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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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A number of studies put the average age of entry into prostitution in the teenage years; 13 is a regularly repeated – though disputed – age. Many researchers also estimate that between 60 to 70 percent of prostituted women were sexually abused as children. And while studies about this are both few and hotly contested, a high percentage of prostituted women in many research projects say they're unable to change their situations. Even policymakers and academics who argue that adult prostitution is a choice acknowledge that many women in the commercial sex industry suffer regular violence from pimps, johns, and others.

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"Ultimately, pimp-controlled prostitution is trafficking," Ms. Fowler says.

This is what an activist who goes by the name of Stella Marr believes. Ms. Marr was 20 years old when she first entered, as people involved call it, "the life." Today she helps run a group called Survivors Connect, which encourages sex-trafficking survivors to take a leading voice in the anti-trafficking campaign, and writes a blog at "My Body The City: The Secret Life of a Manhattan Call Girl."

Although Marr says her profile was somewhat atypical, the way she entered prostitution was not. Impoverished and trying to find a place to live and work in New York City, she was disowned by her troubled family, who pulled her out of Barnard College. She found herself on the streets, sleeping in apartment and academic building lounges. She was so broke, she said, she would walk from 120th Street down to Midtown to save subway fare.

And pimps, she says, noticed: "I was a sitting duck."

One day a man came up to her and told her that one of his friends needed a roommate, and that another friend owned a restaurant and could get her a job there.

It was a ruse. The friendly man soon turned violent, Marr recalls. And eventually he told her she could not leave. For the next decade she worked as a call girl, living in an apartment-turned-brothel. But even when she moved into her own apartment, she didn't dare leave the business. Her pimps told her that she would suffer if she tried to escape. Having been beaten up regularly, and having witnessed violence against other prostitutes, she believed them.

Now, she says, living in the suburbs, with a husband and a dog, she realizes that her traffickers weren't, in fact, omniscient. But at the time it was impossible to find rationality through the trauma, she says. And she understands why others don't leave.

"It's Stockholm syndrome, traumatic bonding," she says. "You bond with people who are hurting you, to survive. Most women in prostitution have no other place to go. They don't have a safety net…. And after a while, it seems like it's the only thing you're good for.

"Anyone who has been in prostitution doesn't really see a distinction between trafficking and prostitution," she says. "In my lifetime – I'm in my 40s – I want there to be a time when a woman can say 'I was domestically trafficked' and it will be like saying 'I had breast cancer.' "

Evolution of the term 'trafficking'

Stories such as Marr's help improve the understanding of trafficking and the commercial sex industry, says Danielle Palmer of the Child Rescue Association of North America, a group that works to eliminate child trafficking in the US and Canada, with a focus on sex trafficking.

"A big part of the problem is that we've viewed women in a sexually exploitative way for so long," she says, adding that her organization hopes to mold a generation of young people who will understand that commercial sex is far from victimless.

But this is a highly contested point. Many groups that serve sex workers say that for many, prostitution is a choice, and that lumping the commercial sex industry with sex trafficking is inaccurate and adds to the hype.

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