is that victims often come to view themselves as without value outside of their sexual desirability, which is precisely the point: “The trafficker’s power is sustained by eliminating the potential victims’ chances of dignity and freedom” (Cacho 6).

Less than Human

To become sexually enslaved is to become less than human. Not only are they treated as such, but they often come to believe they are only a commodity:

Time after time sex workers refer to themselves as being ‘outside society’. And they are right—they are despised outcastes. Yet, paradoxically, far from being outside society they are at its very core. They are not peripheral to the social system because they are vital to its functioning. We can learn a lot about the structure of a society from analysing prostitution. (Brown 7)

Caught at the very epicenters of capitalism and commerce, these women are kept under close surveillance, just as a merchant might protect his wares from thieves. And because prostitution is such a marketable industry, slavers are even more dutiful in their suppression of trafficked women: “The girls will only be free once their purchase price has been recouped and a substantial profit has been made. Until then they are watched and guarded” (Brown 123).

All of which is proof that “[h]uman trafficking encapsulates the most extreme ethos of globalisation: movement of economic units for profit regardless of human cost. Traffickers do not regard their cargo as human” (Waugh 232).

Yet even the rhetoric used to describe the victims of sex trafficking is laden with ideology based on the very systems that enabled victimization in the first place:

We talk about ‘victims’ and ‘sex slaves’. We refer to young women being ‘tricked’ into prostitution and forced to ‘service’ clients. These words all make trafficked women and girls sound both stupid and pitiful. They evoke paternalistic concern for these poor wretched victims who obviously can’t help themselves, but need rescuing by kinder punters or heroic police officers. (Waugh xiii-xiv)

Furthermore, as hard as it is to admit, “the language of sex slaves and tricked victims has nothing to do with challenging the trafficking status quo, or demanding specific legal and human rights for trafficked migrants. It offers no humanity or dignity to the person being abused, but revels in their suffering” (Waugh xiv).

Worse still, most governments do not make the situation any better for victims: “[m]any government leaders choose instead to blame sending countries, as if it’s their fault that these ‘loose women’ are staining their reputations. But the trade is driven by the lust of their men; it is fueled by the bars, brothels and bordellos dotting their streets; and it thrives because of their complacency and inaction” (Malarek 260, italics not mine). 

Ravages of Sexual Slavery: Death, Disease, & Depression[]

The horrifying and dehumanizing manner in which victims are treated often has severe repercussions, “these include trauma, depression, and even suicide” (Wennerholm 14). Likewise, there is a high prevalence of sexually transmitted diseases among trafficked individuals, due to“violent and unsafe sex as a result of the fact that they have no negotiating position, and are often illegal immigrants” (Wennerholm 14). What is most disgusting about sex trafficking is that these victims are being recruited younger and younger, often starting when they have just hit puberty: “[t]hey will be discarded by the consumers and the brother owners when they are in their early twenties and they will die before they are thirty” (Brown 210). And since it does not take long for women or children to become “used up,” the value placed on the victim actually decreases the longer they have been in the sex trade. And, as stated earlier, the sheer number of trafficked persons each year creates an alarming ease for sex slavers to acquire new “product” (women and children) for use in the sex trade, further devaluing existing victims.

Male Demand: Power & Ethnic Othering[]

Equally important for consideration is the reason as to why these women are trafficked for sex in the first place:

Increasing demand for commercial sexual services in an expanding industry fuels trafficking. The argument that addressing poverty would on its own inhibit trafficking is questionable. Where economic growth has created an expanding middle class, for example in Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines, the capacity and even the motivation for men to buy sexual services has increased. (Wennerholm 13)

Disposable income creates demand, which enables prostitution to thrive in newly advancing countries, but in places like the United States, such elements have existed for decades. However, an absence of sufficient information concerning local culpability exists, as there is exists “a continuing and blatant gap in the attention paid to the male-oriented ‘demand-side’ of sex trafficking”  (Samarasinghe and Burton 60). This is strange for one obvious reason: “[t]here could be no sex-slave industry without male demand for commercial sex” (Kara 33).

Male demand is really all about dominance and authority: “[t]he power and ability to have sex with attractive young women is a status symbol. It is proof of masculinity and is one of the most important markers of a man’s position within male hierarchies” (Brown 139). And since male authority is almost universally recognized, forced prostitution is the awful result: “male sexual demand has promoted the commercial sex industry for centuries and it will probably continue to do so for centuries to come. Whether for entertainment, violence, or other purposes, male sexual demand drives men into sex establishments in almost every country in the world” (Kara 33).

Aside from an obvious sexual fixation for men, one theory concerning sex trafficking and the male desire for prostitution concerns the concept of “ethnosexual” encounters, sometimes known as interracial sex: 

The territories that lie at the intersections of two or more ethnic, racial, or national boundaries are “ethnosexual frontiers”—erotic locations and exotic destinations that are surveilled and supervised, patrolled and policed, regulated and restricted, but are constantly penetrated by individuals forging sexual links with ethnic “others” across ethnic boundaries. (Nagel 159)

In cases such as these, eroticism is based on foreignness, or ethnic “othering”, which explains the existence of things like sex tourism, where men travel to other countries specifically for the purpose of having sex with ethnically different individuals (women, men, and even children). However, because of human trafficking, the foreign element can be brought to men seeking such “ethnosexual” encounters. It is for that reason that there are so many illicit businesses using fronts such as massage parlors or bars, while actually serving as a variation of brothels, as trafficked women and children live and “work” on site. Thus, purchased sex is more than a matter of sexual fulfillment, is about psychological pleasure as well. And because the body can be considered as a  representation of the border, these sexual encounters fall specifically under the domain of border studies.

Sadly, the victims of sex trafficking often do not blame the men who are buying and using them sexually: “Men seemed to be excused on the grounds that they were men and that having sex and buying women was just one of those things that men did. Anger was saved for those who had allowed the men to buy them. It was saved, in particular, for traffickers and for the people who had sold them into prostitution" (Brown 251, italics not mine).

Solution: Education and a New Masculinity[]

As many of the countries worst afflicted with sex trafficking are also the most unequal in their treatment of men and women, it is obvious that to fully combat sex trafficking both economics and ethics must be involved. The key is education. Only then can we bridge the gender gaps that exist worldwide. This is not merely a matter of providing women with access to schooling and employment, but of teaching men that women have value outside of sexual and reproductive usage. Because sex trafficking is a male driven market, for trafficked women, “[t]heir greatest enemies are the clients of the slave market and their greatest allies could be millions of men willing to question slavery from the ethical standpoint of otherness” (Cacho 256). Therefore, changing the attitude of men is essential to combatting sex trafficking. As Gloria Anzaldúa argued: "[w]e need a new masculinity and the new man needs a movement” (106). Men must be liberated from the confines of current views of masculinity that require the usage of sex as validation of manhood. This means rethinking the ethics of masculinity, especially in regards to the patronization of prostitution and other sex trade related industries. In order for a new man to exist, it is “imperative that men discover new ways of coexisting, in which pornography, violence, and sexism are not the only options for their erotic lives and their relationships with women and other men” (Cacho 241). Legislation that prohibits slavery can only go so far, men and women change what they consider acceptable and what they will allow to exist in the world. 

Works Cited[]

Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 2007. Print.

Brown, Louise. Sex Slaves: The Trafficking of Women in Asia. London: Virago, 2001. Print.

Bush, George W. “Address to the United Nations.” White House Press Release. United Nations 

General Assembly. United Nations. New York, NY. 23 Sept. 2003. Address.

Cacho, Lydia. Slavery Inc.: The Untold Story of International Sex Trafficking. Trans. Elizabeth Boburg. London: Portobello Books, 2012. Print.

Cwikel, Julie and Elizabeth Hoban. “Contentious Issues in Research on Trafficked Women Working in the Sex Industry: Study Design, Ethics, and Methodology.” The Journal of 'Sex Research: 42.4 (2005): 306-316. JSTOR. Web. 2 June 2014.

DeChaine, D. Robert, ed. Border Rhetorics: Citizenship and Identity on the US-Mexico FrontierTuscaloosa: The U of Alabama P, 2012. Print.

Kara, Siddharth. Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery. New York: Columbia U P, 2009. Print.

Kristof, Nicholas D., and Sheryl WuDunn. Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. New York: Vintage, 2009. Print.

Malarek, Victor. The Natashas: Inside the New Global Sex Trade. New York: Arcade Publishing, 2003. Print.

Nagel, Joane. “States of Arousal/Fantasy Islands: Race, Sex, and Romance in the Global  Economy of Desire.” American Studies: 41.2 (2000): 159-181. JSTOR. Web. 2 June 2014.

Naím, Moisés. Illicit: How Smugglers, Traffickers, and Copycats are Hijacking the Global Economy. New York: Anchor, 2005. Print.

Ono, Kent A. “Borders That Travel: Matters of the Figural Border.” DeChaine 19-32. 

Samarasinghe, Vidyamali and Barbara Burton. “Strategising Prevention: a Critical review of Local Initiatives to Prevent Female Sex Trafficking.” Development in Practice: 17.1 (2007): 51-64. JSTOR. Web. 2 June 2014.

United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). “Global Report on Trafficking in Persons.” 2009. PDF file.

Waugh, Louisa. Selling Olga: Stories of Human Trafficking and Resistance. London: Phoenix, 2006. Print.

Wennerholm, Carolina Johansson. “Crossing Borders and Building Bridges: The Baltic Region Networking Project.” Gender and Development: 10.1 (2002):10-19. JSTOR. Web. 2 June 2014.

Page & Content by Nathan Calley