How CAASE Empowers Young Men to End Sexual Exploitation

By Caleb Probst, CAASE Education Outreach Associate

I was asked to come into a high school in Chicago to work with their 9th grade boys. The school indicated that they were troubled by the behavior exhibited in the halls by some of the boys toward some of the girls, and thought the boys would benefit from going through our program. At the start of the first day, I asked the boys to write down words they would use to describe “a prostitute.” The majority of the responses were words like, “slut,” “hoe,” “THOT” (That Hoe Out There), “easy,” “nasty,” “dirty,” and “worthless.” Many of these words were the same words that the administration reported hearing directed at the girls in the school. At the end of the 4-session program, the boys had a new perspective. They really understood how different the realities of prostitution were from the myths they were accustomed to hearing and how many prostituted people endure violence, poverty, and trauma. They also learned about about how society frequently shames and isolates people in prostitution.

As these young men went through our 4-session program, they had an opportunity to examine what they know about “being a man” and think critically about how those shared perceptions influence their own decision making. They also had a chance to consider how their behavior, and the behavior of their peers, can impact their community. One student wrote, “I’ve learned that men treat women like crap, they use them as an object… I know that this puts girls in danger of becoming a prostitute.” He and his classmates began to see that objectifying women and degrading them with words like “slut” can have serious consequences. When asked how girls end up in prostitution, many responded with “they had a traumatized life,” “they had a rough childhood,” or “[society says] they have less power.”

Now, not every girl who is objectified and degraded will end up being commercially sexually exploited, and these young men acknowledged that. But as one student said, “we [never] know her story.” At the end of the final session, I asked the young men if there was anything that they would do differently now, based on what they had learned during the program. The two most common responses were “I will stop saying words like ‘thot’” and “I am going to respect women more.”

School is out for the summer now, but there's hope yet for these young men who have just begun their journey to better understanding and respect for their female peers.

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.

"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.   

Will the Real Men Out There Please Stand Up?

This was originally published in HumanGoods, dedicated to understanding today’s global slave trade, by Samir Goswami.

On August 24, actor Ashton Kutcher went on The Late Show with David Letterman to promote his new role in the CBS sitcom Two and a Half Men. For those of us dedicated to the anti- human trafficking movement, this in itself was an interesting career choice for Kutcher. He’s replacing Charlie Sheen, who played the role of a hapless womanizer who often frequented strip clubs and paid women for sex. As in real life, on Two and a Half Men, Charlie Sheen was a John.

Over the past few years, Kutcher has explicitly pronounced himself a “real man,” which he publicly defines as someone who does not pay for commercial sex because prostituted girls are victims of human trafficking. He doesn’t believe that girls should be bought and sold for male gratification.

In his interview with Letterman, however, Kutcher admitted to enjoying “the live thing” when asked whether he preferred “strippers or porn stars.” It is not controversial to state that strip clubs and pornography commodify the female body; in fact that is their commercial purpose. However, Kutcher’s professed preference for “the live thing” should raise some eyebrows.

Kutcher is a co-founder of the DNA Foundation, whose mission is “to raise awareness about child sex slavery, change the cultural stereotypes that facilitate this horrific problem, and rehabilitate innocent victims.” For the past few years, Kutcher and his wife and co-founder of the foundation, actress Demi Moore, have been raising funds and awareness about human trafficking.  Together they have made numerous appearances on TV and at forums, particularly denouncing child sex slavery—and men’s demand for it—as part of their stated efforts to “change the cultural stereotypes that facilitate this horrific problem.”

Kutcher often tweets about the issue to his million plus followers and was a driving force behind the foundation’s “Real Men Don’t Buy Girls” PSA campaign, an effort to discourage men from buying sex. “The ‘Real Men Don’t Buy Girls Campaign’,” the Huffington Post noted, “contains a message he [Kutcher] hopes people are willing to pass around; one that specifically addresses the male psyche, while also being entertaining and informative. ‘Once someone goes on record saying they are or aren’t going to do something, they tend to be a bit more accountable,’ says Kutcher. ‘We wanted to make something akin to a pledge: ‘real men don’t buy girls, and I am a real man.’’

Although opinions about the efficacy of this campaign vary, Kutcher’s involvement in anti-trafficking efforts has been welcome, celebrated, and seemingly authentic. Before embarking on his advocacy, Kutcher took the time to learn: He read the research, talked to women and girls who had been trafficked, and consulted with NGO and government experts. He has spoken eloquently and knowledgeably about the issue in most of his public appearances. In short, Kutcher used his fame and charm to educate and model positive male behavior that redefines masculinity as respecting women—not commodifying them.

He has positioned himself as the anti-Charlie Sheen.

On his show, David Letterman predictably asked Kutcher a “gotcha question”: “Do you prefer strippers or porn stars?”

After a pause and a chuckle, Kutcher responded, “I have a foundation that fights human trafficking, and neither of those qualify as human trafficking. You know the live thing is nice, there’s nothing wrong with a live show.”

Not all prostitution or other commercial sexual services like stripping, aka “the live thing,” are connected to sex trafficking. However, Kutcher’s foundation recognizes a link in stating, “Men, women and children are enslaved for many purposes including sex, pornography, forced labor and indentured servitude.” The DNA Foundation’s website links to various studies and research reports that document significant connections between human trafficking and “the live thing.” Law enforcement officials throughout the country are increasingly recognizing this connection as they listen to survivors who tell us that, yes—they were indeed trafficked against their will to gratify men in strip clubs, massage parlors, and escort agencies. As a result of this evidence, state governments are clamoring to create public policies that ensure potential victims, wherever they are exploited, have a real opportunity to identify themselves as such.

I am not a famous person. The paparazzi do not follow me. I have never been in a situation where millions watch me as I respond to a “gotcha” question. However, as a longtime advocate for exploited women and girls, I have spoken to many survivors who were trafficked through strip clubs and used in pornography, and I frequently speak about their exploitation at public events. I have often had to defend my own definition of masculinity, one that is not predicated upon the Hobson’s choice of “strippers or porn stars.”

We tolerate, in public discourse, a willful ignorance of the role that men who pay for sexual experiences play in fueling the human trafficking industry. We fear that any condemnation will be labeled anti-sex. It’s difficult to go against this grain and take a principled but unpopular stance—one that contradicts an accepted norm that purposefully makes invisible the real harm done to real people for profit.

But difficulty is not an excuse. I don’t have the public pressures that Kutcher’s fame stimulates and I also don’t have the same opportunities. Kutcher has taken this fame and molded it for the positive, and I respect him for that. He carved out a well-informed role for himself in a movement dedicated to ending slavery.  Although there are many who may not agree with his tactics, most appreciate him as someone who has tried to inform—and inspire—men who are unaware of the venues through which women get trafficked. Kutcher went beyond just talking about the how and the where, but challenged conventional definitions of masculinity itself. That is the tremendous value Kutcher brings to this movement.

And that is why I really wish that when the momentous opportunity presented itself, Kutcher would have stood up as the “real man” he professes to be. I wish that he would have challenged David Letterman for asking a question that trivializes the experiences of many trafficking survivors, whose stories have moved Kutcher to action. I wish he would have explained to Letterman that patronizing strip clubs supports an industry that perpetuates the consumption of women’s bodies and regularly profits from the trafficking of young girls—which goes against his definition of what a “real man” is.

Strip clubs monetize engrained male attitudes toward women by offering men access to them for a fee. Kutcher could have implicated these attitudes, instead of supporting them, by explaining the close connection between men’s desire for (and language about) paid access to viewing and touching women’s bodies, and the millions of women and girls for sale worldwide.

However, Kutcher’s response to Letterman’s impossible question betrayed a troubling ignorance that is not founded in a man who actually has taken the time to listen and learn. No one expects him to have it all figured out, but it’s not unreasonable to expect a modicum of courage to express a higher sense of awareness and sensibility, or at least an honest admission of confusion.

Sexuality is complex and confusing. We are all attracted to and stimulated by other physical bodies for various and often inexplicable reasons. Those of us who profess to be defenders of human rights, and gain considerable attention and favor for it, have to hold ourselves to a high standard of introspection and public accountability. Kutcher didn’t just lower that bar for himself.  He broke it.  Along with it, I suspect that he also broke the trust and admiration of many in the anti-trafficking movement.

Sexual attraction may be challenging and situational. Respect for women should not be.

Some Perspectives on Sexual Assault and Workplace Harrasment Among Immigrant Women

By Katie Feifer

The allegations of sexual assault made against Dominique Strauss-Kahn by an African immigrant working as a hotel maid should help focus our nation's attention on the danger and the vulnerability they face working in this country. Our earlier blog post, written and informed by several CounterQuo members, touches on that aspect of the case, as part of our broader perspective on where our public reaction misses the reality of sexual assault.

Two recent pieces, one by CounterQuo founding member Monica Ramirez of the Southern Poverty Law Center, and another by Betsy Reed printed in The Nation, shine the spotlight on how deeply vulnerable immigrant women are to sexual assault and workplace harassment, and how their situation - limited English, lack of credibility with authorities in this country, fear of losing their job or worse - conspire against their ability to remain safe or to see perpetrators of injustice against them held accountable.

We are troubled at reports of victimization of women by men who hold power over them. However, we have a responsibility to use the stories of these cases to help us all learn what these women face.  It's a first step to taking action to remedy a disgraceful situation.