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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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When nonprofits and celebrities and even sex-worker advocates throw around the term "sex trafficking," what do they mean?

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Some are referring to girls and women who are enslaved, transported from country to country, and forced to work in brothels. Others mean girls who are essentially kidnapped, shuttled from motel to motel, sold for sex and subject to violence from pimps and johns.

But federal law defines sex trafficking broadly to include all children involved in prostitution with a pimp. Some even interpret the law as covering all minors involved in prostitution at all. This includes girls who seek out a pimp for work, who are engaged in prostitution in their hometowns, whose families know about their prostitution, and even those who turn down opportunities to leave their "traffickers." In some ways, sex-trafficking laws are similar to statutory rape laws – the government has determined that a minor simply cannot consent to being involved in this sort of commercial sex.

The law upon which much of the US anti-trafficking work is based, and to which many advocates trace the start of the domestic anti-trafficking movement, is the Trafficking Victims Protection Act 2000. The UN adopted its own anti-trafficking protocol the same year.

At first, the US law focused primarily on problems abroad. This made sense, according to those who worked on the legislation. The international numbers for human-trafficking victims were – and are – high: The UN has estimated human trafficking to be a $32 billion global industry; in 2008 it estimated that 2.5 million people from 127 countries were trafficked – 79 percent for sex, the rest for other forms of labor, from farm work to sweatshops. Many are children.

(These numbers vary tremendously from agency to agency and year to year; they are also far lower than the 21 million to 27 million global trafficking victims reported by the US State Department and, recently, the International Labor Organization. The discrepancy depends on whether "trafficked" involves all forms of forced labor or a subset of situations, usually in which a person is actually moved from place to place. Some UN groups say that it is impossible to calculate an accurate number of victims.)

The US law required the State Department to include an analysis of trafficking in its annual country human rights reports and ordered the US Agency for International Development to put together programs to combat trafficking abroad. The law also established a new form of visa for trafficking victims as a way to encourage them to cooperate with law enforcement without fear of deportation.

But the federal law also gave a new definition of sex trafficking: "the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining a person for the purposes of a commercial sex act, in which the commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age." The law states that coercion includes threats of physical or psychological harm to children, and that any person under age 18 induced to participate in commercial sex is a sex-trafficking victim.

The all-encompassing definition of victimhood, say social workers and advocates, is important because it doesn't matter how or why young women first begin "working" in prostitution. Often, girls who end up in prostitution are already vulnerable – they are abuse victims, come from unstable homes, have run away, or suffer mental impairments. Others are simply naive, susceptible to manipulation of a pimp, who often pretends at first to be a boyfriend.

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