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.”
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.”
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.