Teasing Apart the Web of Sex Trafficking

by Amy Larsen:

“Postcards? Book on Pol Pot? Bracelet?” In the ruins of Angkor Wat, two young Cambodian girls hawked their wares with entrepreneurialism beyond their years.

Their questions were calibrated to win over American tourists: “What if we can tell you the name of the American President and the population of Cambodia? Then will you buy something?”

A young Cambodian girl practices reading in school. Education is key to reducing the vulnerability of girls and women to human sex trafficking in countries such as Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. (Courtesy of UNICEF Cambodia)

They were smart, but it was a Tuesday morning and these young girls weren’t in school. I asked them why not.

“Our families need the money so we must sell things,” said the elder of the two. But couldn’t they make more money later on with an education?

“Well, I can just find a rich husband instead,” giggled the smaller
girl. “Then I will be rich too!”

These girls exhibit some of the most common vulnerabilities to human trafficking: poverty, lack of education, gender inequality, and the desire for a better life. In Cambodia, as in many developing countries, boys are expected to become the primary breadwinners for their families and, as a result, are often given priority access to nutrition, health care, and education. Girls and women are also uniquely vulnerable to being trafficked for sex. The U.N. Office on drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimates that sexual exploitation accounts for 79 percent of all forms of human trafficking around the world and that women and girls make up 80 percent of human sex trafficking victims.

Human trafficking is one of the most egregious, widespread, and concealed violations of human rights in the modern world. In 2000, the Palermo Protocol broke new ground by developing the first widely accepted definition of human trafficking: the “recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt” of a person by means of threats, coercion, deception, or fraud for exploitative purposes such as sexual slavery, forced labor, or child soldiering.

A hallmark of human trafficking is the movement of people either within or across national borders, with Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia representing the largest origin regions of trafficked people and Western Europe, the United States, and Canada serving as prime destinations for these same trafficking victims. The antitrafficking organization Free the Slaves estimates that worldwide, approximately 27 million people are currently enslaved for purposes such as forced sex, labor, and domestic servitude. This is more than double the number of Africans enslaved during the transatlantic slave trade. Southeast Asia is a hotspot for human sex trafficking, with Thailand,
Cambodia, and Vietnam ranked either ‘High’ or ‘Very High’ as countries of origin for trafficked people.

Bringing this tragedy to an end will require broad social changes. Young women and children in Southeast Asia, like the girls I met selling trinkets at Angkor Wat, must be educated about how to defend themselves from sex traffickers and others who would exploit their vulnerable position. Men who purchase sex need to realize how deeply prostitution is connected with human trafficking, a global web of deceit and enslavement that channels girls from countries such as Cambodia to work the sex trade in countries like the United States.

Transnational Trafficking

One way that traffickers recruit women and girls is by offering them a job as a waitress or singer in a distant city, and with it the prospect of a better life. If they accept the deal, girls are told to hand over their identification documents for the purposes of organizing the journey and in so doing begin to lose access to their freedom and safety. Once they arrive at their destination, the girls abruptly realize they have been trafficked for sex as they are thrown into a brothel or locked in an apartment and forced to sexually serve clients for the financial benefit of pimps who control them. Because trafficked girls often end up in a foreign country where they don’t necessarily speak the language and are under surveillance at virtually all times, it is extremely difficult for them to get help even if they try to seek it out. The physical, social, and psychological consequences of human trafficking make it one of the most heinous human rights abuses. As New York Times columnists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn describe in their book Half the Sky, “An essential part of the brothel business model is to break the spirit of girls, through humiliation, rape, threats, and violence.” UNICEF estimates that nearly 1.2 million of those trafficked each year are children.

Because of the transnational nature of human trafficking, and the fact that it involves areas as disparate as education, labor, gender, poverty, law enforcement, health, and migration, cooperation between governments is essential. The United Nations Interagency Project on Trafficking (UNIAP), headquartered in Bangkok, Thai-land, coordinates projects, activities, and agreements among NGOs, U.N. agencies, and governments in Southeast Asia. It relies on a net-work of local and national organizations to help operationalize inter-national antitrafficking agreements, which often include providing immediate assistance to victims and long-term education to young girls in order to reduce their vulnerability to sex trafficking before it begins.

Educating to Empower

On the national level, antitrafficking efforts rely on organizations like World Vision, a key UNIAP partner in Southeast Asia that assists with on-the-ground trafficking prevention by funding groups like the Cambodian NGO Nevea Thmey. Nevea Thmey’s shelter, founded in 1997, offers counseling, medical, legal, rehabilitation, and vocational training services to the more than 800 girls rescued from trafficking since its founding and simultaneously reaches out to the community in an effort to thwart future traffickers. Recently rescued victims join a group of older girls who, after spending time in the shelter, often volunteer to mentor and teach younger girls and oth-ers within their community how to detect traffickers’ tricks. This is particularly useful given the dearth of role models in society due to the Khmer rouge’s bloody genocide 30 years ago which left a quarter of all Cambodians dead. Nevea Thmey’s approach dovetails care for victims with prevention efforts and transforms victims into empowered advocates for change.

Local and international human trafficking experts agree on the central importance of education in reducing the vulnerability of women and children to trafficking. Preparing young girls to stand up for themselves before they ever encounter risky situations is a crucial way to diminish risk. AFESIP (Agir pour les Femmes en Situation Precaire), an anti-trafficking organization and one of the largest NGOs in Vietnam, runs a sexual education and empowerment course for children aged 13 and older with exactly this goal in mind. AFESIP’s curriculum includes topics such as the dangers and pleasuresassociated with sexual activity as well as models of safe and healthy relationships. In order to empower girls to resist unwelcome sexual advances, the children play games, some of which are as simple as girls practicing saying “No!” to boys during role plays. Girls are also taught self-defense. The whole class is later quizzed to reinforce information, and parents are engaged in discussions about the material so it can be reiterated at home. While teaching this curriculum in schools has reached many students and served as a model for anti-trafficking education in Vietnam, low school attendance and completion still represent significant obstacles, especially when parents deem it more useful for their daughters to help at home or work than attend school. Such cultural norms and expectations must change as well if the fight against child sex trafficking is to be won.

Economics 101: Demand Drives Supply

U.N. and NGO programs such as these do a great deal to combat human trafficking and meet the needs of victims in Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Yet these efforts target only one side of the supply and demand equation which drives this ignoble industry. The economic value of the human trafficking trade, the fastest growing of all illicit industries, is currently estimated at $32 billion. Its gross value recently overtook that of the illicit arms trade. Doan Thuy Dung, program officer for the International Organization for Migration Vietnam, noted that “the demand side is also equally important” whentackling the problem of human trafficking. In basic economic terms,demand drives supply. In other words, if consumers refused to payfor domestic servants, forced labor, or sex from trafficked women and children, the industry would cease to be profitable — and to exist.

Needed then are not only programs that educate and protect women and children in Southeast Asia, but also the realization by citizens of all nations — and particularly Westerners whose countries are prime destinations for trafficked people — that their own behavior, choices, and knowledge affect the status of human rights around the world. On January 4, 2010, President Obama designated January as National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention month. While this is a small step in the right direction, the United States continues to spend more in one day to fight drug trafficking than it does in an entire year to combat human trafficking, reflecting the substantial gap that remains between speech and action.

The Illusion of Choice

Lina Nealon manages the Hunt Alternatives Fund initiative Demand Abolition, an activism project which aims to combat human trafficking from the demand side. Essentially, it is the “market for prostitution that drives sex trafficking,” Nealon explained. In light of this fact, the most effective strategy for reducing human trafficking is to decrease demand for prostitution and for the purchasing of sex more broadly. To start with, men who buy sex must understand the impact of their choices. According to human trafficking expert and author Benjamin Skinner, most men who purchase sex are under the illusion that the majority of women selling sex do so willingly. The reality is that women trafficked for sex rarely keep money they make from “clients” and are instead forced to turn it over to pimps, who keep them under lock and key. Meanwhile, prostitutes who have not been trafficked seldom choose to sell sex because they actually want to. Of a sample of prostitutes interviewed by researcher Melissa Farley, 96 percent reported that they would rather be doing something other than selling sex and would leave the trade if they could.

Although the average age of entry into the business of selling sex in the United States is between 12 and 14, U.S. federal law considers girls under 18 to be trafficking victims because they are not of legal age. But men who buy sex from underage girls do not necessarily visualize them this way. Skinner has noticed that men who purchase sex often make moral excuses for their actions, convincing themselves that purchasing sex is “no more or less immoral than paying for a plumber to fix the toilet.” While the distinct and underlying crime of human sex trafficking, according to Skinner, lies in the enslavement of those trafficked for sex, both trafficked and non-trafficked women who sell sex experience a wide range of serious social, mental, and physical health consequences.

The Swedish Model

According to Nealon, Sweden’s approach to addressing prostitution is a model worth emulating. In 1999, Sweden passed the Sex Purchase Law, which criminalized the purchase of sex but decriminalized the sale of sex. The law takes into account the fact that a woman who sells sex has often reached this decision because “society has failed her and left her with no other choices,” recounted Nealon. The Swedes conceive of prostitution and the sale of sex as inherently harmful to women due to power imbalances that develop between the buyer and seller. The evidence suggests that they are right. Farley has found that prostitutes show a higher incidence of Post-Traumatic Stress disorder (PTSD) than Vietnam War veterans and torture victims. That is in addition to the verbal and physical abuse that women who sell sex endure on a daily basis; their exposure to sexually transmitted diseases; the stalking, battering, and rape they remain unprotected from; the anxiety, depression, mental distress, and substance abuse problems they are not treated for; and the permanent damage done to their bodies and reproductive systems.

In elementary school, Swedish children are taught about gender equality, dignity, and healthy relationships and learn to regard the purchase of another human being as unacceptable. The Sex Purchase Law works in tandem with Swedish welfare institutions that have increased the social services and job training available to prostitutes searching for other jobs. The impact of educating Swedes about equality and respect for women at an early age has translated into overwhelming popular support for the Sex Purchase Law, a 40 percent decrease in prostitution over the past five years, and a fundamental cultural shift in the way Swedish men regard the purchase of sex.

Additionally, an unanticipated but exceptional consequence of the Sex Purchase Law is that sex trafficking in Sweden has been virtually eliminated since the law’s passage. In economic terms, traffickers tend to regard countries where prostitution and demand for sex is illegal as less profitable markets for the women they are attempting to sell for sex than countries where prostitution is legal. While a universal ban on prostitution, like that which exists in the vast majority of American states today, has proven unsuccessful at halting sex trafficking, a framework that targets the demand side of the sex trafficking equation by criminalizing the purchasing of sex could yield more effective results. Recently, countries such as Iceland and Norway have followed Sweden’s lead by outlawing the purchase of sex in Iceland’s case and by criminalizing the purchase of sex acts anywhere in the world by Norwegian citizens.

Not Such a Party in the U.S.A.

Until American laws change to reflect the progressive and effective antitrafficking approaches found in many of the Nordic countries, short-run efforts to reduce demand for sex should begin with a more equitable enforcement of U.S. law. At present, police departments across the country arrest pimps, men who buy sex, and women who sell sex under the same law. However, the ratio of arrests is extremely skewed, with women selling sex representing 70 percent of those imprisoned in 2008, while pimps and male buyers of sex made up only 30 percent. Skinner noted that while “prohibition against it won’t make the crime disappear,” enforcement of U.S. antitrafficking law at the state level is an important first step in placing more responsibility on men for their choices. Nealon agreed, stating that harsher penalties in the short run would help men realize that when they purchase sex, they are not engaging in a “victimless crime.” She hopes that in the long run, men who buy sex will “gain more awareness and understanding of what their actions do to communities, women, and men themselves.”

Nealon also suggested that educating children about gender equality as early as kindergarten would help change the pervasive culture of impunity surrounding the purchase of sex in the United States and ultimately decrease the demand for sex that drives human sex trafficking. Constant references to exploitative sex in well-liked songs such as “P.I.M.P.” and the popularity of “Pimp and Ho”-themed parties at many colleges are subtle indicators of how American popular culture normalizes and even glorifies the purchase of sex. A cultural shift in the way that people, especially men who buy sex, think about purchasing sex from women, whether trafficked or not, is necessary to combat human sex trafficking.

Globally, education is one key to bringing the tragedy of sex trafficking to a halt on both the supply and demand sides of the industry. Ending human trafficking is not a lofty dream but rather an achievable goal that can be realized within our lifetimes through international cooperation, the proper legal framework, and education. If the culture surrounding the sale of sex can be changed on both ends of the sex trafficking equation, human sex slavery, along with the vulnerability of the Cambodian girls I met in Angkor Wat to this trade in human flesh, will become a relic of history.

Amy Larsen ’10 is a Political Science major in Calhoun College.