Apr 042012

Human trafficking in Kentucky

By Beth Connors-Manke

On March 23-24, Georgetown College held what was billed as “the first state-wide conference on human trafficking.” I attended.

Human trafficking comes in two stripes: sex and labor. Legally, the crime is defined as “sex trafficking in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age” or “the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery.”


The Princess Leia syndrome

I knew what I was getting into when I signed up for the conference. I’d seen Taken (on a flight to Europe, no less); I’d encountered discussions of sex trafficking in my research, and even in ad in Yoga Journal. The ad was sponsored by Off the Mat, Into the World, a community service initiative. As yoga has its roots in India, the magazine frequently runs articles about Indian mythology, with its pantheon of gods and goddesses. Playing off this, the ad read, “This is how we treat Goddesses today… She is one of 3 million women and children enslaved for sex.” Ok, great, get the word out. Startle people, get them concerned, and then, when they are concerned, involved.

But here’s what “she” looks like: a beautiful, dark-haired young woman. Big black eyes accentuated with dark eyeliner. Most of her body is shadowed except for a bit of her face and her arms, which are held up before her, forearm to forearm, shackled. She wears gold bangles; there’s a henna design on one wrist. The photo is washed in sepia.

I’m sure the ad turns on almost any straight guy who sees it, especially if he’s watched Return of the Jedi. That part of the trilogy includes Princess Leia’s enslavement by Jabba the Hutt. After her capture, Leia is garbed in a bronze metal bikini, adorned with gold jewelry, and chained to fat-ass Jabba’s pedestal. Chained by her neck—she’s got a gold collar that he yanks on. Like she’s a dog.

This Leia, the “slave Leia,” is the one boys have dreamed about for 30 years. The confirmation for this? The costumes you can buy online (when I googled it, I got 500,000 results). The Friends episode when Rachel dons the costume to please Ross.

Even as a young girl watching Return of the Jedi, I knew this was the hottest scene, not because there was really going to be sex (come on, how would Jabba get it on with anyone?) but because it was sexy to tie up—excuse me, chain up—bikinied women.

Return of the Jedi may have been set in a galaxy far, far away, but Jabba’s harem encouraged a fantasy about women as sex slaves that’s nestled into our bedrooms and our private imaginings. So much so that an organization trying to eradicate sex trafficking actually sexes up the crime in order to get our attention.

House Bill 350

Back to the conference. Lovely, verdant Georgetown, KY on a warm spring day. I arrive late to the conference and slide into the large John L. Hill Chapel, where a talk on fair trade (to combat the labor side of human trafficking) is taking place.

During a break between talks: walking across the campus, looking at the trees, the green, I feel aversion bubble up. I think: I hate small towns. On the next break, I think, I hate small campuses in small towns.  During the next session, more aversion: There are too many women here. I listen to another session, and aversion shades into disgust about social work.

None of these reactions made sense. I have twice lived happily in small, quaint towns. I had a great college experience at a small school just like Georgetown, even down to the red brick. I like and get along with women, not to mention the fact that the audience had plenty of men in it. I once worked with social workers in a domestic violence shelter. All I knew was that I was, irrationally, hating a lot of things.

I did my best to ignore the angst while State Representative Sannie Overly and attorney Gretchen Hunt discussed House Bill 350, the Human Trafficking Victims Rights Act.

HB 350, which has passed the House and now awaits attention by the Senate, would augment the work of Senate Bill 43, passed in 2007, which made trafficking a felony.

Since real human trafficking is much less glamorous and much more, um, entrepreneurial than Jabba the Hutt’s pleasure ship (or whatever it was), Kentucky law needed to tackle the real dynamics of modern-day slavery. As Overly and Hunt described it, HB 350 needed to address three things: child victims, the fact that trafficking is a business, and resources for law enforcement and victims.

To those ends, the bill clarifies that it is a felony to buy children for sex. HB 350 also targets the “ill-gotten gains” of traffickers with asset forfeiture or seizure. This means that traffickers who force or coerce individuals into labor or sex will have their profits taken away. The assets seized will fund programs for victims, law enforcement agencies, and prosecutors.

Hunt, who has practiced immigration law on behalf of victims of domestic violence, rape, and human trafficking, said that it “makes sense that human trafficking happens in Kentucky.” I-75 makes for easy transport; the poverty rate in the state fosters desperation and exploitation; the effects of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) have pushed desperate immigrants into the U.S. “Kentucky is a ripe state for trafficking with its high rates of vulnerability,” Hunt told us.

While I assume it to be a standard phrase in the field, “high rates of vulnerability” seemed to speak to whatever was sparking my unwarranted feelings of aversion, those feelings that signaled that I wanted to push things way from me.

We’re not protecting our children

The evening’s keynote speaker, Theresa Flores, began her talk by saying that human trafficking is “an epidemic problem in our country and we know nothing about it.” A licensed social worker, Flores is the Director of Training and Education for Gracehaven House, a residential rehabilitation home in Ohio for girls under 18 who are victims of human trafficking. As several other speakers had also done, Flores claimed that human trafficking is the second leading crime in the world. The first? Drug trafficking. Flores asserted, “there’s more penalty for trafficking drugs than for trafficking humans.”

Flores had two major parts to her argument. First, women were increasingly sexualized during the course of the twentieth century, one dangerous result being teens (girls and boys) posting sexual pictures on the Internet, which draw traffickers to them. Just as insidious and damaging is that this sexualization makes children vulnerable to exploitation because they come to believe their value lies in sex.

Part of this dynamic also includes accepting pimping as an acceptable entrepreneurial venture. Because popular culture has glorified pimping, we tend not to see it for what it is: human trafficking. (Remember: the definition of sex trafficking stipulates that the crime can be “induced by force, fraud, or coercion.” Even in Pretty Woman, the romanticization of prostitution par excellence, we get a glimpse of how women are forced and coerced by their traffickers with Kit’s troubles with drugs and her pimp. Vivian gets out, but we’re not sure if Kit will.)

The second part of Flores’s argument is that we’re not protecting our children. When underage girls and boys are arrested for “teen prostitution,” we’re living in an oxymoronic world in which teens can’t legally give consent for sex with adults (that’s called statutory rape), yet we act as if they have sexual agency when they are bought for sex, i.e. prostituting. Flores’s point: they are not “teen prostitutes,” they are victims of human trafficking.

An energetic speaker, Flores made me feel as if I was getting better tools for thinking about the issue: an argument about culture; statistics about the number of persons trafficked into and within the U.S.; the places where trafficking is at its worst (generally border states, but also Ohio, where Flores is from); and the point that sex trafficking should be considered an economic issue. (Again, this is a pimp’s business.) Throughout the talk, though, Flores often referenced her own life, “my situation.”

The story of her situation didn’t come until the end, when Flores, a white woman from an Irish Catholic family, told her story of being trafficked as a teenager. The story was as shocking for what she was forced to do as for the fact that she doesn’t fit our current stereotype of a trafficking victim. She’s not an immigrant to the U.S.; she’s not black or brown. Her family wasn’t poor; she had a normal home life. She was forced into trafficking by a clean-cut boy at her high school who was linked to a sex trafficking ring happening, in part, in upscale suburban Detroit basements. And, if I did my math correctly, this was happening in the early 1980s, meaning the shadow economy of sex trafficking has been rooted in middle class sexuality for decades. (Side note: Return of the Jedi was released in 1983.)

Other parts of her story, though, spoke to the commonplaces of sex trafficking. Her traffickers controlled her movements, even though she was living in her parents’ home. They threatened her family. She was drugged, beaten, and treated as a commodity, not as human being. Groups of men lined up to rape her.

Truthfully, I would have been more taken aback by rich, educated guys chumming up in a sex trafficking ring if I hadn’t just come across a news story from June 2011. Here’s how Cleveland.com glibly titled the story: “College professors gone wild: Ex-president, physicist arrested in probe of prostitution website.” The story of David Flory, a physics professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey, and F. Chris Garcia, former president of the University of New Mexico, made its rounds nationally. Flory created a site called “Southwest Companions,” the goal of which was to connect johns to prostitutes in a way that evaded the police. Brainy as a physicist usually is, Flory allegedly created a tiered system by which johns were vetted and allowed to higher levels. Garcia sat at one of those higher levels and was accused of helping recruit prostitutes. This level was dubbed “the hunt club.”

I couldn’t find much recent reportage on the case, so it’s hard to know to what degree the prostitution ring overlapped with sex trafficking. Not all sex workers are being trafficked, but considering that coercion and fraud constitute part of human trafficking, there’s a good chance that in a web of supposedly 200 prostitutes and 1,400 members, there’s a pimp or two in there. And, if any of the prostitutes were under 18, the transaction is automatically sex trafficking.

The bigger picture

The complexity of addressing human trafficking is that it intersects with so many other issues, as attorney Gretchen Hunt had pointed out earlier. There’s drugs, there’s poverty, there are trafficking victims who don’t always fit the public’s picture of a pitiful victim. Some kids are sold by their parents; some are run-aways; some come to the U.S. to help make money for their families. We have a culture that teaches men that they are entitled to sex when they want it, as speaker Rus Funk of MensWork pointed out. We have women who traffick other men, women, and children. The more you look at the picture, the more you need a panoramic lens. The issue is so big.

Both Flores and Funk suggested that we have to address the cultural practices that normalize sexual exploitation: advertising, porn, “pimp and ho” parties, societal messages about dating and gender.

In terms of law, Flores advocated for the “Sweden Model” in which selling sex is made legal, but buying it is illegal.In other words, the johns are the ones bearing the punishment for fueling the trade and creating the demand for human trafficking and child sexual abuse. Flores didn’t hold out much hope for this type of law in the U.S., which told me yet again that we’re not that concerned about protecting our children.

According to KY Rescue and Restore, in Kentucky 52 percent of human trafficking cases are sex trafficking; 42 percent, labor. The remaining six percent are cases of both sex and labor trafficking. Currently, 43 percent of victims in Kentucky are children; if you consider that a number of adults enslaved in sex trafficking are pulled in when they were minors, you can see how much this business preys on children. This is one of the aspects of “the high rates of vulnerability” that Hunt was talking about.

The issue of vulnerability makes this issue hard to face, really face. The fact that there is an economic demand for abusing vulnerable men, women, and children in our country makes me doubt the integrity of my neighbors, my co-workers, my fellow citizens. And this is a profound unsettling, enough so that at the beginning of the conference, that fear, repulsion and, more than likely, despair, was displaced onto innocuous things around me: a small town, a grassy campus, other conference participants.

There’s irreparable damage done to those enslaved in human trafficking. If we are to join the fight to combat it, we also have to be prepared to accept that we’ll be damaged in some way, if only because facing this type of crime, exploitation, and perversion wounds you. In clinical settings, this is called “secondary trauma.” We might call it the price of being a modern-day abolitionist.

Or, we might call it the legacy of living in a country that has enslaved and continues to enslave. That’s our inheritance, our burden—whether we choose to face it or not.

Contact your State Senator about HB 350 by calling the legislative message line at 1.800.372.7181.

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  2 Responses to “Modern-day abolition and its price”

  1. […] In part one of this series, I discussed sex trafficking, especially in the imagination of middle class American culture. Here, I turn my attention to forced labor.  […]

  2. […] parts 1 and 2 of this series, I discussed sex trafficking and labor trafficking. Here, I end the series by considering how the economy of human trafficking […]

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