The new face of human slavery

Thai-gogo-girlsMen want sex; some men are willing to pay for it. Recognizing a financial opportunity, some women enter into the sex trades or pornographic films hoping to make money. Hollywood has helped ease our consciences about prostitution with tales of bright and pretty entrepreneurs armed with a business plan to make a killing and quit the business young and rich.

So when the US Secret Service was rocked by the news that some of its agents, while on foreign assignment to protect the President, trolled strip clubs and brought women back to their hotel rooms, there was outrage but not much surprise. It would be naïve to think that such things haven’t happened before.

It was a story of men behaving badly. As for the women, the assumption seems to be that they were young entrepreneurs earning a living in a trade that has been practiced for thousands of years.

But there might be more to the story. Most of the world’s sex workers do not sell themselves willingly. They are forced to do so by abusive boyfriends, or to feed expensive drug habits, or out of pressure to raise their families out of poverty. In too many cases, they are bought, sold and traded like used clothing, caught up in the web of the worldwide demand for anonymous, unskilled laborers and sex workers known as human trafficking.

Olga, 23, came to Dubai from Moldova on a visitor visa after hearing about a job opportunity there. A Russian woman and an Indian man picked her up at the airport when she arrived. They took her to their apartment and told her she would instead be prostituted. When she refused, they beat her and threatened to kill her and bury her in the desert. They threatened to harm her if she did not pay them back for her travel expenses, and then sent Olga to a local hotel to meet customers and collect money from them. — from “Trafficking in Persons 2011,” US State Department

I have just returned from a trip to Thailand and wrote here about some of my experiences. As a tourist, you tend to experience a country and its people superficially; you come away from a visit with quick impressions that fail to take into account a culture’s complexities and the darkness that can hide beneath the surface.

I got a few glimpses of those hidden realities at a Thai restaurant where a middle-aged, silver-haired German man was ordering every expensive item on the menu for his young Thai “date,” and earlier that same day when an Australian man walked out of my hotel in the arms of a fashionably dressed Thai woman one-third his age.

As I strolled the city in the evenings, I would walk past the ‘go-go bars’ where young women in short skirts sat perched on sidewalk bar stools, waiting to be chosen by the parade of young men stopping to look them over.

Thailand is one of the world’s hot sex tourism destinations, an industry which thrives thanks to Thailand’s major human trafficking problem. The US State Department has placed Thailand on its “tier 2 watch list,” a recognition that the problem there is large, growing, and is not being addressed effectively by either the government or the courts.

Poor immigrants from neighboring Burma, Laos and Cambodia come looking for jobs. Lacking any legal standing, they are easily entrapped as laborers in sweatshops or on fishing boats. Many report being threatened and physically abused. Some have been murdered. Thousands more are forced into Thailand’s sex trades.

Maira was 15 when two well-dressed men driving a nice car approached her and two friends in a small Honduran village. They told the girls they were businessmen and offered to take them to the United States to work in a textile factory. Maira thought it was the perfect opportunity to help her single mother, who struggled to support seven children.

But upon arriving in Houston, the girls were held captive, beaten, raped, and forced to work in cantinas that doubled as brothels. … The captors beat the girls daily if they did not make enough money.

After six years, Maira was able to escape the cantina and return to her mother with the help of a kind American family. Her two friends remain missing. — from “Trafficking in Persons 2011,” US State Department

Human trafficking is growing at alarming rates here in the US, too, as a recent BBC report documents. Mexican and Central American women are being lured to the US with the promise of jobs and forced instead into sexual slavery. Pimps advertise their services by handing out fliers on New York City sidewalks.

Pimps use a variety of psychological methods, sometimes referred to as “seasoning” or “grooming,” to gain full control. They recruit vulnerable women or girls, pretend to be in love with them, ply them with alcohol or drugs, build their dependencies for basic needs or chemical escapes, place other women in supervisory roles over them and encourage them to compete for affection and favor, use an interlocking system of reward and punishment reminiscent of a battering relationship, and threaten their recruits with the shame of their families and a punitive, rather than protective, law enforcement response. — from “Trafficking in Persons 2011,” US State Department

America’s human trafficking problem is a natural, predictable consequence of our lax immigration policies. When men and women enter the US illegally looking for work, they are forced to enter the shady, underground economy where payments for services are kept off the books. They cannot complain about their treatment to the authorities without risking deportation. The weakest of these — primarily women — wind up in the hands of criminals who force them into prostitution. In a place where they don’t speak the language, where they have no friends, and where they fear the authorities, thousands of these strangers are forced into slavery in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Phoenix… in every major US city, right under our noses.

As long as we permit a porous border, as long as our immigration policies fail to provide people who want to work with the legal protections of a guest worker visa, we can expect tens of thousands to continue to risk their lives to get here, and we can expect many of them to become the easy victims of criminals eager to exploit their vulnerabilities.

Because of budget cuts, law enforcement agencies in many cities have cut back their vice departments. Human trafficking flourishes because the victims come from far away places with funny names and have no one pounding on the doors of the local police station looking for them.

That could change, if in every city in America, good men and women decided to become informed about the problem of human trafficking. It will change when good men and women begin asking questions of government and law enforcement about their priorities, about what they are doing to ensure that the weak, the young, and the foreigners among us are not exploited.

It isn’t enough just to live rightly. Eliminating the scourge of human trafficking requires good men and women to educated themselves, and to have the courage to speak up for those who don’t have a voice.

If you are interested in learning more, here are some good places to start:

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes.
The US State Department Trafficking in Persons Report for 2011.
The FBI – Human Trafficking website
Street Light Tucson.
Not For Sale Campaign.

UPDATE:Municipal Court Judge Paul Herbert became increasingly convinced that the courts were not helping women caught up in prostitution find a way out. After a good deal of prayer, he established “CATCH Court” — Changing Attitudes to Change Habits, a two-year program to try to rehabilitate women and give them the skills, relationships and new habits needed to start a new life. Christianity Today has a great article on Herbert’s work and this innovative program here.

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  1. Marie Griffin says

    How often do we hear that prostitution should be legalized because it is a “victim less” crime? This “selling” point has been used for decades to try to get this law passed. Prostitution is anything but a victim less crime. Wives and families of the “johns” and worst of all, the women and children that are sold into the sex slave trade are not “victim less”. I urge you to take a stand on this crime, we can only ignore it for so long before it shows up at our own doorstep perhaps through one of our own family members.

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