Sex Trafficking: The global problem that is far more local than many Americans think

by Anne K. Ream | Voices and Faces Project
Friday, 11 July 2014 17:36 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

By Anne Ream

I recently had the privilege of meeting Mimi Chakarova, a photojournalist and investigative filmmaker whose feature length documentary film, "The Price of Sex", is a powerful and important reminder of the damage being done by the international sex trade.  A selection at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, "The Price of Sex" brings much-needed attention to the commodification of women and girls in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.  Chakarova went underground to find the human stories behind the statistics – she interviews trafficked and prostituted women and, most chillingly, the men who exploit them – and her film is at once painful to watch, and a potent call to action.  

Chakarova is part of a growing community of journalists who have written eloquently and compassionately about sexual trafficking in far away regions.  Raising awareness of the damaging and deadly international sex trade is a necessary and noble journalistic goal:  this is an industry financed on the pain of women and girls who come from difficult to desperate circumstances, and are then thrust into unimaginably cruel conditions.   But as we think and act globally on the issue of sexual trafficking and exploitation, it is more important than ever that we also act locally.  This became especially clear to me during a Human Rights Watch-organized discussion group organized around the Chicago showing of Chakarova’s film, when our conversation about the global issue of sexual exploitation led to a candid exploration of  the local realities we in the United States too often fail to see.  

As is the case internationally, US-based traffickers and pimps use force, coercion, and fraud to recruit vulnerable young girls into prostitution. Often homeless and victims of previous sexual or physical abuse, they are transported from cities, suburbs, and rural or small-town communities to work in conditions that are degrading and dangerous.   One of the major homes to such sexual trafficking in the United States has been my home city of Chicago. According Jody Raphael, Senior Research Fellow at the Schiller DuCanto & Fleck Family Law Center at DePaul College of Law, between 16,000 - 24,000 women and girls are involved in prostitution-related activities in the greater Chicago area on any given day, making the “Second City” a first-tier hub for trafficking.

In years past, Chicago’s response to this pressing human rights issue in its midst has been to criminalize prostituted women and girls, while too often allowing pimps and johns to go unpunished.  There is an emerging consensus among advocates, activists, policy makers, and law enforcement that such a strategy has been a failure - and an expensive and punitive one at that.  If we wish to strike a blow to the business of sexual exploitation by taking the women who are working in it “off the streets,” our money must be spent providing safe housing, education, job alternatives, and social services to those who are often eager to break free of an industry that has already done them great harm. This is more critical than ever during these difficult economic times, when necessary programs are too often decried as “wasteful social spending.”

In order to create such change, a small community of Illinois-based organizations – including the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation, the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault, and the group with which I am affiliated, The Voices and Faces Project - have developed “End Demand Illinois.”  Supported in large part by the NoVo Foundation, this multi-media, multi-agency education and public policy initiative challenges the way our city and state respond to prostituted and trafficked women, while demanding accountability from those who benefit from their pain.  It’s an effort that is at once local, and national, one that has connected women seeking to leave the sex trade with work alternatives and much needed social support, while criminally charging a record number of sex traffickers under the leadership of Illinois States Attorney Anita Alvarez.  Perhaps most notably, Illinois passed the Safe Children Act, which decriminalizes minors working in the sex trade, focusing instead on providing exploited young women and men help, social support and a way out of what is a world of pain.  It is widely seen as one of the most progressive - and effective - anti-trafficking laws in the country. 

As The Price of Sex makes clear – and Chakarova is most masterful in her exploration of how capitalist markets have fueled the sex trade – we will only curtail the business of prostitution when we end the demand for it.  This means taking a market-driven approach that holds accountable the johns whose purchasing decisions fuel the billion-dollar sex trade and the pimps who profit from it, and investing financial penalties and fines in the services that will help sexually exploited women and girls rebuild their lives.  

It is all too easy to call it “trafficking and sexual exploitation” when it occurs in distant regions and to downplay it as “the world’s oldest profession” when we encounter much the same phenomenon at home.  Our challenge is to join filmmakers like Chakarova in demanding action on behalf of trafficked and exploited women in poor and developing countries, while being willing to confront the damage being done in our own communities.  These oppressions are not separate, but connected in a world that too often fails to value women and girls here, and beyond our borders.