Sex Trafficking

Why the Faith Trade is Interested in the Sex Trade

By Jennifer Block
Summer/Autumn 2004

It was the Friday after International Women’s Day, and the president and first lady’s East Room gathering was devoted to “efforts to globally promote women’s human rights.” There was talk of Iraq and Afghanistan and liberty and freedom. Girls reading, going to school and voting.

“The struggle for women’s rights,” said Laura Bush, “is a story of ordinary women doing extraordinary things.”

Bush had invoked women’s rights to sell the war in Afghanistan and now the protracted war in Iraq, and that day, March 12, 2004, he spoke of a new enemy, one even more straightforward in its evil than the Taliban or Saddam: sex slavery. He introduced Sharon Cohn, director of Anti-Trafficking Operations for the International Justice Mission, a Christian organization. “Let me tell you what that means,” said Bush, “That means she’s working to end sex slavery…. This government stands with you, and our country stands with you. We abhor—we abhor—the practice of sex slavery, and we will do all we can to help you. Support for human rights is the cornerstone of American foreign policy.”

As with the war on terror, Bush put the US at the helm of this fight, too: “I spoke out against this practice at the United Nations,” he reminded the East Room. “I called upon the world to join us.” One could accuse him of lip service, but policy and funding have followed this initiative, to the tune of $150 million over two years. Even the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who has blasted Bush for his positions on women’s health and rights in general, wrote earlier this year that “on trafficking, this administration has led the way.”

In its simplest terms, explains David Feingold at the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Association (UNESCO), the research arm of the UN, trafficking is defined by two elements: movement (e.g. across borders) and labor or sexual exploitation through force, fraud or coercion (e.g. debt bondage). It could be a Vietnamese national who ends up enslaved at a garment factory in American Samoa for two years; a Mexican man smuggled to Florida and then forced to harvest fruit under threat of beatings or death; or a Mexican woman taken across the border and then held against her will to work as a prostitute. (All were cases brought to or prosecuted by the US Department of Justice in 2003.)

In the popular imagination, however, “trafficking” is not agriculture or factory or domestic enslavement; it is women duped with restaurant jobs, girls kidnapped or “sold by their families” into prostitution. Says Jennifer Stanger at the Los Angeles-based Coalition Against Slavery and Trafficking, “sex trafficking gets a lot of attention simply because it’s sexy.”

According to Feingold, such a focus may not be justified. “It is said over and over again that the majority of trafficking is for sex,” he says, “but there’s absolutely no data to substantiate that.” There’s also no data to substantiate the ubiquitous characterization of victims as “mostly women and children,” he says. For the past two years, the UNESCO Trafficking Statistics Project in Bangkok has dedicated itself to finding and tracing every trafficking statistic in circulation back to its source. “Very often, we found no source or a source that provided no methodology,” he says. Among the top offenders is the US State Department, which in 2002 estimated 700,000-4 million persons trafficked, “mostly women and children.” Now, it estimates that “annually, about 600,000 to 800,000 people—mostly women and children—are trafficked across national borders.” Feingold says that not only has the State Department never published its methodology, it hasn’t explained the dramatic decline over two years. “One must constantly ask the question, ‘How could this number be derived from any source?’” he says. “It’s not like you can use satellites and count little women running across borders. Trafficking is an ex post facto designation of a migration event.”

It’s also not so easy to categorize. Feingold, an anthropologist by training, gives an example. He did a study of a town along the Mekong River in Thailand, where teenage girls had been trafficked into domestic work. According to the girls themselves, they had chosen to go and were being treated decently by the families, “but they weren’t making money, they were lonely, and so they left,” he says. Afraid to go back through networks that took them there—“worried they’d be sold into a potentially nastier situation,” says Feingold— they started turning tricks at a karaoke bar. “They got to wear pretty clothes and be with their friends, and they got to make money, which was why they came down out of their desperate circumstances in the first place,” he says. But do you call them victims of sex trafficking? “These girls were not forced into it. They’re not in a brothel. They decide whether or not they want to go with a man.”

The social and economic circumstances that cause people to migrate and the violent and exploitative situations that can befall them as a result is the framework in which many look at the issue. “Trafficking,” says Stanger, “is a direct result of the fact that we have so many low-wage exploited workers who support the economy. Low-wage unprotected labor paves the way to slavery.” But what’s enthralled the media, the Christian right and the Bush administration is not the demanding, multi-layered narrative of migrants, but the damsels in distress, the innocents lured across borders.

“It’s very interesting to think about how this is being used by many people to fit in with traditional notions of femininity and sexuality,” says Ann Jordan, director of the Anti-Trafficking Initiative of the International Human Rights Law Group, based in Washington, DC. The Family Research Council, Concerned Women for America, the National Association of Evangelicals and the Southern Baptist Convention have all platformed the trafficking issue, and they all focus on the “sexual slavery” of women and children. Such groups are “consumed by this issue,” said John Miller, director of the State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, to the New York Times. “I think it’s great. It helped get the legislation passed, it helped spur me. I think it keeps the whole government focused.”

Besides eclipsing the plight of the many men and women who are trafficked into non-sexual labor exploitation, says Jordan, “the idea of the pure, simple, naïve, innocent who needs to be rescued by the Good Samaritan deprives adults of any kind of agency.” Activists say that most victims of sex trafficking were aware that they would be prostitutes, but unaware of the conditions; outright kidnapping is rare. “That’s why it’s so dangerous to only talk about women and children,” says Jordan. “Because you use the phrase ‘women and children,’ ‘women and children,’ and it becomes ‘women as children,’ ‘women as children.’”



Marjan Wijers, a lawyer in Amsterdam, is one of the feminists who began talking about “trafficking” in the 1980s and saw it rise to a mainstream issue at the 1995 UN conference on women in Beijing. But she regrets the word choice. “It’s this outdated concept,” she says, invented around 1900 when the West was gripped by fear of “white slavery”—the hysteria, now proved largely a myth, that scores of white women were being kidnapped and taken to brothels overseas. “It’s kind of funny to see how those concepts of the innocent victim and the unreliable foreigner come back 100 years later,” she says, adding that in Europe, the trafficking issue has been mythologized and exploited by conservative politicians keen on limiting migration in general. What began as a movement “for sex workers’ rights and against abuse and exploitation,” she says, “has been taken over as an anti-prostitution and anti-migration movement.”

Critics see the Bush administration as exploiting the exploitation of women to funnel millions more taxpayer dollars toward the already flush antiabortion, anti-condom, anti-sex campaign being promoted, and increasingly exported, by the Christian right.

Conservative feminists in the US, exhausted by the pornography debate, took up sex trafficking in the early 1990s. Equating all prostitution (and pornography) with exploitation, this “abolitionist” movement condemned those who wanted to decriminalize the sex industry—including sex workers themselves, who were beginning to organize. They also pioneered what many have called a linguistic sleight of hand. Since they believe all prostitution is coercive—something that no woman would ever freely choose—they have used the terms prostitution and trafficking interchangeably. This verbal confluence can confuse the scope and character of trafficking. For instance, activists with this perspective often point out that where prostitution has been legalized (invariably they cite Amsterdam), “trafficking” has increased. But with no distinction between a sexual slave and a willing escort, the claim is tautological.

Nevertheless, by 1999, this fledgling debate among feminists was upstaged by the unified voice of evangelicals, who are widely credited with bringing the issue to the fore. And not unlike during the pornography wars of the 1980s, synergy developed between some feminists and the Christian right.

Michael Horowitz, a neoconservative at the Hudson Institute, a Washington, DC-based think tank, brought together the coalition of powerful evangelicals who pressed for legislation that would eventually become the 2000 Trafficking Victims Protection Act, or TVPA. This was their second step in a foray into US foreign policy that began with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, which places “promoting religious freedom as a core objective of US foreign policy,” according to the State Department. Critics say it simply won evangelicals an office in the State Department, freed more cash for “faith-based” groups and gave them sanctioning power, a criticism they echo for TVPA. After such success with the religious freedom campaign, says Horowitz, “I just knew that issue number two was going to be the trafficking issue.”

The coalition—including Chuck Colson, the former Nixon aide who found Jesus while serving time for Watergate, and Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention, which operates on the belief that all non-Christians “will spend eternity in hell”—linked up with the abolitionist feminists and won a sympathetic ear in Chris Smith, the antichoice New Jersey Republican. Smith drafted a bill that focused entirely on the sexual exploitation of women and girls—to the exclusion of trafficking for labor and therefore all male victims. When human rights groups and the Clintons—Hillary in particular—opposed that language for the US bill as well as the UN protocol, which was being drafted at the same time, they were derided as “promoting prostitution.”

The bill that ultimately became the TVPA covers all forms of trafficking—language introduced by the late senator Paul Wellstone and eventually supported by everyone—and is overall considered a good bill. Most significantly, it prevents a victim of trafficking in the US from being criminally charged (for prostitution, for instance) and immediately deported, although victims’ access to rehabilitation services and a temporary “T” visa is contingent upon their willingness to cooperate with a criminal prosecution, which many activists find problematic. After the legislative tug-of-war, it was a most bizarre picnic: Gloria Steinem and Chuck Colson, Concerned Women for America and the National Organization for Women, the Family Research Council and Catholics for a Free Choice.

Still, the offspring of such unlikely political bedfellows takes after its evangelical parent in one significant way: in a section of the bill, the term “sex trafficking” refers to all commercial sex. This pleased conservative feminists but more significantly enabled the broader social agenda of the Christian right. If trafficking is prostitution per se, then evangelicals can fight all prostitution, throughout the world, in the name of trafficking, funded by “anti-trafficking” initiatives. It’s a moral crusade that “goes all the way back to Mary Magdalene,” says Chip Berlet at Political Research Associates, who’s been monitoring the religious right for two decades. “They’re not trying to liberate women, or trying to let them control their own destiny. They’re trying to stop women from sinning.” An old idea, indeed, but one that is dressed up in a modern human rights rubric and supported by a vocal feminist faction. The problem with “saving” women is when a job at the local factory—often the only other game in town—doesn’t approach a living wage.

For Jennifer Butler, the Presbyterian Church’s representative to the UN and board member of ECPAT, an organization that campaigns against child prostitution, the distinction between evangelicals and the Right is important. The former were among the first to see trafficking up close on missions, and some have been doing good humanitarian work alongside women’s and indigenous groups since the early 1990s, she says. For the right, however, the intentions are political. The trafficked woman is “a symbol that can be used to further promote their agenda,” says Butler. “It proves that the world is falling apart, that families are falling apart, that morals are decaying. They can even blame it on liberalism—this is what happens when you allow pornography to exist. This is what happens when women go to work. Now that women are sexually liberated they go and strip or have sex for a living.”

Taina Bien-Aime of Equality Now, a women’s rights organization that focuses on discriminatory laws and takes an abolitionist stance on trafficking, guesses that “what people would call moralistic” could be what’s motivating the right, but “Equality Now certainly looks at it from a human rights perspective.” Equality Now and some of its allies, however, like the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, have been accused of putting ideology over human rights. With their support, the Bush administration is shunning humanitarian organizations that don’t fit the abolitionist model. The 2003 reauthorization of the Trafficking Act, sponsored by Chris Smith, restricts funds from groups that “advocate or support the legalization of prostitution,” even with their own money. Grantees are even being asked to put their position in writing. USAID funds have also been restricted, and the $15 billion 2003 anti-AIDS Act (H.R.1298) has a similar caveat.

Ann Jordan calls this another version of the “global gag rule” (the Reagan-era Mexico City Policy, revived by Bush, which denies US family planning funds to organizations that provide, discuss or advocate for legal abortion). “So a group that provides health services, legal literacy, money management or childcare to people who are in prostitution, to people who may have been victims—they may not get their funding because they’re working with women in sex industry and may be perceived as supporting trafficking,” she says. Groups not even working on sex trafficking, such as one of her colleagues in Africa that works with children trafficked into rock quarries, could be made to state a position as well. “They don’t work on this issue, so why should they adopt this policy?” she asks. “It’s forced speech.”

Bien-Aime says Equality Now is uninformed about the application of the law, “but it’s a law that we support.”

Activists say that defunding such groups has two effects: first, it directly hampers efforts to help trafficking victims. “Sex workers are the people who know what is happening in the red light districts,” says Melissa Ditmore of the Network of Sex Worker Projects. “They can say, ‘This is an area in which people are trafficked, this is a brothel that has children, this is a place in which people need your help,’” she says. Secondly, the restrictions further impede HIV/AIDS prevention efforts, many of which target sex workers. Such campaigns are based on the public health model of “harm reduction” (the philosophy behind needle-exchange programs), which is well researched and demonstrably effective. Yet for the Bush administration, it’s a square peg, one that has been consistently tossed at home and abroad in favor of abstinence campaigns, which are scientifically unproven. The US “seems to be undermining NGOs’ ability to help the very women who need help,” says Jordan.

Donna Hughes, chair of the women’s studies department at the University of Rhode Island, is the most vociferous of the abolitionist camp. She writes frequently for the National Review, is said to work very closely with Chris Smith and Horowitz, and co-wrote a Washington Post op-ed with Phyllis Chesler in which the two claim that “sexual liberalism” has hampered the feminist response to trafficking. In June 2002, more than a year before the reauthorization passed, Hughes urged the House International Relations Committee to deny funding to groups that don’t share the abolitionist view, including the Nobel-prize winning Doctors Without Borders.

“In some cases, this so-called harm reduction is often a mere cover masking the legitimization of traffickers,” says Michael Horowitz. Is the best we can do, to “regulate a system of ergonomic mattresses and minimum wages?” he asks. “So much for the so-called harm reductionists. I don’t believe it works.”

Are these influential lobbyists out of touch with the reality on the ground, sacrificing public health for an ideological position that only works from a comfortable distance? “When the alliance between right-wing politicians and certain feminists eliminates funding for HIV prevention projects that are recognized and have been proven effective,” says Ditmore, “HIV rates could actually increase.”

For Hughes, trafficking is easily defined using classic freemarketese, as “a supply and demand problem.” Poor countries are the suppliers, she said in a phone interview last year, “and then there’s demand, countries where prostitution is either legalized or tolerated.” The solution, therefore, is to eliminate demand by criminalizing prostitution, busting brothels and arresting johns. But many anti-trafficking advocates criticize this position, reiterated by Bien-Aime, Horowitz and others, as single-themed, moralistic and ultimately harmful to victims of trafficking. Analogies to the drug war come up often. Says Feingold, “There’s no shortage of heroin.”

Brothel raids—the specialty of the International Justice Mission, which just received $1 million from the US—are often futile; many prostitutes will return to the brothel and go back to work. But they can also exacerbate the plight of victims and put prostitutes who are not victims of trafficking in danger, leading to arrests, deportation and further exploitation by border patrol and police. Other NGOs have complained that IJM operates like a “bull in a china shop,” without regard for the mess it leaves behind. After one multi-brothel raid facilitated by IJM in Thailand, reported Mother Jones, 43 girls and women who had been “rescued” were subsequently locked in a two-room government- run orphanage. Within a couple of weeks, 24 had escaped.

The supply and demand equation doesn’t factor in migrants’ demand for a better life. “It’s a much more difficult message to say that sex work is a decision people can make within the choices available,” says Marjan Wijers. In the beginning, she says, she too used to “paint it on the walls” that all prostitution is violence against women. “But you don’t solve it by reducing it to a simple image of bad and good and we’re going to eliminate it. When you do that, there’s a lot of collateral damage along the way.”

Organizations that have been working on trafficking the longest—like Anti-Slavery International, ECPAT and the faith-based World Vision—don’t take a position on prostitution, but they know that COPS-style sting operations don’t work. These organizations, however, are struggling to keep their funding. Meanwhile, congressional earmarks, in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, are flowing to ideologically compatible groups in a non-competitive process. While some of the projects receiving anti-trafficking funds are doing important and effective work—CAST, Stanger’s group, just opened the US’s first shelter for trafficking victims—critics see the Bush administration as shrewdly exploiting the exploitation of women to funnel millions more taxpayer dollars toward the already flush antiabortion, anti-condom, anti-sex campaign being promoted, and increasingly exported, by the Christian right. If “sex slavery” provides another endless war, and a seemingly just war, who needs issue number three?

JENNIFER BLOCK last wrote for Conscience on attacks against prochoice Catholic politicians.

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