It’s naïve to think we can end sex trafficking when we’ve not begun to speak about it accurately.
Let me preface this by saying that I’ve been called a feminist on many occasions. As someone who is pro-equality I embrace the label just the same as I hope I’d have been labeled a “sympathizer” during the African-American civil rights movement. Yes, I believe more women should be in power and yes I believe they should be paid equal wages and yes I think it entirely absurd that elderly men hold positions of power such that their voice is loudest when it comes to the many health topics unique to women. Hell, I even donate to the Women’s Debate Institute. **Throat-clearing finished**
For a problem to be solved we must first see it for what it is. This applies to anything from fundamental calculus to fiscal cliffs. I can’t pretend to know much about either, but I’ve learned enough in my extensive research into sex trafficking to know this: the sex trafficking of boys is essentially absent from the conversation.
This might be a positive thing if the crime itself was front and center, but it’s not. Too often, and partly because the crime involves the word sex, the victim takes center stage. I’ve heard countless speakers from all over the world define sex trafficking as something that happens to girls and women or even as something that men do to girls and women. Don’t get my wrong, men are the primarily perpetrators of this crime and girls and women are the primary victims, but to constantly frame and even define the crime in such terms is, in its inaccuracy, distorting the public’s perception of the crime and layering our attempt to combat the crime with yet another barrier. There are enough already.
In my visit to Care Corner Orphanage in Thailand I was shocked that most of the HIV-infected sex slave survivors were boys under the age of ten. I saw and learned of something similar in the Philippines and in Bangladesh. Upon reflection, I think part of the reason for my shock was because I was conditioned through the media, literature, photo and film to believe that this was a crime perpetrated against only girls and women. The photo above actually came from a video released a few days ago by Reuters titled The Trafficking Business in which the entire focus is females as victims and how millions of them are forced into the sex trade or sweat shops. While not untrue, it’s not painting a full picture either.
Speaking broadly on the topic of human trafficking – boys and men are trafficked far more than girls and women because, in part, strong bodies are needed for labor. And as it relates to sex trafficking, girls and women are victims to a larger extent. Many other crimes have such disparities but few place the disparity so high in their definition. All this is to say let’s define human trafficking and sex trafficking for what they are: horrific crimes against the most vulnerable populations. There are loads of ways to be vulnerable. Yes, one of many vulnerabilities is being a woman. But there’s also the vulnerability of childhood, of lack of self-esteem or self-worth, of being displaced after a natural disaster, of being indebted/poor, of being too trusting, of being unaware, of being human. This is not a crime against men or a crime against women and it should not be defined as such. It is a crime against us.
As I mentioned in The Other 20%, men raping boys is still a taboo topic. Even filmmakers who document the horrors of sex trafficking have told me they feel their work wouldn’t be accepted if it instead highlighted the abuse of boys. “The public isn’t ready for it,” I’ve been told. Truth is, we only speak about the victimization of boys when it’s forced on us by breaking-news scandals like those of Jerry Sandusky or The Boys Scouts of America. As the news story fades so too does the conversation. This makes it tough, then, to even entertain the idea of discussing, as I’ve heard from several high-ranking women in anti-trafficking organizations, that the sex traffickers, the actual criminals in the crime, are about 65% men. Such a statistic has a hard time taking root because there’s already the perceived and ingrained idea that men and men-only are the criminals.
Though the crime is called “sex trafficking,” the leaders of the crime are rarely caught-up in the actual act of sex itself to the extent that it impacts their job. The big-time distributor of the drug is rarely a user of the drug, and, for the sake of addressing sex trafficking, we need to at times dehumanize it and instead view it as a business model, a criminal enterprise. Of course, the number of sex traffickers who also “use” is surely higher because their “use” doesn’t get them high and alter their decision-making to the same extent that drugs do. But I believe we need to force the comparative image and take the metaphor further to imagine the human victim not as flesh and blood but as a magical drug able to be used repeatedly. After all, this is one of the major allures human trafficking has over drug trafficking. A low-risk crime with big money payouts is attractive to criminally-minded humans. Not just to men. Not just to women.
If we are going to seriously tackle sex trafficking we need to cease our limiting attempts to define and first deepen our understanding.