The Politics Sex of Trafficking

Pres. Barack Obama proclaimed January 2013 National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month.  “This month, we rededicate ourselves to stopping one of the greatest human rights abuses of our time,“ he declared.  “Around the world, millions of men, women, and children are bought, sold, beaten, and abused, locked in compelled service and hidden in darkness. They toil in factories and fields; in brothels and sweatshops; at sea, abroad, and at home. They are the victims of human trafficking — a crime that amounts to modern-day slavery.”

Human trafficking is a worldwide phenomenon, postmodern slavery.  Reports about victims of trafficking, whether taking place internationally or in the U.S., regularly appear in the media. Horror stories and photos of young victims and testimonials from “rescued” kids appear in news articles, TV shows, movies, websites, academic studies and government reports.

These depictions emphasize the human suffering of near-powerless “slaves” forced to work in agriculture, manufacturing, construction, retail and domestic service.  The most exploited are those involved in commercial sex, especially young women and underage girls.  It is a horrendous practice and fuels justified outrage among people – and politicians — the world over.

The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that some 20.9 million individuals are victims of forced labor, including trafficking.  A February 2013 report by the Congressional Research Service (CRS), “Trafficking in Persons: U.S. Policy and Issues for Congress,” estimates that “as many as 17,500 people are believed to be trafficked into the United States each year, and some have estimated that 100,000 U.S. citizen children are victims of trafficking within the United States.”

The CRS notes: “Trafficking victims are often subjected to mental and physical abuse in order to control them, including debt bondage, social isolation, removal of identification cards and travel documents, violence, and fear of reprisals against them or their families.”  Sex trafficking is a horrible practice.  Victims are forced to perform in a variety of venues, including residential brothels, “hostess clubs” or “room salons,” fake massage studios, outcall escort service, strip or “gentlemen’s” clubs and in old-fashioned street prostitution.

Unfortunately, the true number of people trafficked in the sex trade, especially young women, is difficult to determine. Where do the CRS’s estimates of 17,500 people trafficked and the 100,000 young people trafficked in the U.S. come from?

The CRS acknowledges that the estimates of 14,500 to 17,500 “first appeared in the 2004 report, Assessment of U.S. Government Activities to Combat Trafficking in Persons.”  It warns, “due to the nature of human trafficking, it is difficult to estimate the number of trafficking victims in the United States.”  And it concludes even more cautiously, “comprehensive research on the number of children in the United States who are victims of sex trafficking does not exist. …”

And what about the 100,000 young people?  As recently as July 8th, US News reiterated this estimate, claiming, “Human trafficking is a $9.8 billion domestic industry, with at least 100,000 children being used as prostitutes in America each year ….”  It cites Shared Hope, an organization founded by Linda Smith, a conservative Republican activists, as the source for the figure.  The organization’s website claims: “At least 100,000 American children are being exploited through pornography or prostitution every year.”  Unfortunately, it neither provides a breakout between pornography and prostitution, nor the source for the claim.

Sadly, sex in America is political and so too is sex trafficking.

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The battle against the sex trafficking of underage girls (and some boys) has, over the last decade or so, become a human-rights issue.  The U.S. government and the United Nations have taken it up.  Hollywood personalities like Ashley Judd, Ashton Kutcher, Beyonce, Demi Moore and Halle Berry are active public voices drawing attention to the issue.

Moviemakers have also taken up the cause.  Recent releases like Not Today, featuring Cody Longo and John Schneider, examines trafficking in India and Trade of Innocents focuses on Cambodia.  Megan Griffiths’ 2012 feature, Eden, is the story of Korean-American woman kidnapped and sold into sex slavery in the U.S.  And Selma Hayek produced and directed Nada Se Compara (Nothing Compares) that stars Jada Pinkett Smith who sings in Spanish.  Not surprising, a series of action-adventures films starring Liam Neeson, Taken, Taken 2 and Trade, demonstrate, in the words of movie reviewer Rachel Redfern, “the general kick-ass, uber-masculine, damsel-in-distress saving, action star.”  Also joining the chorus of concern about sex trafficking are various religious organizations from across the denominational spectrum, including Evangelicals, Catholics and Jews. Even Major League baseball players are standing up against trafficking.

Things were different in 2000.  Historically, the FBI did not investigate prostitution but left it to state and local law enforcement.  Under Pres. Bill Clinton, Congress passed the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act (TVPA); it created the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons within the State Department.  According to Ronald Weitzer, a sociology professor at George Washington University, neither the Clinton administration nor the Act “distinguished forced and voluntary prostitution, did not link prostitution to trafficking, did not claim that legal prostitution increases trafficking into a country, and resisted mandatory sanctions against nations with poor records in combating trafficking.”

The world changed during George H. Bush’s two-term presidency from 2001 to 2008.  The fear of sex was institutionalized, becoming a central concern of an administration brought to power with the active support of the Christian right.  Numerous conservative and religious groups coalesced under the culture-wars banner.  Wars were waged not only against a woman’s right to an abortion and homosexuality, but also birth control, teen sex education, pornography (especially over the Internet) and commercial sex.

The sex trafficking of underage girls came to epitomize the nation’s moral crisis.  Key Bush administration advisors included Laura Lederer, a prominent anti-pornography activist who founded the anti-trafficking organization Protection Project in the 1990s, and Linda Smith, a former Republican congresswoman who founded Shared Hope in 1998 to “rescue” trafficked women throughout the world.  Sex slavery became the new “white slavery” of the 1910s.

In 2002, Bush brought the issue of sex trafficking before the United Nations, declaring: “… hundreds of thousands of teenage girls, and others as young as five, … fall victim to the sex trade. … Those who patronize this industry debase themselves and deepen the misery of others.”

In 2003, the Bush administration joined the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) and the Department of Justice’s Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section (CEOS) to establish the Innocence Lost National Initiative.  Its purpose was to combat the alleged growing problem of commercial sex involving underage girls and boys.

During the Bush era, the federal government awarded more than $300 million to international and domestic NGOs involved in fighting trafficking and prostitution.  Among the organizations receiving funding were rightwing “feminist” groups like the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW), Protection Project and SAGE) and Standing Against Global Exploitation (SAGE) as well as faith-based groups like the Catholic Conference of Bishops, Salvation Army, International Justice Mission, World Vision and Shared Hope International.

A decade later, in 2013, the FBI reports that its war against trafficking established “66 dedicated task forces and working groups throughout the U.S. involving federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies working in tandem with U.S. Attorney’s Offices.”  Over this period, it spearheaded repeated street-level campaigns against prostitution and sex trafficking, most notably Operation Cross Country (OCC).

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In 2011, the CRS issued a revealing report, “Sex Trafficking of Children in the United States: Overview and Issues for Congress.”  It warns, “The exact number of child victims of sex trafficking in the United States is unknown because comprehensive research and scientific data are lacking.”

Nevertheless, the report identifies a number of factors contributing to trafficking, including runaway and “thrown-away” children.  It also identifies still other factors, including: a young person’s prior history of child sexual abuse and child sexual assault; poverty; the presence of large numbers of unattached and transient males; gang membership; organized crime; and foreign trafficking into the U.S.

The Justice Department estimates that, each year, nearly 450,000 children run away from their homes and that one-third of teenagers living on the street will be lured into prostitution.  Clearly, underage prostitution – whether “consensual” or due to sex slavery – is a real problem.

The CRS report is most revealing when assessing the fate of those young people “rescued” from the sex trade.  In no uncertain terms it states: “Of note, specialized services and support for minor victims of sex trafficking are limited. Nationwide, organizations specializing in support for these victims collectively have fewer than 50 beds. Other facilities, such as runaway and homeless youth shelters and foster care homes, may not be able to adequately meet the needs of victims or keep them from pimps/ traffickers and other abusers.”

Kristin Hinman, writing in the Village Voice in 2011, reveals how the politics of sex trafficking plays out in one locale, Atlanta, GA.  She documents the experience of Mary Finn, a professor of criminal justice at Georgia State University, who had received a $452,000 grant from the Justice Dept. to assess a child-prostitution survey that “would be exposed as entirely bogus an discounted by a veritable who’s who of child-prostitution researchers.”  Hinman reveals how the nonprofit groups behind the study shared an agenda to statistically jigger the findings to conform to the popular belief that exploited children range “anywhere from tens of thousand to three million.”

Emi Koyama, who blogs at, finds the type of intellectual dishonesty widespread. “Anti-trafficking advocates too often neglect decades of development within the anti-domestic violence movement that can and should inform our approach to assisting youth and adults in the sex trade,” she notes.  She adds, “we need to stop spending millions of dollars in these useless law enforcement campaigns and use that money to fix social institutions that fail youth in the first place.”

In April 2013, the White House announced plans to strengthening its commitment to fight trafficking. “The Administration will also present new private sector partnerships in support of law enforcement efforts to combat child sex trafficking in three major jurisdictions, as well research and tools to help law enforcement better identify children sold online,” it announced.  To date, no new initiatives have been announced; the wheels of bureaucracy grind slowly.

A century ago, Christian moralists were offended by the provocative sexual liberties of the “new woman” and fearful of the black man.  They were threatened by her adoption of makeup (especially lipstick), shorter dresses without a corset, bathing suits, hair bobbing and cigarette smoking.  These new women knew about birth control and enjoyed kissing, but didn’t engage in premarital intercourse.  Women benefited from better education, wages and the vote.

In 1910, the Christian right forced Congress to pass the Mann Act, a law intended to halt interstate commercial sex or what was known as “white slavery.”  The Justice Dept.’s most famous “white slavery” case involved the very black heavyweight-boxing champion, Jack Johnson.  The right also led campaigns that closed down 125 “red light districts” regulating “vice” (i.e., prostitution, gambling and drinking) throughout the country and, ultimately, led to the passage of the 18th Amendment establishing Prohibition.

Today, the latest round of the culture wars are running its course.  While vicious anti-abortion campaigns keep being played out in state legislations, the war against gay rights has faltered in the wake of Supreme Court decisions, federal government regulations at the Dept. of Defense and IRS, and the growing number of states permitting gay marriage.  Equally critical, the commercial sex industry – from porn to sex toys to prostitution – is estimated to generate $50 billion or more annually.

It’s time to rethink sex trafficking by addressing the underlying factors that lead many young people to get trapped in the sex racket.  First, officials should seriously consider decriminalizing sex work, especially involving young people.  To date, only about a dozen states, including New York, Minnesota, Connecticut and Massachusetts, have passed what are known as Safe Harbor laws that decriminalize young people arrested for prostitution.  Further, officials should seriously consider the “regulation” of commercial sex as a mean both to protect the health and safety of sex workers and to restrict – if not eliminate – sex trafficking.

Officials should also divert resources from the periodic street-level stunts like the FBI’s OCC campaigns and address the issue of household domestic violence which seems to be the leading indicator of young people running away from home and ending up in the sex trade.  Such action would help Americans get beyond the neo-puritanical, moralistic sex paradigm that has distorted healthy sexual life for the last four centuries.

David Rosen regularly contributes to AlterNet, Brooklyn Rail, Filmmaker and Huffington Post.  Check out; he can be reached at


David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at; check out