Today’s Efforts to Combat Human Trafficking Reflect Historical Racism and Sexism

Melissa Ditmore

Trafficking in persons is often referred to as "modern-day slavery." Historical grounding confirms that the reference to slavery, while not exactly on point, is relevant.

Today is Human Trafficking Awareness Day and Rewire is featuring a series in collaboration with Race Talk to pay respect to those who’ve experienced this severe human rights abuse. The series, edited by Juhu Thukral, includes a look back at the history of anti-trafficking efforts and where they have led us, and thinking about the most effective path forward to prevent others from being trafficked.

As Juhu writes in her introduction to the series: “In order to think proactively about solutions to the problem of human trafficking, it is crucial to answer the most basic question of all: What exactly is trafficking in persons? Experts will weigh in with their answers and their ideas for future efforts, including some of the leading voices, thinkers, and practitioners on the issue of trafficking in persons. They include lawyers who represent trafficked persons on a daily basis, advocates who have pushed forward innovative policies over the last decade and more, and activists who have incorporated anti-trafficking issues into their intersecting fields.”

Current efforts to address trafficking in persons are both reminiscent of and informed by the history of slavery and trafficking in the United States and elsewhere. In fact, trafficking in persons is often referred to as “modern-day slavery.” Historical grounding confirms that the reference to slavery, while not exactly on point, is relevant.

Colonial American indentured servants in bonded labor were sometimes called “white slaves” because they were primarily (but not all) of European descent and contracted to work without wages for a specified duration. The work usually lasted five to seven years, sometimes as part of an agreement or punishment after being convicted of crimes. Chattel slavery was driven by the desire for cheap labor—and this reliance on cheap labor continues in modern economies. Captive, forced labor is now recognized as a human rights violation and outlawed around the world. However, slave-like work conditions exist in the contemporary world, despite the fact that such conditions have largely been criminalized.

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Modern-day slavery and chattel slavery both include recognized labor and sexual servitude. Chattel slaves in the United States who were sold for sexual purposes were called “fancy girls” or “fancy maids.” In the 19th century, white slavery was used to refer to wage labor rather than indentured servitude, and, eventually, forced prostitution, particularly of white women. The transformation of the meanings of the term “white slave” reflected diminished numbers of indentured servants, followed by a moral panic about white women forced into prostitution. White women were believed to “grieve” more than Black women forced into concubinage, raped, or enslaved in prostitution. This offensive perceived sexual and moral hierarchy informed anti-prostitution and anti-trafficking campaigns throughout the past century and a half, evident in racially disparate enforcement of such laws.

Slavery was abolished in the United States in 1865, but social and economic hierarchies based on race and wealth persist to this day. After the abolition of chattel slavery, panics about so-called white slavery led to new legislation focusing on sexual behavior. New laws were also driven by racial politics. These moral panics had racist aspects rooted in prejudices against increasing numbers of Jews and immigrants from southern Europe immigrating to the United States. In 1910, the Mann Act, also called the White Slave Traffic Act, was passed, setting the tone for the 20th century. Implementation of the Mann Act reflected racial and gender inequalities in new ways. The Mann act referred to “immoral acts” and travel across state lines. Women’s travel was effectively restricted if they intended to make interstate journeys to meet men they were romantically involved with, but men were also affected if they traveled with women across state lines. This aspect was used for political purposes and was used against Black men, especially Black men who were involved with white women. Jack Johnson was a Black boxer who fought white men and was involved with numerous white women. As I described in Prostitution and Sex Work:

Johnson was first tried for traveling between Minneapolis and Chicago in 1912 with Lucille Cameron, a white woman. She stated that she had been a prostitute before meeting Johnson and did not implicate Johnson in her leaving Minneapolis. He was acquitted, and they later married. Johnson, however, traveled with number of white women, and this led to another Mann Act case. Belle Schreiber was another prostitute involved with Johnson. In 1910, he gave her money to move to Chicago and to set up her own business. Johnson was convicted for transporting Schreiber in 1913. Racism was demonstrated in the verdict, although the trial may have been fair. Upon Johnson’s conviction, the prosecutor stated, “This negro, in the eyes of many, has been persecuted. Perhaps as an individual he was. But it was his misfortune to be the foremost example of the evil in permitting the intermarriage of whites and blacks.” This statement seems still more incredible when you consider that the case in question did not involve either of Johnson’s white wives, so the question of intermarriage did not technically arise.

Racist enforcement of the Mann Act continued through the 20th century, used most notoriously to prosecute musician Chuck Berry. The focus on sexuality as it related to the notion of slavery obscured labor rights violations and offered nothing to improve economic disparities. At the start of the 21st century, Congress passed the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act (TVPA), which emphasizes force, fraud, and coercion in labor and in sex work, using gender neutral language. The law also created programs to assist men and women whose rights have been violated.

But enforcement relies on the criminal justice system, which perpetuates the focus on sex and the focus on particular ethnicities, in this case, often Asians and Latinas. Most law enforcement raids have been focused on brothels or massage parlors (usually those employing Asian or Latina women) rather than workplaces like factories, slaughterhouses, and corporate farms, the kinds of sites where the largest cases of labor violations have been identified. And yet the emphasis on brothels or other related venues is not actually useful for identifying people who have been abused in sex work settings: The Sex Workers Project interviewed immigrant women who had been trafficked, and found that

Sixty percent, or 9 of the 15 women, had been arrested in local police raids. The number of arrests by local police experienced by individual women ranged from one to ten. None had been identified as trafficked by local law enforcement following a raid, despite the fact that 7 of these 9 women self-identified as trafficked. Only 1 had been asked whether she was coerced into sex work following arrest by local law enforcement.

This quote makes clear that even in raids looking for victims of crime, law enforcement officers approach people in the sex industry as criminals first and foremost. In the same report, service providers and advocates who assist trafficked persons described a racial approach by law enforcement in the form of a focus on Korean brothels in particular.

Current criminal justice models have proven to be inadequate for assisting victims of crimes specifically because they replicate the punitive and racially driven models of indentured servitude and chattel slavery and the sexist and racist uses of the Mann Act. These new permutations reflect not the needs of the people who have been hurt in modern-day slavery but the desires of people who claim to want to help others. The problem arises because no one has asked the people they claim to seek to help what would be truly helpful. A rights-based approach to human rights violations would prioritize the needs and desires of people who have been victimized over criminal justice, and could thereby avoid replicating and reifying racial inequities.

Commentary Race

Loving Day, Juneteenth, and the Right to Family

Cynthia Greenlee

The anniversary of the Loving case on June 12 and Juneteenth on the 19th should remind us that, within the African-American freedom struggle and broader movements for equality, there has always been a struggle to determine the right to marry, select an intimate partner of one’s choice, and to form the families that we want.

This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.

In June, I celebrate two commemorations that may not make it onto standard calendars of holidays and observances: Loving Day on the 12th and Juneteenth on the 19th.

Each of these days should remind us that, within the African-American freedom struggle and broader movements for equality, there has always been a struggle to determine the right to marry, select an intimate partner of one’s choice, and to form the families that we want.

On June 12, 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Loving v. Virginia that Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act, a 1924 law that banned marriages between whites and “coloreds,” was unconstitutional. That law made illegal all formalized unions between whites and non-whites, including Blacks and American Indians. Blatantly eugenic in nature, the act aimed to maintain the purity of whites and accomplish the impossible and retroactive task of “genetic segregation” of populations that had been intermingling since Jamestown and the arrival of the first Africans to the shores of what would become Virginia, in 1619.

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Almost a century earlier, on June 19, 1865, Union troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, bearing news that the Emancipation Proclamation had ended slavery in the rebelling territories more than two years prior. Though there are multiple stories about why such important news hadn’t trickled down to the enslaved people there, a Union General read a decree that there was to be “absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves.” (Well, not really: The rest of the executive order came with the warning that the freed people were expected to remain quiet and at the places where they were enslaved, to work for wages and for the very people who had just owned them, and would not be “supported in idleness”—setting up a labor system stacked against them and to the benefit of literate ex-masters with few scruples about using violence.)

So what does Juneteenth have to do with Loving Day? In the Loving case, Mildred Jeter, a woman of mixed Black-white-Indian ancestry, and her white partner, Richard Loving, had married secretly in Washington, D.C., in the late 1950s.

Mildred, 18 and pregnant with the couple’s first child, and Richard knew they were violating the law in their home state, and Richard snuck into their house under the cover of dark. A tip alerted police that the Lovings were in the house, and during a nighttime raid in which officers hoped to catch the couple in flagrante, the Lovings showed their marriage certificate.

Under the law, their union was null and void, and no marital rights accrued to them. Their children were considered “illegitimate” and also living evidence that the couple had crossed racial boundaries the law was meant to reinforce. Mildred and Richard Loving were sentenced to a year in jail. A local judge offered to suspend the jail time if the couple agreed to leave the state.

The Lovings lived in a world that slavery and its offspring, segregation, had made. When Galveston’s enslaved people danced in the streets upon learning of their freedom in 1865, that freedom came with some marriage rights but not others. The enslaved hadn’t been able to seek a legal marriage; after all, property could not make binding decisions or marry other property. After freedom, marriages that began under slavery became recognized under law. But not all marriages were legal. Citizens of the post-Civil War world were in the midst of a massive social, economic, and legal shakeup. In states nationwide, legislatures debated whether their state constitutions would allow “social equality”—code for interracial marriage. Allowing interracial marriage would change the political landscape and, literally, the complexion of this newly unified nation. Some states seesawed between permitting interracial marriages; South Carolina’s 1868 constitution was mute on interracial marriage, but its 1895 version banned them explicitly.

Politicians and pundits also knew that interracial relationships were nothing new; states that banned Black-white marriage often failed to ban nonmarital interracial sexuality—likely an intentional loophole.

The Lovings’ own state, Virginia, began passing laws against interracial relationships between enslaved people and whites in the late 1600s because such contact inevitably produced a mixed-race population of uncertain status. As historian Martha Hodes has written, interracial marriages and unions occurred from the early colonial period to the 19th century in places like Maryland’s Eastern Shore, where white women indentured servants literally gave up their freedom due to relationships with Black enslaved men.

That’s not to say that, particularly in the post-Civil War South, interracial relationships, much less marriage, was always met with approval. Before local police busted in on the Lovings, Black-white couples were routinely charged with fornication and heavily fined in local courts nationwide. Particularly unlucky interracial families got unwelcome visits from the Ku Klux Klan or other groups of violent white supremacists. A September 1885 New York Times article recounted the persecution of the Davis family of Fairfield County, South Carolina; Tom Davis, a prominent white landowner worth $45,000, left his property and his biracial family for Mississippi when vigilantes intent on stamping out “miscegenation” attacked his homestead.

Nor is it to say that the tangled issue of interracial marriage applied only to Blacks and whites. Western states frequently disallowed marriages between Asians and whites. In 1948, one of the important precedents for Loving came from the Supreme Court of California, affirming a marriage between a Mexican-American woman (classified as white) and a Black man. In that case, Perez v. Sharp, the justices upheld that marriage is a fundamental right that cannot be circumscribed by racial prejudice.

So on Loving Day, I take the name of the landmark case as an exhortation to be more loving and to uphold the couple’s legacy of fighting for the right to partner with whom and when we all choose.

Commentary Human Rights

Sex Work or Human Trafficking? Race and Imperialism in CNN Report From Cambodia

Anne Elizabeth Moore

In a December report from Cambodia, CNN failed to distinguish between consensual sex work and human trafficking, and did nothing to help viewers see how anti-human trafficking initiatives really work under globalization: as acts of cultural imperialism.

“Roaches scatter when the light comes,” Mira Sorvino says in a December video report for CNN, describing a group of shirtless brown-skinned men, faces blurred for the camera, who decline consent to be filmed by getting up and going inside as her videography crew approaches. This group of men weathered the illegal bombing of their country, Cambodia, by her country, the United States, and then survived mass killings under the Khmer Rouge and two decades of civil war after that, all of which left the country so impoverished that people there currently live on about two dollars a day, or less than half the living wage. Sorvino has no sympathy, however, and she doubles down: “Roaches and rats scatter when the light comes,” she says angrily. Her comparison of these men to two of the world’s most hated creatures would, in other contexts, be seen as full-on racist imperialism, but Sorvino feels justified using the slurs because Don Brewster, a white human trafficking abolitionist living in Cambodia, told her these men are sex traffickers. And she believes him.

“It’s not OK to sell children to pedophiles,” she says to the men, who she has already learned do not speak English. “Protect your children. Do not hurt your children. Protect them.”

“I can’t deal with the reality of it,” she says finally, walking away from the scattered group of men. But she has dealt with no reality whatsoever—only rumor.

More Than Gender

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In January, Soraya Chemaly wrote a thoughtful and necessary response to the CNN report, focusing on the accompanying written story, “The Women Who Sold Their Daughters Into the Sex Trade,” and not the above-described video. Chemaly rightly called out the news organization for skimping on the facts in a rush to present a market-ready savior narrative. “The piece seemed to want us to know that Cambodian mothers are doing terrible things to their daughters, but that help, in the form of a nice American man, is on the way,” Chemaly wrote.

Chemaly correctly sets allegations of human trafficking against a backdrop of global capitalism and misogyny. Human trafficking is a gendered and classed notion, certainly—these are stories, especially in Cambodia, about women’s economic opportunity. Yet overlooking that these allegations are also about race allows us to miss how anti-human trafficking initiatives really work under globalization: as acts of cultural imperialism, of which misogyny is only a part (although a large one).

CNN covers up the impact of these human trafficking abolitionists in failing to distinguish between consensual sex work and human trafficking. The lack of distinction is unfortunately common at anti-trafficking NGOs. In fact, when Chemaly’s article appeared I was visiting one in Phnom Penh.

With 150 clients looking to escape from what the NGO called “human trafficking,” I thought the program manager might be able to shed light on the difference between trafficking and sex work. “Trafficking would be when a woman is sold against her will,” she told me. “Most of [the women here] were sold initially, or at least put under a lot of pressure from their families, to go into the sex industry themselves.”

But putting pressure on a woman isn’t the same as forcing her to do something against her will, and when I mentioned this to the NGO staffer, she admitted that these distinctions can get confusing.

“There are women who say, ‘My mom got really sick and we didn’t have anyone to pay her bills, so I decided to that I was going to traffic myself.’ But then we have some who say, ‘My aunt told me she got me a job as a domestic servant, and the next thing I knew I was being dropped off at a brothel or karaoke bar and being told that that’s where I worked now.’ So you get both, and then you also get [situations] where things aren’t so clear,’” she explained.

Her use of the phrase “decided to traffic myself” was particularly confusing, if the definition of trafficking disallows autonomous consent, so I asked her again about the distinction between trafficking and sex work.

“There’s definitely a line that gets blurry,” she said. “We also have a lot of women who maybe crossed that line. Maybe they were initially sold against their will, a lot of times sold as under-aged girls, but then there came a point where they didn’t owe a debt to the brothel owner anymore, but then they continued working as sex workers. So they aren’t being held in chains, which doesn’t happen very often in Cambodia anymore, but they are being entrapped by lack of any other alternatives, and the fact that there’s still pressure on them from their families to generate an income.”

Those economic and familial pressures may be real, but context is necessary to figure out whether or not they trump autonomy. Absent cultural context, the slippages in the term “sex trafficking” allow a wide range of practices to be condemned, while a very narrow and distinctly Western mode of correction is installed. It’s not just women who are being stripped of agency—all Cambodians are.

“Sex Trafficking” in Cambodia

Cambodians have lived in poverty for generations, and the local history of commercial sex is as complicated as the history of the nation itself. After the Khmer Rouge and subsequent Vietnamese-installed regime, the United Nations moved in to install its own government in 1992 in an effort to shuttle in the current democratic system. The United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) brought in droves of highly paid internationals—mostly men, and many Westerners—to run the Southeast Asian nation. Some contend that the sex industry had been established in the French colonial days; by the 1990s Cambodian women were largely running the trade. UNTAC forces, and the unfathomably high wages they were paid, only increased demand, which in turn increased supply. Prime Minister Hun Sen even suggested in 2008 that AIDS would stand as the legacy of the UNTAC era.

Before we lionize (a lá “happy hooker” metaphors) or chastise (a lá CNN) female entertainment entrepreneurs, however, note that Susan Rosas in her paper Sex Trafficking in Cambodia as a Complex Humanitarian Emergency suggests that women had been left out of the UNTAC vision for a future of Cambodia. They weren’t, for example, offered positions of power, despite the UN’s tepid mandate to intervene on human rights abuses, nor were effective policies limiting domestic violence or sexual assault put in place.

Of course there’s no need to congratulate women who sell their daughters for sex, but folks left out of traditional avenues to power and economic sustainability will find ways to survive. And women-run brothels both profit from masculine desire, and make jobs for women in an environment often hostile to their creation.

NGOs don’t see it that way, and trumpet female victimhood and its corollary description of women in the sex industry as “trafficked.” Arguing that, in an ideal world, no woman would willingly sell sex, abolitionists aim to eliminate the industry entirely. Sex workers, when asked, note the absence of this illusory world. The Phnom Penh Post found in 2009 that close to 90 percent of sex workers in Cambodia felt that prostitution was their best available job.

A Slippery Slope

Cambodian culture has traditionally shielded women from public life to focus on men and babies. It’s rare that gender norms are ever transcribed, but a 19th Century text called the Chbap Srei artfully combined our modern forces of advertising, social codes, and legal restrictions into a rulebook for girls. (There’s also one for boys; it’s shorter.) So, although great strides have been made among Cambodian women in recent years—in politics, activism, and culture—the Chbap Srei’s prescriptions haunt even Millennials, who want to change their country, sure, but want to take care of their families first.

Family, in Cambodia, is important. It’s part of the reason why the lack of employment options for women in the country gets overlooked—many women do leave (or fail to enter) the workforce to raise children. But the growth of the garment industry isn’t just due to fast fashion’s increasing production lines: Parents send daughters off from the provinces to work in factories so the family farm can keep going. “Children feel responsible for taking care of their parents and will do whatever is necessary to earn income,” a report from Action Pour Les Enfants explains. (Note that a lack of agency in maternity or apparel work never brings on allegations of “trafficking.”)

For if we look at the sex trade in Cambodia in economic terms—leaving aside the question of consent for a young woman who cares about her family—it makes a lot of sense. Garment workers earn $100 per month before overtime, in the only regulated minimum wage in the country. Women with degrees can earn $85 to $100 per month as high school teachers or $50 to $70 as elementary school teachers, although paychecks, sent by the government, are often late, and both workforces usually resort to bribing students the equivalent of a quarter a day to survive.

Laborers at a local private university tell me they earn $60 per month, as do grocery store clerks. And women who can raise or borrow the capital to buy a cart and supplies can make $75 to 
$150 per month as food vendors.

By comparison, hostess bars typically pay between $50 and $60 per month before tips. Sex work—which hostess bars may allow for but don’t mandate—may bring in between $60 and $100 per month from Cambodian or other Asian men, or as much as $20 per night from Westerners. And the living wage in Cambodia for single-earner households, based on projected cost-of-living increases since 2009’s Cambodia Institute of Development Study findings, runs about $150 per month.

There just aren’t very many work opportunities in the country, and it’s unclear that eliminating one of them will change that, even in the long-run. It is clear that, in the short-run, women and their families will starve.

Moreover, the impetus for abolition requires examination: If economic coercion turns all sex work into trafficking—if, indeed, one can traffic oneself—then all sex work, in short, is bad. It’s a slippery slope to all sex out of wedlock being bad, or all sex being bad, or, eventually, all women being bad. Melissa Gira Grant notes at Salon just how slippery this slope is, and who profits from the easy descent: the faith-based ministries that may, on one hand, be advocating abstinence campaigns domestically, and removing women from the sex industry abroad.

Indeed, one of the funders of the NGO I visited, Love146, claims not to be a faith-based organization but does claim to be “inspired by Christian faith.” It intends to abolish “child trafficking and exploitation. Nothing less.” Yet its 2012-13 annual report indicates that a full 56 percent of the youth it serves are Western—in fact, they’re participants in “tell your friends” campaigns in Connecticut and Boston, who may have had abstinence messaging filtered into their human trafficking awareness campaign. One suspects that domestic in-school lectures regarding sexual exploitation “inspired by the Christian faith” run a bit afoul of the mission to end child trafficking, and the concerns for such NGOs mount quickly.

Agape International Missions, founded by Dan Brewster, the focus of the CNN report, is far less subtle. “CHRIST’S CHURCH FIGHTING THE GROUND WAR ON SEX TRAFFICKING IN CAMBODIA” is the group’s straightforward mission statement. Through media outreach (CNN being only one example), skills-building initiatives oddly reminiscent of garment factories, and voluntourism, the organization hopes that “your heart will be transformed by Jesus to be a voice for the voiceless, be an advocate for AIM and joining us in partnership (sic).” On the ground, the work of this anti-sex-trafficking organization differs not at all from Christian missionary work. In a traditionally Buddhist country with a growing Muslim population, this has severe and concerning implications.

To what degree anti-human trafficking initiatives are merely the cheery new face of traditional Christian fundamentalism is unclear. But that’s not the only point of confusion raised by CNN’s report.

The Reality of Sex Trafficking

The problems of reporting on anti-human trafficking organizations go well beyond CNN. During my visit to the NGO in Phnom Penh I was told by the program manager that none of the information she gave me about clients would be confirmed by clients. A condition of visiting the center, in fact, was that I agree to the group’s rules before entering the facility, one of which was that I “refrain from asking clients about their past lives in the sex industry, because that causes them shame.”

I asked if that applied to journalists, and if so, how they verified stories they heard there.

“I guess it’s just a matter of trust,” she told me. “All of our clients’ stories come through interviews with our trained social workers and counselors, and you could talk with one of them if you wanted to confirm. But we don’t want to put our clients through that.”

Mediated “first-hand” stories are what anti-human trafficking work is built on. Similarly, the CNN report claims to be offering women the chances to tell their stories on camera, but these are just as mediated: by Khmer-to-English translators, by religious instruction, and by the economic coercion of a woman in poverty being offered resources by a rich media outlet and a sponsoring organization.

Like Mira Sorvino, we believe their stories are the “reality” of sex trafficking. But the reality here—that allegations of sex trafficking hide misogynist, racist, and imperialist desires—is far more distressing.