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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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One of the most public campaigns against domestic trafficking was launched last year by the philanthropic foundation of Ms. Moore and Mr. Kutcher. It was called "Real Men Don't Buy Girls," and used a campy, interactive video format that enlisted other celebrities, such as Justin Timberlake and Eva Longoria, to raise awareness about "child sex slavery in the US."

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Moore and Kutcher gave interviews, made T-shirts, and rallied the Twitterverse to the cause. One of the most troubling statistics they shared was that there are 100,000 to 300,000 sex slaves in the US – figures repeated by interviewers, blogs, TV hosts and other movie stars.

The problem: The statistics are wrong.

Those figures came from a 2001 University of Pennsylvania study ("The Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children in the U.S., Canada and Mexico") that estimated that there might be 100,000 to 300,000 children at risk of becoming trafficked prostitutes because of an array of negative circumstances, from homelessness to drug addiction. The number of actual sex-trafficking victims has been estimated by the US government to be in the tens of thousands, but even those numbers have been criticized as unfounded and far too high; between 2008 and 2010, federally funded human-trafficking task forces opened 2,515 suspected incidents of human trafficking for investigation. Among those cases, only 248 suspected sex-trafficking victims under the age of 18 were identified.

Anti-trafficking advocates acknowledge the goof but say the celebrities' point is still accurate: Far too many young girls are sold for sex in the US. The Department of Justice numbers, they say, reflect a fraction of the real victims.

But the misstep, say critics, is a prime example of the problem with how American activists have started to tackle the real problem of trafficking. Hype over such high and inaccurate numbers of "child sex slaves" leads to a misguided response at best, they say. At worst, it siphons financial resources away from preventing other sorts of human trafficking. These critics worry that the growing – alarmist – focus on sex trafficking in America, bolstered by this sort of sensationalism, undermines solutions to problems, such as poverty and homelessness, that lead to exploited youth in the first place.

One such critic – Ann Jordan, director of the program on trafficking and forced labor at American University's law school in Washington, D.C. – has watched the US anti-sex-trafficking campaign with dismay.

A longtime advocate against human rights violations associated with various types of forced labor globally – such as indentured servitude, debt bondage, and slavery – Ms. Jordan says the anti-domestic-sex-trafficking movement "just took off and created its own industry," in part because it touched upon a conservative social nerve.

"Everybody wants to save the virgins, right?" she states. The hype, she says, ends up sidelining other concerns – such as the broader categories of human trafficking or even forced labor, which do not have to involve sex. "You need to tailor your response to the reality. You should not tailor your response to the hype."

What exactly is 'sex trafficking'?

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