For those who plan to attend the upcoming Republican National Convention (RNC) in Tampa, FL, one of the unexpected giveaways you might be handed is a bar of soap. It will be given by a group called SOAP (Save Our Adolescents from Prostitution) Outreach as part of a campaign to draw attention to the issue of sex trafficking.
The person handing out the soap will likely be associated with a Christian conservative group, The Rachel Project, that seeks to “recover and restore” victims of sex trafficked. The campaign is lead by Marilyn Garcia, co-pastor of Tampa’s Legacy Church.
Some Christian activists are targeting the RNC because it is expected to attract, like other large public gathering, most notably the Super Bowl, a good number of male big-spenders looking for commercial sex. According to Ms. Garcia, “What we do know is that an event of this size means we’ll have a substantial number (of women) being trafficked. And that’s just something not talked about.”
Tampa has a flourishing legal adult sex scene. Its most “famous” strip or gentlemen’s club is the all-nude, Mons Venus. Located just a short cab ride from the RNC, signs welcome visitors declaring, “Home of the Most Beautiful Women in the World” and “Live NUDE Shows.” Another club, the 2001 Odyssey, is located just across the street from the Mons Venus. If you are so inclined, these are the places to get started.
However, the owner of the Mons Venus, Joe Redner, is pessimistic about the RNC’s possible commercial opportunities. “I don’t expect the RNC to be as busy as Super Bowl,” he laments. “I don’t think those people are coming to party.” For moral rectitude, Mormonism seems more fundamentalists than other Christian denominations, orthodox or evangelical, let alone Catholics, Jews or Muslims.
Sex trafficking is defined as nonconsensual commercial sex resulting from force, fraud or coercion with an under-aged individual, someone under 18 years of age. It is a serious crime occurring in the U.S. and throughout the world. It is a part of a larger criminal enterprise, human trafficking or forced labor. The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that human trafficking generates $32 billion in profits annually.
Sex trafficking is a real, painful issue. No one really knows the true scale of trafficking taking place in the U.S. today. Terrible stories of young girls and women (and some boys) imprisoned and exploited by trafficking gangs regularly appear in the popular press. These media outlets repeatedly state that between 100,000 and 300,00 juveniles are annual victims of forced prostitution. State legislatures throughout the country are passing laws to outlaw, to stiffen penalties for trafficking convictions and/or to help victims. The federal government has committed millions of dollars to fighting sex trafficking.
But what is the real truth about sex trafficking? How many under-age victims are there? And why have so many moralists taken up the war against sex trafficking?
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In a 2011 exposé, The Washington Times repeated the widely shared assumption that “… the number of children sexually exploited in the U.S. or at risk of being exploited is between 100,000 and 300,000.” Going further, it cited an “expert,” Nathan Wilson of the Project Meridian Foundation, in Arlington, VA, who claims that 1.6 million children younger than 18 — native and foreign-born — have been caught up in the U.S. sex trade.
In the same article, however, Anne Milgram, a former high-ranking federal prosecutor who tried and oversaw sex trafficking cases, notes, “We know it is a really large number.” Adding a word of caution, she warns, “We know there are a lot of children being victimized. We just can’t tell you what number.”
The 100,000-plus figure is repeated by most of the leading anti-sex trafficking groups. The State Department reports that approximately 100,000 of trafficking victims are in the U.S. The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, along with the Polaris Project’s National Human Trafficking Resource Center and the Girls Educational and Mentoring Services, cite this number as well. So acceptable is the figure that last year, when celebrities Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore introduced their well-meaning video, “Real Men Don’t Buy Girls,” on CNN, Kutcher insisted, “It’s between 100,000 and 300,000 child sex slaves in the United States today.”
This same estimate was used to justify a new Washington State law targeting publications that have sex-related ads depicting “children.” The law, signed by Gov. Chris Gregoire and passed unanimously by the state legislature, is targeted Backpage, a website owned by the Village Voice and that has replaced Craigslist for listings of sex-related services.
Tracy Clark-Flory, writing at Salon about Washington’s new censorship law, identifies four safeguards that could help limit sex-trafficking listings. First, Backpage uses a secure payment method in which all adult ad postings are paid with a valid credit card number; this information can be easily subpoenaed. Second, it uses an automated filter system to identify and restrict censored words and phrases. Third, the company insists that staff reviews the adult and personal sections before they’re posted. Finally, the company reports suspect ads to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. She argues in favor of surgical censorship of suspect materials over killing the site and the “legal” communications between consenting adults.
Gov. Gregoire, a Democrat, is leading the charge for moral rectitude. The war against sex trafficking unites Democrats and Republicans, Christian conservatives and liberal secularists. They are united in a common belief that, in the U.S., hundred of thousand of young people are (or are “at risk” of being) recruited, imprisoned and exploited in sex trafficking schemes. Gov. Gregorie wants Washington’s law adopted by the other 49 states.
The unasked questions are simple: Where did the 100,00-plus estimate of youthful (or “at risk”) victims come from? And is it accurate?
Richard J. Estes and Neil Alan Weiner, two academic researchers, originally proposed the estimate in a 2001 paper, “The Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children In the U. S., Canada and Mexico.” Their warning has long been forgotten: “The numbers presented in these exhibits do not, therefore, reflect the actual number of cases in the United States but, rather, what we estimate to be the number of children ‘at risk’ of commercial sexual exploitation.”
The FBI’s website acknowledges the warning: “Although comprehensive research to document the number of children engaged in prostitution in the United States is lacking, an estimated 293,000 American youths currently are at risk of becoming victims of commercial sexual exploitation.” (The key words are “at risk.”)
Nevertheless, over the last decade, the 100,000-plus figure has been adopted as gospel, serving more a political than a scientific purpose. Like the war against child pornography that defined the Bush administration, the war against sex trafficking is Obama’s domestic morality war.
The 100,000 figure is based on little empirical substantiation. Most disconcerting, the Department of Justice reports: “Federally funded human trafficking task forces opened 2,515 suspected incidents of human trafficking for investigation between January 2008 and June 2010.” It goes further, “more than 1,000 incidents with allegations of prostitution or sexual exploitation of a child.”
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Whether 1,000 or 100,000 people, victims of sex trafficking suffer a horrendous existence. All the terrifying stories about girls being exploited that drive media revelations about sex trafficking are true. People, especially young girls and women, really suffer. The pimps, and the johns that use the girls, should be arrested and prosecuted to the fullest extend of the law. The actions of these abusers are shameful, truly immoral.
However, the war against sex trafficking serves two other, non-humanitarian ends. First, it’s a growth industry, an opportunity to make money. Second, it provides a cover to battle greater female sexuality much like the battle against the “white slave trade” of a century ago.
The federal government has been handing out grants worth millions to a variety of anti-trafficking groups. According to a 2011 Village Voice report, “in the past eight years, Congress has spent $200 million on child pornography in America and another $180 million on all domestic trafficking involving sex or labor.” In 2009, the Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) task forces made up of local and federal law enforcement agencies received $75 million to further investigations into child pornography and prostitution.
In 2010, some 100 groups received $21 million in federal monies to fight trafficking. Recipients included the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops ($4 million), Polaris Project ($800,000), Coalition to Abolish Slavery & Trafficking ($250,000), Church United for Community Development ($150,000) and the National Association of Evangelicals ($60,000).
The website, Women Against Violence, reports about 26 federal “grant-making agencies, portals to federal, local, and state government funding resources” can be pursued for support for sex-related efforts. Among the agencies it highlights are the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives and the Department Centers for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.
The sex-trafficking gravy train has attracted the attention of some of Washington, D.C., leading moneychangers. Most notable is former Rep. Tom DeLay who, earlier this year was outed by Political MoneyLine, who is lobbying for Argus Global LLC on sex-trafficking issues.
A century ago, Christian moralist railed against prostitution or what they called “white slavery” and succeeded in having Congress pass the Mann Act of 1910 barring interstate “sex trafficking.” The war against alleged interstate trafficking was part of the fin-de-siècle moralists battle against the profound changes remaking the nation. Old-line white, small town and rural America was being remade by new industrial capitalism. The local of this change were the urban centers witnessing explosive growth due recently arrived European immigrants and African-American southern migrants. Most threatening, however, was the “new woman,” the younger, urban women embracing “modernity” with its risqué fashions, hair-dos and makeup.
The erotic sensibility of the new woman changed the interpersonal dynamic of street and work life; it eroticized nightlife. Like painted ladies, prostitutes of old, new women stopped wearing corsets, had their skirt shortened, bobbed their hair, painted their faces and smoked. By the ‘20s, they had paying jobs and money in their pockets, they enjoyed jazz, danced and drank in speaks and they got the vote. Many knew about sex and birth control … and an increasing number enjoyed it.
The leading target in the supposed war against white slavery was the heavyweight-boxing champion, Jack Johnson. He won the legendary July 4, 1910, “fight of the century” against James the “Boilermaker” Jeffries. In 1912, the newly established federal Bureau of Investigation opened an inquiry into Johnson for violating the recently passed Mann Act. After flubbing an initial trial, the U.S. attorney general, George Wickersham, took up the campaign and finally convicted Johnson.
A century has passed since the first wars against sex trafficking and the issue has been redefined. A series of landmark Supreme Court decision over the last half-century — e.g., Loving v. Virginia (1967), Roe v. Wade (1972), Miller v. California(1973) and Reno v. ACLU (1997) — transformed the freedom of sexual expression and the personal sexual privacy rights of adults. In the face of these and other legal actions, moralists of all stripes have given up attempting to regulate adult, private, consensual, noncommercial sex.
Today, it’s not about adult white women forced into a life of prostitution, but the sexual exploitation of underage young people and women. For many conservatives, the issue of sex trafficking provides a cover to both fight prostitution among consenting adults as well as promote teen sexual abstinence. So, if you attend this year’s RNC, check out the soup you receive.
David Rosen is author of Sex Scandal America: Politics & the Ritual of Public Shaming; he writes the Media Current blog for Filmmaker. Check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.