Malevolent bargains
Ed Vitagliano
Ed Vitagliano
AFA Journal news editor

April 2004 – “I realized that slavery was still alive,” said John Miller, Director of the U.S. State Department's Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons. He was telling World magazine about the arrest of men who trafficked in sex slaves.

“I’m reading about how they lured these girls from Asian nations, promised them restaurant jobs, modeling jobs, … seized their passports, beat them, raped them, moved them from brothel to brothel,” he said. 

This was not happening in some distant Third World nation, however. “There it was in civil Seattle,” Miller said.

It is a crime – and a sin – that is almost too horrible to think about, but for the thousands of children and women trapped in the international sex slave trade, it is a nightmare with which they must live every day. Most people, however, would be stunned to know that the United States may be becoming a major importer of unwilling participants in this ghastly enterprise.

By the thousands
This industry is technically called trafficking: “knowingly obtaining by any means – often by force, fraud, or coercion – any person for involuntary servitude or forced labor,” according to Thomas M. Steinfatt, professor of communication at the University of Miami, who studies the subject. 

It operates just like any other export-import business. According to Donna M. Hughes, professor of women’s studies at the University of Rhode Island and an expert on the sexual exploitation of women, girls and women are procured in one nation, conveyed through transit countries, and finally arrive in the nation of destination.

There, “men use them in legalized or widely tolerated sex businesses, and men physically travel around the world to buy women and children in prostitution, as a form of tourism,” said Hughes. “Through recently developed global communications technology, these forms of sexual exploitation are now carried out through phone lines and satellite transmission,” namely the Internet.

To call what happens to these women slavery is not hyperbole. Hughes said, “The methods used in trafficking for sexual exploitation comprise a modern slave trade. The perpetrators range from loosely connected procurers and pimps to transnational organized crime networks.” 

It’s big business. Hughes said estimates of the money that pours in through the sex industry – prostitution, the sale of women and children through sex trafficking, the sale of child pornography, etc. – are between $7 billion and $57 billion a year.

That indicates that a lot of flesh is being peddled, although exact figures are difficult to come by. Hughes said a United Nations estimate puts the number of women and children who are sexually exploited by the sex trade industry each year at one million, while child-advocacy groups, according to a story in USA Today, estimate that there are currently two million children worldwide that are working as sex slaves.

Locked in cages
While the exact numbers may be difficult to ascertain, there are admittedly thousands of women and girls who are deceived or simply sold into forcible sexual slavery.

In his heartbreaking account of the international sex trade, journalist Peter Landesman wrote in The New York Times Magazine, “Some of them have been baited by promises of legitimate jobs and a better life in America; many have been abducted; others have been bought from or abandoned by their impoverished families.”

Hughes told Voice of America, “Usually what happens is the woman is searching for a job and she is told that she can go abroad and make a lot of money … but the problem is that when she arrives in that particular country … she is told no, in fact you’re not going to be a waitress, a nanny, you know, whatever job, a dancer maybe, that we told you. You’re going to be in prostitution and you don’t have a choice.”

Those holding the women in slavery tell the victims they must remain and work as prostitutes until they pay off the transportation cost to the new country. Hughes said they’re often told, “We’ll beat you up if you don’t do what we want and you owe us $30,000.”

Sometimes, Hughes said, the men do release the women after the “debt” has been paid. “Other times, if the women can’t earn as much for the pimp as he likes, he sells her again. I’ve interviewed women who have been sold four or five times. Of course, the problem with this is that their debt starts all over again.”

The coercion process is often a brutal one. Bharti Tapas, a girl interviewed by ABC News Downtown in 2001 for a special on the sex trade in India, was 14 when she was sold into slavery by her own parents, and then forced into prostitution.

“When I arrived at the brothel, I refused to do what they told me to and they beat me and starved me for 10 days,” Tapas said. “I thought I would rather kill myself than be forced to work as a prostitute.”

She relented, according to the story, and joined “thousands of other girls who are beaten, locked in tiny cages or hidden in attics. Some are forced to have sex with as many as 20 men a day under the watchful eyes of madams and pimps.”

Psychiatrist Wendy Freed authored a report for Physicians for Human Rights. Her report on the psychological aspects of women trapped in sexual slavery in Cambodia presented this frightening pattern faced by thousands of girls and women:

“The young women have been in captivity for a period of weeks to months or years. Initially there is shock and disbelief. Many young women describe not being able to believe that they had been sold. … Once they realize that in fact they are sold, they fight the brothel owner’s demand that they accept customers. Refusal leads to beatings, being locked in a room, and going without food. This persists until the young woman gives up and realizes that indeed they are trapped and have no options.… At some point in this process, the young woman becomes submissive in order to avoid further beatings and torment; her ‘spirit is broken.’ She surrenders, becomes resigned and accomodates to the circumstances of captivity.”

Hughes calls these brothels “sexual gulags,” and cites the reports of international aid workers that describe men buying oral sex from girls as young as five years old, and intercourse with girls as young as 10 or 11.

Porn – part of the problem
Certainly poverty plays a critical role in motivating poor girls and women to seek employment in far away places, as well as generating a market for the sale of women to brothels. But what is driving the increase in demand for illicit sex?

In an article in the Journal of Sexual Aggression, Hughes said, “In the last three decades, prostitution and pornography have become increasingly tolerated, normalized and legitimized, resulting in expansion of sex industries all over the world.”

This tolerance, she said, has “increased men’s demand for women and girls to be used as sexual entertainment or acts of violence. The demand is met by increased recruitment of women and girls into the sex industry, usually by violence, deception or exploitation of those made vulnerable by poverty, unemployment, and prior victimization.”

The Internet has made pornography ubiquitous, and Hughes said this new forum has “provided pornographers access to a global audience with almost no restrictions or regulations. It provided men, who are usually secretive about their exploitation of women and children, with easy, private access to unlimited amounts of pornography.”

The country that comes in for the lion’s share of the blame is the United States. Hughes said, “The U.S. is the country mainly responsible for the industrialization of pornography and prostitution, either in the U.S. or in prostitution centers created by the demand from U.S. military personnel. The U.S. is also the home of the Internet pornography industry.”

For example, Hughes said that, according to one study, 70% of the customers for live sex shows on the Internet are in the U.S.

American taste for trafficked girls
Virtual sex is not the only decadent delicacy for some Americans; the simple fact is that thousands of trafficked women and girls are ferried into the U.S. for the purpose of illicit sexual encounters.

In an article for The Weekly Standard, Hughes wrote about the extent of the sex trafficking industry that shuttles girls through Mexico to brothels outside San Diego, California. “Over a 10-year period, hundreds of girls, 12 to 18 years old,” were brought into the U.S. by Mexican nationals.

“The girls were sold to farm workers – between 100 and 300 at a time – in small ‘caves’ made of reeds in the fields. Many of the girls had babies, who were used as hostages with death threats against them, so their mothers would not try to escape,” Hughes said.

An American doctor who was volunteering to provide health care to migrant workers in the area told Hughes that younger and younger girls were brought over the border – some nine and 10 years old – who might be used by as many as 35 men in one hour. “The first time I went to the camps I didn’t vomit only because I had nothing in my stomach,” the doctor told her. “It was truly grotesque and unimaginable.”

When she wanted to complain to government authorities about the abuse, the doctor was instructed by her supervisor to concern herself only with trying to prevent the girls from contracting sexually transmitted diseases by providing condoms.

“I fought a lot with the U.S. government and they told me that I shouldn’t do anything, that I had signed a federal agreement of confidentiality,” the doctor said.

From San Diego to New York City, girls and women are being abused in the middle of normal neighborhoods, “hiding in plain sight,” according to Hughes.

It is a staggering vice, and Landesman said the U.S. has become “a major importer of sex slaves. Last year the C.I.A. estimated that between 18,000 and 20,000 people are trafficked annually into the United States.” Of these, an estimated 10,000 are victims of the sex slave industry.

Those numbers add up. According to Kevin Bales, author of the book, Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy, and president of Free the Slaves, America’s largest anti-slavery organization, there are 30,000 to 50,000 sex slaves residing – against their will – in the U.S. at any given time.

Cracking down
Some have suggested that legalizing prostitution would put an end to such a depraved industry, but the opposite may very well be true.

Hughes said, “What happens when you have a large demand for women in prostitution is that you don’t have enough local women who are able to fill up all these slots that are needed, so the pimps have to start looking abroad.”

She added that evidence from the Netherlands, Germany and Australia – where prostitution is legal – indicates that such a policy has “resulted in increased trafficking of women to meet the increased demand for women in prostitution and an accompanying increase in organized crime.”

While prostitution is still illegal in the U.S., many municipalities have minimal penalties for prostitution, reflecting the belief that it really isn’t that big a deal. “Pimping must be made a felony,” Hughes told the AFA Journal in an interview, “and the government needs to enforce the laws against trafficking that are already on the books in this country. There are lots of local and state laws against it, but often prostitution is considered a victimless crime or nuisance crime.”

Under the Bush administration, the federal government has begun to make the prosecution of trafficking a priority. Last September, in an address to the United Nations, President George Bush called the sex slave trade “a humanitarian crisis.”

“There’s a special evil in the abuse and exploitation of the most innocent and vulnerable,” said President Bush. “Those who create these victims and profit from their suffering must be severely punished …. [G]overnments that tolerate this trade are tolerating a form of slavery.”

Since it began targeting sex traffickers three years ago, the U.S. Department of Justice has convicted 111 traffickers – 79 of whom were involved in trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation.

That may only be a drop in the bucket considering the ocean of victims who are suffering, but for the women who are rescued from prostitution, it is an escape from a darkness few of us could ever imagine.  undefined

Organizations that work on this issue who could use your help:

International Justice Mission
P.O. Box 58147
Washington, DC 20037-8147
Phone: 703-465-5495
E-mail: contact
Web site:

 Free the Slaves
1326 14th St. NW
Washington, DC 20005
Phone: Toll free 202-588-1865
Web site: