How Did We Get Here?

Human trafficking is a $150 billion industry today, and it’s estimated that 4.5 million people are forced into sexual exploitation worldwide. Its constant growth is allowing it to morph and present itself in ways we never thought were possible.

But this didn’t just come out of nowhere, did it? How did we get here?

Trafficking has been around for thousands of years. Practices of exploiting the vulnerable, namely women or children without status or protection, have been around for all of recorded history.

The issue of sex trafficking finally broke into politics in England in the early 1900s, and the “procuring of women or girls for immoral purposes abroad” was finally deemed unacceptable. Support came largely from abolitionists who also viewed traditional slavery as unjust.

The United Nations produced the agreement of the Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others in 1949. With it’s incredibly long name, this agreement brought to light the value and dignity of humanity and the way trafficking affected these in individuals, families, and communities. Not only this, but the agreement is superbly ahead of its time with its verbiage linking prostitution and trafficking (it showed no distinction between forced and ‘free’ prostitution). Many people struggle to find this correlation today, but even back in the 40’s the parallel was clear:

“…Prostitution and the accompanying evil of the traffic in persons for the purpose of prostitution are incompatible with the dignity and worth of the human person and endanger the welfare of the individual, the family and the community” (United Nations Human Rights OHCHR).

In spite of the massive strides toward human rights made with this agreement, the anti-trafficking movement seemed to mostly fizzle out for the years following.

Within the next few decades, we saw a divide forming in society that pitted anti-trafficking advocates against ‘sex work’ supporters. In spite of the horrible realities of trafficking, ‘sex workers’ of the industry wanted to be seen in a different light. They began painting a new picture of ‘voluntary sex work,’ and this is where we see the empowerment myth really beginning to take root (For more the pro-sex work movement and the empowerment myth, check out this podcast by Exodus Cry on the myths of prostitution).

Since then, it seems that there has been a shift in much of the anti-trafficking movement. The divide between sex-work supporters and abolitionists has created this invisible barrier that prevents any sort discussion of the connection between trafficking and prostitution.

Perhaps the most impactful turn in the trafficking industry was the use of the internet. In 1994 the first online prostitution business was born, and following closely behind were more of its kind, including porn sites, sex-tourism sites, and other sites that promoted prostitution as an industry. This coupled with the taboo of linking prostitution to trafficking gave traffickers an opportunity to expand like never before.

In 2000, the U.S. passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act in an effort to protect victims and ensure punishment for traffickers. This act details efforts for prevention at home and abroad, protection of victims, punishment for traffickers, and sanctions on countries that fail to meet minimum standards to prevent trafficking. This is the beginning of the annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report which details the to-date definition of trafficking, new developments in the fight against trafficking, and every country’s standing on how effectively they are working to prevent it (you can find the 2017 TIP Report here).

However, no matter how extensively the previous acts had laid out their efforts to end trafficking, the internet continued to grow and give the industry more reach along with greater anonymity.

In 2004, launched as a classified advertising site similar to craigslist. As it grew, Backpage added advertising categories such as “dating,” “massage,” and “adult” to their already expansive list. The business seemed to open their site to anyone who wanted to use it without implementing much screening, which again allowed traffickers to take advantage of yet another web-based opportunity. Backpage was thrown into the hotspot in 2011 with many allegations of their site supporting prostitution and trafficking, namely of minors. They were judged to be “insufficient” in their prevention measures, which led to numerous court cases and ultimately the arrest of multiple of the company’s top executives. Though Backpage has removed the “adult” category itself, the ads have now found a new home under the “dating” and “massage” categories, where traffickers use specific code words to describe their victims under the guise of a “normal” ad.

This is just one case of thousands of sites promoting these types of acts. With adult content only clicks away at the fingertips of every modern civilian, it’s no wonder the trafficking industry is so out of control. Porn and escort services are even on normal sites such as Youtube and Facebook. Not only are these adult ‘services’ driving demand for prostitution (therefore driving demand for sex trafficking as well), they are also areas traffickers potentially force women and children into.

While standing trafficking laws cover an array of potential avenues of trafficking, there are currently no laws specifically for the trafficking of humans over the internet.

We didn’t get to where we are now without a long history of exploiting and abusing the vulnerable. No matter how many laws we pass, unless we actually give voice to the voiceless and stand up for those oppressed we are not going to see much more effectiveness in the fight against sex trafficking. This is how we will see justice. Don’t get me wrong, laws against traffickers are great, and the higher we can make the risk of participating, the less appealing the reward may seem. However, there are always going to be people who ignore the laws, so we must fight their oppressive behavior and fight for those who are not in a position to fight for themselves.


Abby Shrewsbury

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