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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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It is such a contested issue that several academics with expertise on prostitution contacted for this article declined to speak with the Monitor, pointedly saying their studies are about sex work, not trafficking.

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"To throw the net and label all prostitution as trafficking is too broad," says Sienna Baskin, codirector of the Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center, a group that provides services to commercial sex workers – those who have been trafficked as well as those who say they were not manipulated into prostitution. "It doesn't recognize that people have a really wide array of experiences in commercial sex; it also means that you're trying to put the same solution on a bunch of different problems."

Equating commercial sex with trafficking, says Ms. Jordan, the American University law professor, is the most recent in a series of morally based antiprostitution campaigns in the past century and a half, starting with a campaign by educated British women during the 1800s protesting white prostitutes following men to the colonies. "The middle-class and upper-class women didn't like it," she says. "They called it the 'white slave trade.' "

More recently, she says, was a 1980s feminist effort to label pornography and prostitution as trafficking: "They were talking about prostitution and nobody was paying any attention. Then there were all these women flooding out of Eastern Europe, China opened up, women were migrating and ending up in debt bondage situations. They would escape, run away, and end up at women's organizations asking for help. People started calling it trafficking, and ... antiprostitution campaigns adopted the term."

Sometimes the portrayal of sex slavery was accurate, Jordan says, sometimes it wasn't. But the term stuck, and got even more attention under the George W. Bush administration.

The semantic fine lines, say advocates such as Marr, miss the point. If it weren't for the growing awareness of domestic sex trafficking within the US – if not for the Ashton Kutchers and Nicholas Kristofs and the many organizations explaining the background behind young girls on street corners – Marr says that she'd still feel ashamed, and hundreds of young women wouldn't feel they deserve to seek help.

Without "this new recognition of sex trafficking, I don't know if I'd have the courage to be speaking to you today," she says.

Funding at stake

But equating prostitution with sex trafficking isn't the only trouble with the domestic anti-sex-trafficking movement, critics say.

The focus on domestic underage prostitution diverts attention – and funding – from equally exploitative, but less sensational, forms of forced labor and slavery. These forms of human trafficking can just as easily happen in the US as elsewhere – an immigrant housekeeper without a passport whose employers force her to work, for instance, or an illegal immigrant smuggled into the country to work in a nail salon or on a farm and who is neither paid nor allowed to leave. Although estimates for these sorts of victims in the US are also in the many thousands, federal anti-trafficking task forces opened investigations into cases involving only 63 suspected victims between 2008 and 2010, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

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