We have slavery in the United States, not that it’s usually described that way. Occasionally, a story surfaces about an undocumented immigrant worker, held against her will in appalling conditions. In one particularly high-profile case in 2007, a wealthy couple on Long Island held two Indonesian women as maids, withholding food and forcing them to sleep on mats. Many of the forced laborers who work for no pay, who are beaten and held against their will, come here from other countries — smuggled in by coyotes who sell them into someone else’s service.
But it’s not just housekeepers or farm workers. Slavery fuels the sex industry too and in those cases, the vast majority of victims are U.S. citizens. In fact, they are mostly American children — often the most invisible of American children: poor, female, disadvantaged minorities and already in the child welfare system. They are advertised on websites like Craigslist alongside apartments and used bikes. They work on our street corners, in motels and massage parlors that we pass on our commutes. We know they exist, but we don’t call them slaves — we usually call them prostitutes or call girls or ‘hos without any conscious idea that they have frequently been dragged into the industry as kids and kept there by coercion, abuse and fear.
“The extreme level of violence faced by these girls, it’s no different — it’s the same exact pattern of coercion as with slavery,” says Rachel Lloyd, the founder of Girls Educational and Mentoring Services (GEMS), the largest U.S. organization that services trafficked and sexually exploited young women. And while the word “slavery” still isn’t commonly used, a movement is growing to end the forced enslavement of workers, whether it’s for sex or labor. “It’s trafficking. That’s what we’ve been able to do over the last decade is get people to realize that this is domestic trafficking.”
On June 27, the U.S. State Department announced the release of its eleventh annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, a research and policy statement on addressing slavery worldwide and specifically in the U.S. This year’s report is expected to get a great deal more attention than previous versions because the issue of human trafficking, especially the domestic trafficking of young women for sex, has been gaining traction in the media and among celebrity advocates like Demi Moore.
A shocking article in last month’s Vanity Fair told the story of two young teenagers from small town Vermont who were lured into the sex trade and then bought and sold like livestock — a scenario we more commonly associate with the black market trade corridors of Eastern to Western Europe, or the desperate poverty of families in rural villages in the developing world. But the girls in this case were American-born and their last point of sale occurred in a seedy motel on the outskirts of Hartford, Conn. Their Johns, according to their pimp, were mostly white businessmen who came from tony New York suburbs like Greenwich, Conn.
And in Girls Like Us, a memoir released this month, Lloyd recalls her teen years as a prostitute in England and Germany — and her motivation for starting GEMS. Like many of her charges, Lloyd entered the sex industry as a teen runaway from an abusive home. In 2006, Lloyd was awarded the Reebok Human Rights award for her work with sex trafficking victims. As she accepted it, she said: “This award actually recognizes, probably for the first time publicly, that the commercial exploitation of children in our country is a human rights issue. You look at places like the Philippines and Thailand and the Ukraine and we talk about trafficking and sexual exploitation in other countries and yet, when it’s happening two blocks away from this auditorium, when it’s happening in Bedford-Stuyvesant or in Hunts Point or Queens Plaza, we look the other way.”