Obama, human trafficking and teachable moments on a difficult topic

President Obama's landmark speech on human trafficking – a major, but misunderstood human rights issue – is a teachable moment for parents to talk about sexual exploitation to kids who need to understand the issue.

President Obama spoke this week about human trafficking as one of the world's biggest human rights problem that includes such things and the sex trade. Here 16-year-old prostitute Maya applies lipstick in front of a customer inside her small room at Kandapara brothel in Tangail, Bangladesh, March 5, 2012.

Here, parents, is a teachable moment for your kids:

Earlier this week, President Obama gave what advocates are calling a “landmark” speech about human trafficking, a growing human rights concern in the United States.

The president focused pretty equally on labor and sex trafficking, and announced a number of new US efforts to combat what he called “the injustice, the outrage, of human trafficking, which must be called by its true name – modern slavery.” 

Somewhat predictably, though, the most vocal response here to the speech has come from those involved in the anti-sex-trafficking movement.  “Sex trafficking” is a subset of human trafficking, one that has gotten a lot of domestic attention recently, from politicians to nonprofit organizations, celebrities to church groups. The stories that these groups tell of victims are horrific – of young girls, many of whom are American, being kidnapped or tricked, and the subjected to all varieties of violence and cruelties while pimps sell them for sex.

But ...  it turns out to be a more complicated story. I wrote a cover story about this a few weeks back for the CSMonitor Weekly magazine. What seems at first glance to be a simple good-versus-evil issue is actually filled with all sorts of debates, confusions, and ambiguities.

You can read the full story, but the gist is that critics say that many anti-sex-trafficking advocates conflate trafficking with other forms of prostitution. And they say this domestic focus on sex has shifted attention – and resources – away from the other (and arguably far more common, if you’re including all sorts of forced labor) types of trafficking that Mr. Obama noted in his speech. 

Advocates, meanwhile, say that this criticism is absurd. While certainly all human trafficking deserves attention, they say, there’s no reason not to focus on the exploitation of young girls, many of whom are American.

Which brings me to why I’m writing about this in a parenting forum.

Although this was not necessarily clear from the president’s speech this week, when we talk about sex trafficking in the US, we’re primarily talking about girls under 18 involved in prostitution. It doesn’t matter whether these girls are beaten and burned and kidnapped, as many of the stories go, or whether they seek out a pimp because they want extra cash. Under US federal law, there’s an argument that if a girl is under 18 and working with a pimp, she’s a sex-trafficking victim.

Now, the numbers on this are incredibly squishy and hard to pin down. (I’m telling you, I spent months trying to figure out how organizations came up with the numbers they throw around, and most of the time there’s no good answer.) But it’s pretty clear that a good number of young American girls are sold for sex (or sell themselves for sex), and it’s also pretty clear that this is – in the vast, vast majority of cases – not healthy or happy for these teens.

And here’s another thing: While most prostituted teenagers started out as vulnerable teenagers – they were homeless, say, or had drug addictions – there are a number of cases around the US of more mainstream girls ending up as victims.

In Northern Virginia, for instance, prosecutors earlier this year broke up a gang-related sex trafficking ring in which a number of  high school girls – at least a few of whom lived at home, with parents – were recruited by other girls into a prostitution business.  In Georgia, there has reportedly been a prostitution ring (again, managed in large part by other girls), run out of an Atlanta area high school.

Now, is the takeaway from this to lock up your daughter, or start panicking because classmates are just waiting for a chance to lure her into prostitution?

No. Rather, the president’s speech, and the growing movement around sex trafficking, is a chance to talk about sexual exploitation – whether called trafficking or something else.  (It’s a good moment to think seriously about your own prejudices and perspectives on this, also). It’s a chance to talk about exploitation overall, actually, and about how easy it is for us to look away from those whose suffering is uncomfortable or inconvenient to us; whether that’s the young prostitute you try to ignore as you drive through your city at night, or the impoverished worker a world away who is making your next iPhone.

It’s also a good chance to talk about hype, and about looking for facts underneath rhetoric.

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