This year? Will you all be doing something this year to mark the occasion of Human Trafficking Awareness Day? I suppose I have earned a bit of exasperation. As religious and secular reporters called again this year, some expressed their frustration that for us at St. Alban’s, Human Trafficking Awareness Day usually marks another day in the long fight against modern slavery. This year, on January 11, some of us will be doing the work of trying to lead those trafficked to freedom and healing, others of us will be doing some education and awareness events in the QCA and surrounding towns, and all of us will be praying again this weekend for both those enslaved and those who enslave them as well as those who have survived the experience.
This year, though, it seems incumbent upon us that we begin to lead a shift. For too long, we in America have glorified slavers and minimized the dehumanization done to those enslaved. Part of this effort has been intentional, no doubt. Cable shows such as Pimps & Hoes minimize the trauma and pain forced upon so many women and girls and young boys trapped in the sex trade, an industry so big that some estimates place the profits in the neighborhood of $8 billion dollars. Instead, there is a commercial attempt to glorify and normalize the lifestyle exhibited. Men want the young, fresh, new-to-the-business girls; but little attempt is made to learn her story or to even make sure she is performing whatever acts for money she will get to keep. Leading to the purchase of sex for money is the related industry of pornography. As part of that $8 Billion profit center, the effects of pornography on men, women, and relationships is only beginning to be documented by social scientists. One of the ties between the two are online sites that blatantly advertise girls and boys being sold for sex. Though most suspect such blatant sites disappeared with Craigslist, other sites have sprung up around the country to place buyers in contact with sellers and their slaves. And while the sex trade may account for more than 90% of the profits off the labors of those trafficked, it accounts for less than 6% of the number of those enslaved around the world.
In America we love cheaper goods. One of the deep, dark secrets of the business world is that labor can sometimes be forced rather than paid. At times, this can take the form of prison labor, as some of the goods in China are made. At other times, “coyotes” pretend to be temporary agencies offering employees at amazingly cheap rates. The companies pay the “temp agency;” the goods get made; and we buy them cheap. And still other systems, such as debt-bondage, are heaped upon the poorest of the poor. To our desensitized ears and fuller wallets, it sounds reasonable: I loan you money and you work for me. The problem is that the interest rates and required purchases are more like those of coal mine scrip stores, and people are seldom ever able to work off their debt and enjoy freedom. Eventually, the owner “trades them” to someone who “pays off” their debt. You and I would call it purchasing the slave.
Survivors of human trafficking can be found working as au pairs or nannies or maids in the households of some the wealthier-to-do in our country. Survivors can be found working in the gardens of those same estates. Survivors of human trafficking can even be found picking labor intensive foods such as tomatoes, apples, strawberries, or avocados. They can be found in factory settings, in meat packing facilities, in any industry where labor costs need to be controlled. And survivors can be around us in all walks of life.
One of the chief criticisms leveled at those “who have no idea” is the language that we use. Those who would enslave other human beings have figured out that words have power, that naming someone or something gives one a certain amount of power over it and them. By allowing them to determine the language, we have allowed ourselves to be convinced that the slaves “have chosen their lives,” that “they enjoy what they are doing,” that “their existence is not that bad.” No longer! To that end, we in Attacking Trafficking and at St. Alban’s are tired of using the soft language, the language that minimizes the abuse and dehumanization occurring in our midst. In order to raise the consciousness of the fight we are in the dehumanization being practiced, we are beginning to try and change the vocabulary so that we can begin to have honest discussions about what is going on in the world around us. Naturally, we are open to suggestions, especially from survivors, but here goes an effort to revise the lexicon:
Human Trafficking -- the phrase makes sense, but too many people confuse it with other phrases. Worse, far too many people associate it with illegal immigration and especially smuggling. As the President has already figured out, however, slavery cannot be mistaken. It is precisely because the word evokes those emotions and those cultural memories that we should return to it when speaking of this evil. How else can we better sum up the illegal trade in human beings for the purposes of commercial sexual exploitation or forced labor? Slavery knows no borders, knows no socio-economic limits, knows no racial preference, and is the best word used to describe those who are forced to work for no pay, whether they are prostitutes owned by men or women who sell them or special needs men working in a turkey processing plant in rural Iowa.
Victims. I have had three or four ladies and one man ask that I not think of them as victims. Victim, to them, reminds them of the powerlessness of those lives they have escaped. Victim, for them, implies an on-going process of dehumanization. Instead, we have begun speaking of those who have escaped as survivors. Survivor is a strong word; it is a word which describes a fighter. If you have ever encountered a survivor of slavery, you know the physical and emotional strength that was necessary for them to survive their ordeal and to gain their freedom. Some of those methods of survival and escape might well be questioned by those with the benefit of freedom (slaves have had to serve as bottoms for slavers, for example) and the luxury of idleness, but these men and women have managed to survive and find their way out of a situation that, more often than not, results in death, death at the hands of the buyer, the slaver, or themselves.
Hoes/Whores/Prostitutes. There is a myth out there, mostly promulgated by slavers and buyers, that the girls engaged in prostitution are simply choosing to earn money in the way that others of us choose our own career paths. My personal experience is that many are like those who have had abortions in their past. Few celebrate it. Almost universally, they lament the path their life took. But the money is, admittedly, very good. One of the lures for those rescued is for them to return to “the game” of their own choosing. My question for society, though, revolves around their decision-making process. If a girl has been sold in the sex industry for a period of time, and missed out on education and social formation during that period, can we really think of such women as making a rational decision? Yes, they will say that they can make more money on their back or dropping a guy’s pants in an evening than most professional women will make in a week, but lacking that education and socialization, can we say they are making a fully-informed decision? What are their options? Plus, far too many of the ladies we encounter are in reality minors. Girls are usually first trapped as sex slaves at age 12.8 or so (for boys, the age is nearly half that). If those buying their services could not avoid statutory rape charges in a consensual sexual relationship with a girl, can we ever really say that she “chose to sell herself.” For me personally, and for many of those with whom I labor in the field, I am nearly at the point where I think that prostitution ought to be decriminalized for the sex slaves. Get tougher on the buyers and slavers, but give those victimized opportunities to get help and out of the life.
Johns. Let’s call them what they are: buyers. As long as we continue the myth of calling them Johns, what they are doing seems legitimized. Let’s call what they are doing what they are doing: they are buying girls or boys or men or women for sex. Period. They are not nice guys like we know looking for a Pretty Woman. They are not nice guys like we all know looking for company and fun. The name they give themselves, monger, does not convey the absolute evil they are perpetrating and perpetuating. The social sciences are beginning to see a significant difference between those men who pay for sex and those who don’t (an article from, I believe Newsweek, addressed this in the mainstream some time ago). Aside from the attempted decoupling of the emotional aspect from the physical action of sex, there are other disturbing trends. Buyers don’t have to worry about whether the one purchased likes what he is doing to her. Even in the cases of consenting adults, if one can truly call such a situation this, there is a sense of ownership. “I paid for you. You will do what I want.” Universally, girls and women in the game talk of this aspect. Buyers demand to go bareback, demand to be able to engage in violent anal sex, and demand a host of other behaviors which were not agreed to at the “time of purchase.” The impact of such behavior on non-paid relationships is not yet fully understood, but buyers will remark how the purchase of sex is just easier than the effort required for a relationship. By calling them Johns, we normalize their attitude and behavior, we tolerate their purchase of other human beings for sex as “boys will be boys.” Perhaps calling them buyers will cause them to re-evaluate their choices and attitudes.
Pimps / Madams. Hollywood has glamorized the pimp and the madam. Let’s call them what they are: slavers. As surely as plantation owners profited off the free labor of their slaves in the 18th and 19th century in this country, pimps and madams are doing the same in the sex industry just as some “temp providers” are in this day and age. “But they bail them out of jail or keep customers in line or keep other slavers from taking advantage of them.” No they don’t. As long as the buyer pays, the slaver could not care less what is being done to the slave. The slaver might use the buyer’s demented desires to eke out some more scratch from him, but the slaver does not care about the physical damage or emotional damage done to his or her slave. All the slaver wants is the money. The slaver does not accept excuses, and the slaver does not care for his slave. “Made eye contact with another pimp and he took your money? Not my problem. Get me my money!” “Customer slapped you around? Did he pay you? Give me my money!”
Labor Conscious Companies. There are lots of euphemisms that CEOs and analysts toss about with respect to companies that are able to squeeze more profits out of their supply chain. Let’s start calling these companies what they are: Companies that profit off slave labor. I hear the argument that CEOs can’t possibly make sure every employee in their vast network is getting paid a fair wage. I hear the argument that companies out not be held responsible for illegal immigrants that work for them. It’s time we as a country stand up and demand action. That CEO who cannot tell whether a seamstress or fieldworker is getting paid I bet has plenty of system checks in place to make sure that those same employees do not “walk off” with raw materials or products. It’s called stealing, and companies are always on the lookout. Is it really so hard to make sure those who work for you are receiving their wages? Really? And one group targeted by slavers are the undocumented workers. If it is illegal to enter this country without the proper documentation, then it out to be illegal to hire those who enter illegally. “But they fake their papers.” I’m sure there is a good black market industry for forged green cards and social security cards, but even this stupid priest knows it is weird when a dozen people walk in with sequential social security numbers. Businesses claim that they are better than running their business that government. Fair enough. I bet they would be a lot better than the government a detecting fraud if a failure so to do cost them on their bottom line.
Lot Lizards. Some might wonder why we did not include this term above with prostitutes, whores, and hoes. Essentially, this term is used to describe women who sell sex to factory workers. The term is short for “parking lot lizards.” At many of our manufacturing centers in the country there are a group of women who offer sex for money. Sometimes it is done in cars. Sometimes there are RV’s utilized for this. Sometimes it occurs in sites just “off property.” Often it occurs on “payday.” Our experience with this group has been that they do not now necessarily meet the definition of a current trafficked person. A significant portion of those whom we have encountered, however, are survivors of abuse and trafficking. In many cases the woman has been traumatized during very important formative and developmental years. Imagine how you would have turned out had you been pulled out of school, isolated from friends, and/or used by adults and taught you were worthless. How would you make a living? Many of these women turn back to prostitution to try and make a living. Often they do not have slavers. In this case, the buyers are more responsible for the continuing dehumanization. The reference to the reptile tells us all we need to know about the attitudes toward them. So what do we call them? How about learning their names and their stories! None of those women whom we have encountered in these situations dreamed as young girls that they would end up in this life. Maybe, just maybe, if we learn their stories, we might be able to find them some help. Maybe, just maybe, if we learn their names, we’ll think twice about buying them and victimizing them once again.
Again, this is just a start. Over time, perhaps we can change the way we view this nefarious industry and those caught up in it simply by naming them truthfully.