Victims of Sex Trafficking and the Illusion of Choice

By: Leena Saleh

When you read a news story about a young girl getting involved in the sex trade, what are some questions that come to mind? Did she want to make money? Does she not know the consequences of getting involved? Was she abused at home?Notice that none of these questions address the people directly responsible for buying or selling sex and profiting, quite successfully, from the exploitation of said young girl.

In a recent editorial, Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times wrote about Emily, a 15-year old girl who ran away from home and became involved in the sex trade. Kristof said she became a prostitute and abandoned her parents, who were stricken with grief when they heard the news. He, too, tried coming up with rational answers for these types of questions and took it once step further to insinuate that Emily had made some poor choices. While Kristof mulls over whether other 15-year old girls like Emily will “consent” to being sold into prostitution, pimps work on recruiting their next victims.

Let’s take a step back and address the obvious elephant in the room. Under federal law, minors cannot give consent. No, as Kristof said, Emily did not have a “gun to her head,” and yes, she seems to have “voluntarily connected with her pimp,” but what seems to have been left out of the discussion are the proven methods of coercion carried out by pimps, such as showing false romantic interest, posing as benefactors, trapping victims in debt bondage, and performing other acts of psychological manipulation. Kristof’s glaring oversight aside, Emily is 15, well below the age of consent. So her ‘voluntary connection’ wasn’t voluntary at all.

Kristof is not unique in his deficit of attention to the real problem. Our culture perpetuates a particular framework: girls become victims of sexual assault, sex trafficking, and rape; this requires us to find out what they did to cause it. Sex trafficking victims are often put under a magnifying glass. Their individual choices, state of mind, and behavioral patterns are relentlessly analyzed and questioned over and over again. Rather than being rescued from their situation, they are re-victimized, which is exactly why federal law continues to be reformed in order to protect minors.

Sex trafficking is a multi-billion dollar industry. What concerned parents like Emily’s have to lose is everything traffickers have to gain. Do we want to live in a society where women and girls are purposefully recruited, bought, sold, and exploited for years on end, only to have those who profit (those selling and buying) emerge completely unscathed?

Kristof’s equation for a solution comes down to dealing with girls like Emily by figuring out why they “choose” to become trafficked. The idea is that this will prevent pimps from recruiting them. However, there is a more viable solution that has been backed by credible research: deter men from buying sex by holding those who profit accountable. This will result in a shortage of demand, and therefore a decrease in the supply: women and girls.

For those who doubt that ending demand for paid sex is possible, consider the study conducted by the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation that reveals otherwise: the study found that men could be deterred from buying sex if they faced real consequences, such as fines of $1,000 or more or public accountability for what they had done.  A deficient demand will cripple the industry and put an end to the recruitment process, giving girls like Emily a fighting chance.

Language Matters: A 9 year old does not have a "career" in prostitution

By Katie Feifer

Language matters when we speak about sexual violence. Using language of consent to describe crimes of violence is one of the ways we do a disservice to rape victims and continue to reinforce damaging messages about rape. One example: a child victim of Jerry Sandusky was commonly referred to in press accounts as “having sex with” Sandusky when in fact, the victim was forced to orally copulate the older man.

We continue to focus on language because until we talk about sexual violence in a truthful, accurate way, we as a society will not think about and accept sexual violence in a truthful, accurate way.

Today’s case study centers on the language we use to talk about prostitution and prostituted and trafficked girls and women. Many consider prostitution a victimless crime, a choice that women make, and certainly not a form of exploitation or abuse or violence. The reality is far different. (It’s a much bigger issue than we’re tackling in this post but you can read more about it here.)

The AP filed a story by Ramit Plushink-Masti about Houston’s efforts to rehabilitate people in prostitution. And in their opening paragraph, they referred to a 9 year old prostituted girl as someone who “had a full-fledged career in prostitution...” And the article went on to use more damaging language to refer to prostituted women and girls as "street walkers" and "hookers."

First, almost no 9 year olds have “careers”. But a 9 year old who has been trafficked and exploited by her mother and others, raped and abused by men who buy sex from her????? We continue to minimize and to soften the horror of the crime and the trauma its victims are subjected to when we use language like this, when our words make legitimate and commonplace what is ugly and awful.

As the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation says in its blog post,  This is a giant failure by the Associated Press and Plushnick-Masti to recognize that Tricia Chambers is a survivor of childhood sexual assault. Instead, they continue to stigmatize her and others who are in a program trying to exit prostitution, by calling them “hookers” and “streetwalkers.” This is incredibly offensive and harmful, and reinforces the cultural norm that people in prostitution are to blame, when many are actually crime victims.”

We are joining CAASE in asking you to Tweet @RamitMastiAP and @AP and tell them they got it wrong. A child in prostitution is a victim of a heinous crime. They must do better in deepening reporters’ understanding of these issues and work to not re-victimize survivors of sexual assault and trafficking. They must edit this story and show that they will do more to educate reporters about the realities of sex trafficking.”

Language matters.

"The Price of Sex" and End Demand Illinois

By Anne K. Ream

I recently began blogging for Thomson Reuters Foundation, on issues affecting women and girls.  A recent post,  "Sex Trafficking: The global problem that is far more local than many Americans think,” considers "The Price of Sex," Mimi Chakarova's award-winning film on international sex trafficking, while contrasting the global realities Mimi explores to the sexual exploitation and trafficking of women and girls in the United States.  

This is also a piece that considers how and why the NoVo-funded "End Demand Illinois" campaign, which is fast emerging as a national model for addressing domestic sex trafficking, has been so effective. "End Demand" is being driven by a handful of Illinois based agencies and CounterQuo partners, which is yet another reason why this is of interest.

 A special thanks De Gray and our allies at Human Rights Watch for connecting us to Mimi and her beautiful, important film.  Here's hoping that it can be a force for global and local change.   

Shining a Light on the Global Epidemic of Sex Trafficking and Sex Tourism

By Katie Feifer

Recent news about U.S. Secret Service men patronizing prostituted women and girls while in Colombia advancing a trip for the President has brought the bright light of media attention to the global problem of sex trafficking and sex tourism.

Thankfully, in the midst of media coverage that seems aimed at titillation or attempts to discredit the President or the Secret Service, we are seeing blogs and articles that steer our attention where it really ought to be: on the global epidemic that is sex trafficking and sex tourism.

Men are buying thousands and thousands of prostituted men, women and children who are little more than slaves: indentured, tortured, and forced to work against their will in a multi-billion dollar industry that is highly profitable to those who control the prostituted people.

We appreciate media coverage like the article by Rachel Durchslag of Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation (CAASE) in Huffingtonpost.com that rightly calls us to action to stop the demand for prostituted women, girls, boys and men. Those men who buy children or adults for sex, whether in Colombia, Thailand or Chicago, must be stopped. Their behavior is morally reprehensible and criminal – never ever something any of us should condone. And by staying silent about their behavior, we are condoning it.

And we are glad to see articles like the one in USA Today by Kirstin Powers decrying our lack of outrage: “We have a global epidemic of sex trafficking, and President Obama and members of Congress should take this opportunity to express the outrage that should be the natural reaction to slavery.”

And so should we all.