December 12, 2019

Sex Trafficking: History Repeating Itself

By Defne Çizakça

In February 2019, the billionaire owner of the New England Patriots and philanthropist, Robert Kraft, was charged with two counts of soliciting prostitution. The alleged crimes occurred in the Jupiter Spa in South Florida. It now seems probable that the Jupiter and related spas were involved in sex trafficking. Ten have been shut down following recent investigations. The controversial nature of the case, and the involvement of several high profile figures, has sparked a new interest in the workings of the sex trade.  

I am currently writing a historical novel that deals with the same topic, albeit in the 19th century. What seems remarkable to me is that the mechanics of sex trafficking have not changed much throughout the years. Today, just as a 100 years ago, predators start by offering women a fresh start. They target those who typically live under difficult circumstances, involving poverty and lack of opportunities. The victims may be promised love or a job, and once they accept the offer, they lose their autonomy. The traffickers take control of their money, papers and means of communication. The women who are displaced become lost to the system. The rest is abuse, and threats to loved ones, for months or years at a time, and forced sexual intercourse with up to 30 clients a day.

We are all familiar with this story, but think that it happens only to strangers, and in far away, exotic locations such as the Far East or the Balkans. What is less known, and has come to attention with the Robert Kraft scandal is that sex trafficking also happens right here in the United States, and frequently it involves American nationals as both perpetrators and victims.

Two recent documentaries should be sufficient to shed light on an industry that averages 9.5 million dollars a year. Netflix is currently airing a documentary, “I am Jane Doe,” that focuses on the American mothers seeking justice for their under age daughters who were sold on Backpage.com, a website that operated as a classified advertising platform. The documentary follows the several court cases opened against Backpage by the victim’s families. Years of investigations revealed that Backpage provided guidelines to their employees on how to edit said advertisements, proving they were aware of, and hence accountable for, the illegal activities the site hosted. Words that explicitly offered sexual services in return for money were routinely erased, for example. If the announcements in question were for children, and included key terms such as “little girl,” or “amber alert,” Backpage deleted the evidence so as to veil illegal activity. Despite ample evidence, Backpage won many cases in court. The reason therefore was section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, according to which online service providers cannot be held accountable for third-party content. The abuse of section 230 thus became a contested issue, and a new legislation that limited its use was passed in August 2017, amid opposition from internet giants such as Google. Following the changes in law, the police shut down Backpage on April 6, 2018. A 93-count criminal indictment was filed against Jim Larkin, Michael Lacey and five other Backpage executives, all of whom pleaded not guilty. The trial is scheduled for January 15, 2020.

Another recent investigation conducted by The Guardian concerns the way US prisons have become popular recruiting grounds for sex traffickers. Through interviews with prostitutes and pimps, we learn how easy it is to access information about incarcerated women through government websites, which freely provide mugshots, charge sheets and release dates to the public. The traffickers can thus pick and choose their victims from the comfort of their homes. They then groom them through affectionate letters, money and goods sent through the prison system. Upon release, the women are controlled by violence and drugs and forced to prostitute themselves. Any money they earn goes to their traffickers.

Many may argue that these cases are extreme, that we are all on the same page when it comes to sex trafficking: it is immoral and exploitative. But prostitution seems less straightforward. Can we really blame men like Robert Kraft who may think they are paying for the services of a consenting adult? What about women who freely choose the profession?

Feminism is divided on the issue. The question of whether prostitution is work, violence or both is far from clear. There are opposing camps. Some believe prostitution is never entirely consensual due to the inherent patriarchy of our society. Hence it is never a profession, but gender based violence. They call for the abolition of the sex trade entirely. Whereas others suggest a woman can freely choose prostitution or other forms of sex work as a form of employment and demand the decriminalization and/or regulation of the sex industry.

Perhaps the most sensible strategy is to listen to the prostitutes themselves. In “A Feminist Discourse Analysis of Sex ‘Work’,” Ann Weatherall and Anna Priestly interviewed some women for who felt less like victims and more like they were taking control of their lives when they engaged in sex work. Personally, I have found the testimonies of Rachel Moran, and Nikki Bell eye opening. Both women, incidentally, are in the abolitionist camp. Moran suggests that all prostitutes must disassociate from their bodies in order to work, and that the necessary habit leads to mental health issues, as well as prevalent alcohol and drug abuse in the community.

For Nikki Bell, the discussion about trafficked vs. not trafficked is a distinction without a difference. In her experience, money does not equal consent; it is still unwanted sex. She teaches a re-education course to offenders and tells them, “You are putting your wants above a very damaged human being. I hope, at least, that I have ruined your ‘Pretty Woman’ fantasy, and for those who don’t care, just know that every woman who gets in your car is disgusted by you.”

It seems that, as feminists, we must ponder these questions further, listening to both sides of the debate. But the most urgent step remains familiarizing men with the narratives of prostitutes. Can johns really be sure that the women they are paying are involved in decent work, as defined by the International Labour Organization? And if not, is the risk of abuse really worth taking?

Defne Çizakça is a Helen Gartner Hammer Scholar-in-Residence at HBI and is a writer, editor and lecturer. She is working on a historical novel about Jewish women who were trafficked from the Pale of Settlement to the port cities of Buenos Aires, Thessaloniki and her native Istanbul.

Comments

  1. Debra Weinberg says:

    Very interesting and unfortunately very current. The author raises important questions that needs further discussion.

  2. Many thanks for this research publication! It’s well written and interesting to read. However, it seems to me, the recommended “familiarizing men with the narratives of prostitutes”, be it in the most adequate and talented way, will at best have only a very limited prevention effect. Awareness rising and education are good, if we want to prepare male and female citizens for a better type of society. What about classifying prostitution of a socio-economic and political system concern? Under what conditions could our societies provide accessible decent jobs to women? What kind of long term social, economic, psychological and political changes does this imply?

  3. Talia Carner says:

    Thank you for your enlightening article about sex trafficking. I congratulate you on continuing to bring this tragic subject to public awareness. I, too, have written about the most shameful chapter in our Jewish history–that of Jewish trafficking by the legal organization, Zwi Migdal. (My novel, “The Third Daughter” will be released by HarperCollins in September 2019.) The more we talk and write about, the greater are the chances of bringing results.
    In particular, the Swedish Model of dealing with sex trafficking should be emulated by countries around the globe. There, the focus is on the demand side of the equation–the men who seek and pay for the sexual services of subjugated women. By viewing the men, rather than the pimps, as the real perpetrators, the men are then regarded by law as rapists–and are being prosecuted as such.
    P.S. I am a board member of HBI.

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