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Human trafficking: a misunderstood global scourge

Sex trafficking has become an American cause célèbre. But does it divert attention from the broader human trafficking issue of modern-day slavery?

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New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof's crusade last spring against domestic sex trafficking and the online marketer Backpage.com, which he accused of helping sell underage girls into sex slavery, prompted a widespread movement against the website and its owner, Village Voice Media. Many advertisers in Village Voice Media – including Starbucks, AT&T, and Best Buy – cut ties with the company.

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There have been local benefit concerts against sex trafficking and, recently, even a Tennessee church rodeo to raise awareness about the issue.

Federal prosecutors have also increased their efforts against human trafficking – with a primary focus on sex trafficking. The Department of Justice prosecuted only two human trafficking cases in 1998; in 2011 it charged 120 defendants with human-trafficking crimes. The bulk of cases were related to sex trafficking.

"For years, whenever we talked about sex trafficking in America the reaction was surprise," says Andrea Powell, executive director and cofounder of FAIR Girls, an anti-trafficking organization based in Washington, D.C. "The perception was that it happened to girls in foreign countries.... We've seen the beginning of a shift in the attitudes in the US, and that has to do with public awareness."

On one level, the new and growing focus on domestic human trafficking seems straightforward. Clearly, enslavement of individuals, and sexual exploitation of children, is cause for concern. But when the international issue becomes a domestic one, and when forced labor starts to involve sex, there also comes an emotional debate about where the real problem ends and where hype and sensationalism begin.

As with anything that involves the letters S, E, and X, academics, advocates, and the general public are emotional and divided. Dig beneath the surface of the anti-sex-trafficking movement and there are ambiguities and confusions and facts and fictions.

Are all prostitutes really sex-trafficking victims? Does Internet porn or sex tourism encourage trafficking? Are underage prostitutes always exploited by pimps?

Rather than being a black-and-white, good-and-bad issue, trafficking touches on some of the most uncomfortable and conflicted areas of American public discourse. The resulting debate is about sex and abuse and human rights, for sure. But it's also about prostitution and attitudes toward commercial sex overall. It is a conversation about the sexualization of teens and social responsibility for troubled youth, even the tenuous relationship with cheap labor.

Understanding these interrelated issues, say many who have long worked against human trafficking in all its forms, is necessary for coming up with the most effective solutions. They contend that celebrity videos and sloganeering – even from the highest-ranking policymakers – oversimplify the problem.

Responding to reality or hype?

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