New State Department Report Fuels Push to End Slavery in America

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Five years later, things are changing. In March 2011, the Senate introduced the Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking Deterrence and Victims Support Act, a popular bill on both sides of the aisle. The act would help fund local efforts to track, stop and prevent sex trafficking as well as provide services to those rescued from “the life.” And in a little-reported motion, the Uruguayan delegation to the United Nations made a recommendation to the United States via the Human Rights Council, suggesting that sex workers, along with other sexual minorities, should be seen as their own distinct group, with a unique set of human rights challenges. It was accepted by the State Department in March, who wrote: “No one should face violence or discrimination in access to public services based on sexual orientation or their status as a person in prostitution.”

So how prevalent is this type of forced prostitution? Numbers are difficult to come by and the advocacy community has been plagued with false data that can undermine their efforts to convey the scope of the problem. But there is a great deal we do know, thanks to reports like TIP, which this year revealed that the number of trafficked individuals may be growing. In 2009, the FBI arrested 844 girls under the age of 18 and 235 boys under 18 for prostitution — another increase over previous years. It’s hard to know if the rising numbers point to a surge in trafficking, or more effective efforts to find trafficking victims. But other sources, like anecdotal reporting from the field and information from non-governmental organizations can help round out the picture.

Aside from establishing good data, the first issue to tackle is how to define this crime when it might seem that its victims are free to go if they want to. Under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, sex trafficking is also any commercial sex worker who is under 18 years old. According to the TIP report it also includes any situation in which “an adult is coerced, forced or deceived into prostitution — or maintained in prostitution through coercion.” A person can initially consent to prostitution, but if they are forced or coerced into staying, they are also considered a victim of trafficking. And, obviously there are many trafficking victims who entered into the equation when they were under age and then for myriad reasons ranging from the psychological damage they’ve endured or direct coercion, they are unable or unwilling to get out when they become adults.

“You don’t have to be chained to a wall to think you can’t leave,” says Lloyd. “And frankly psychological bondage is frequently much, much stronger.”

MORE: Legal Sex Work in Canada Just Became Easier, But Will It Be Safer?

But sometimes it is a material concern that keeps someone in sex trafficking, such as debt bondage. In other words, the traffickers will often insist that a trafficked person pay off the costs incurred to purchase fake documents, travel abroad and house, feed and clothe them. The report focuses on human trafficking as a whole, including people who work as domestic servants, unpaid farm laborers and sweatshop workers as well. And numbers suggest that these types of enslavement are going up as well. In 2010, 449 foreign adults and 92 foreign children were awarded assistance by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) — up from 330 adults and 50 children in 2009. HHS services are a good barometer of foreign trafficking levels because they are offered to all trafficked victims who come into contact with authorities as part of their T-visas or U-visas — the same residency options awarded to refugees. Of course, those numbers do not include domestic victims.

But as Luis CdeBaca, the Ambassador-at-Large for the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking In Persons at the U.S. Department of State points out, there is little difference between a labor and sex slave: A woman who is enslaved as a domestic servant is nearly as likely as a trafficked prostitute to face sexual abuse. In fact, the report points to a disturbing trend in which sexually abused domestic workers are re-sold into sex slavery. What CdeBaca termed a “secondary market in raped maids.”

“I would venture to say that any trafficked domestic servant is someone who has been sexually abused or has not yet been sexually abused,” said CdeBaca. “She will be – it’s an almost certainty. If there’s a man in the house or a boy who is reaching puberty — they have so much power over this other human being, it’s just a disaster waiting to happen.”

Unsurprisingly, according to experts in the field, power imbalance — financial, cultural, psychological — remains the driving force of this abuse, which prays on the poverty and desperation of its victims.

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