What Is Human Trafficking?
Trafficking in persons (TIP) is the illegal commerce in human beings. It can be helpful to conceptualize TIP (also known as human trafficking) as a process through which a person loses his or her freedom and is reduced to the status of someone else’s “property.” People who live through the trafficking process ultimately experience slavery, because they become people over whom others assume the powers and rights of ownership.
The foundational elements that make up the trafficking process include one or more of the following: recruiting, harboring, transporting, provisioning, or obtaining of a person. For a person to be a victim of human trafficking, at the end of this process, the individual must find him or herself in a context of exploitation—either being exploited for their labor or for the sexual use of their bodies. Accordingly, human trafficking can be divided into two broad categories: labor trafficking and sex trafficking.
In 2000, the U.S. Congress passed the Trafficking Protection Act (TVPA) which is the cornerstone of U.S. federal law criminalizing TIP. The TVPA is periodically “reauthorized” by the U.S. Congress; through the reauthorization process the TVPA is refined. Of particular importance, the TVPA’s definition of “sex trafficking” was expanded to incorporate acts associated with commercial sexual exploitation. Thus, sex trafficking now is defined as “the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provisioning, patronizing, soliciting or obtaining of a person for the purpose of a commercial sex act.”
The organization, My Life My Choice, which serves survivors of sexual exploitation stated that approximately half of the survivors they work with were trafficked online. The National Center on Missing and Exploited Children has reported that 73% of all child sex trafficking cases its handled involved Backpage.com. With operations in 97 countries and 943 locations worldwide, Backpage is likely the largest facilitator of sex trafficking in the world.
SEVERE FORMS OF TRAFFICKING
According to the TVPA, whether in instances of labor trafficking or sex trafficking, those cases in which the elements of force, fraud, or coercion are involved in the trafficking process elevate the nature of the trafficking offense. Therefore, when human traffickers utilize force, fraud, or coercion against their victims such cases are referred to as severe forms of human trafficking.
An exception to this standard is made in cases of sex trafficking in which the person induced to perform commercial sex acts has not yet reached 18 years of age. While such cases are also considered severe forms of human trafficking because the victims are minors, it is not necessary for authorities to prove that the elements of force, fraud, or coercion occurred.
Some victims of TIP are trafficked into a variety of work settings for the purpose of exploiting their labor, ergo the term labor trafficking. Frequently victims of labor trafficking find themselves working in restaurants, hotels, fishing boats, and sweatshops, or as domestic servants in private homes or as farmhands in agricultural settings. Victims of labor trafficking may experience a variety of physical, psychological, and sexual abuses while “working,” but the principle nature of their exploitation involves the theft of the wages of their labor and the abrogation of their individual autonomy.
Sex trafficking, on the other hand, involves the exploitation of the victim in the commercial sex industry where the victim is expected to provide commercial sex acts on demand. Commercial sex acts are any sex acts on account of which anything of value (e.g. money, clothes, shelter, food, drugs, etc.) is given to or received by any person.
Because a person has no meaningful right to refuse sex in such a context, the principle nature of their exploitation is that of rape and the abrogation of their individual autonomy. The victim’s experience of rape is substantially intensified by the serial sexual assaults perpetrated against them by untold numbers of people who pay money to their traffickers/pimps in order to sexually use them.
Whether or not the commercial sex buyer is aware that the individual they have purchased is trafficked or not, does not mitigate the victim’s experience of their sexual encounter as one of rape. As individuals compelled to sell themselves, the individuals providing sex are not “consenting,” thus the sex acts in which they are involved are inherently sexual assault and rape. As psychologist Wendy Freed has observed, “When an individual has been beaten into submission, and has become passive and accepting of what is done to her because she is a captive, then any sexual encounter she has is rape. Even if she has worked hard to attract the customer, because she has no right to refuse consent, she is being raped.”
A continuum of “enterprises” makes up the commercial sex industry. These can include:
- pornography production studios,
- strip clubs (e.g. table and lap dancing),
- live-sex shows,
- peep shows,
- Internet, “virtual,” or cyber-based prostitution,
- escort or outcall services,
- “sex tour” operators,
- International marriage brokers,
- brothels (frequently operating behind fronts such as massage parlors, saunas, bathhouses, bars, cabarets, clubs, cinemas, beauty salons, barber shops, and restaurants), as well as
- pimp-facilitated, street-level prostitution.
These sexually oriented businesses (SOBs) profit by supplying sex to those seeking it, and constitute a “global supply chain of sexual exploitation.” In order to supply sex, the commercial sex industry must provide sufficient access to bodies. Because most women prefer not to sell sex, some SOBs must depend on sexually trafficked women and girls (and boys) to make up a sufficient supply of bodies available for sex. Not all people in the commercial sex industry have gone through the trafficking process, but participation in the commercial sex trade is inherently harmful to the individuals in it whether they have been sexually trafficked or not.
SOBs, whether in legal or illegal environs, can range in sophistication from mom-and-pop operations and decentralized criminal networks, to syndicates with multiple illicit businesses, or highly, sophisticated corporate enterprises with publicly traded stock. Those involved in, connected to, or with self-interest in commercial sex industry enterprises extend well beyond the commercial sex buyers, sex traffickers (a.k.a. pimps) or owners and investors. In fact those with a stake in the commercial sex industry can include taxi drivers, hotel owners, travel agents, waiters, newspapers and media groups. Thus, many people and sectors of the economy profit from participation in the global supply chain of sexual exploitation. Factors such as globalization and industrialization, lax laws or the legalization of prostitution, the pervasive demand for commercial sex, and attractive financial incentives, have spurred the growth of the sex industry and established it as a recognized “business sector” figuring significantly into the national economics of countries around the world.
CONSEQUENCES OF SEX TRAFFICKING
Once trafficked into the commercial sex industry, victims endure unspeakable acts of physical brutality and violence; suffer serial rape by so-called customers and pimps; undergo forced abortions; acquire drug and alcohol dependencies; live in fear of their lives and for the lives of their family and friends; suffer acute psychological reactions as a result of their ongoing, extreme physical and emotional trauma; and contract sexually transmitted diseases, which all too often bring life-long illness and hasten death. If they survive the physical abuse, the psychological and spiritual impacts of these experiences on victims are devastating and enduring.
CORNERSTONES OF SEX TRAFFICKING
In closing, it must also be recognized that the institution of prostitution is inherently harmful and dehumanizing, and significantly contributes to the phenomenon of sex trafficking by providing societal structure and sanction for the buying and selling of persons for sex. Any payment for sex constitutes a form of sexual coercion, ergo prostitution is inherently a form of sexual exploitation. Pornography is also innately harmful and dehumanizing. It contributes to sex trafficking by conditioning men to view females as mere objects for their sexual use, and by leading some men to seek sex through prostitution.
 Freed, W. (2003). From duty to despair: Brothel prostitution in Cambodia. In M. Farley (Ed.), Prostitution, trafficking and traumatic stress (pp. 133-146). Binghamton, NY: The Haworth Maltreatment and Trauma Press.
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