Originally posted on MeetJustice.org on August 12, 2011.
Sex Trafficking is society’s problem. We all bear the burden of exploitation. We pay for the medical services that victims receive, if they’re lucky, after brutal violence leaves them in need of urgent care. Children who are the product of commercial rape or rape by pimps are often repeatedly cycled through foster systems. Traffickers are left untouched by the law while their stable of victims, many of them underage, are shuffled through the court system, sometimes multiple times, with the state footing the bill for their booking, holding, and legal fees.
Not only is trafficking our burden – it’s our great shame. Commercial Sexual Exploitation is one of many proverbial elephants in the room in the U.S – and it’s getting more and more difficult to ignore how entangled it is with our own society’s norms.
There are several universal factors that go into the existence of trafficking in different countries (for a list of risk factors, click here). One common thread: perpetrators around the world rely not only on the control they exert over their victims, but also depend on society to ignore it and even facilitate it. In order to effectively stop trafficking as a society, we must recognize the role that our own cultural influences and norms play in perpetuating it.
The average Joe or Jane can play a very active role in perpetuating sex trafficking…
In 2010, Detective Richard Randolph broke up a sex trafficking ring in a hotel on Fulton Industrial Boulevard. The pimp, David L. Walker forced young girls and women alike into prostitution through violence, coercion, and fraud. At the Building Bridges Summit earlier this month, Detective Randolph described one young girl who was locked in a dog cage after attempting to escape and beaten so badly that her eyes were swollen shut by the time agents reached her. However, Walker is not the only one guilty of the crimes committed against this young woman and others; Randolph went on to explain that part of Walker’s success is attributed to the participation of the hotel manager.
The hotel manager had set aside the fifth and sixth floors of the hotel for Walker, ensuring that families visiting Six Flags could stay on the first floor, where they’d be less likely to encounter the victims or see and hear the violence that took place against them. The manager was paid a fee for each client that visited the hotel, and he even warned Walker that police were on their way up to his room.
In the Depaul College of Law Report, “From Victims to Victimizers: Interviews with 25 Ex-Pimps”, pimps report having paid taxi drivers, lawyers, hotel clerks, and convention information center employees for their assistance. 60% of pimps interviewed in the report even admitted to paying off law enforcement agents. Sadly, many of these individuals may not know that what they are contributing to is not voluntary prostitution, but instead the systematic exploitation of children, women, and men.
…but that role can also be very passive.
In 2010, Youth Radio uncovered a startlingly passive perspective among citizens of Oakland, California as they witnessed trafficking in their own streets:
“The guys who work at one of the many taco trucks on International Boulevard say that every day, pimps use their parking lot to drop off girls and hang out. They say it’s common to see pimps beating girls.”
What makes us stand by, as a society that upholds freedom and justice and watch it happen?
The Bystander Effect
After Catherine “Kitty” Genovese was violently attacked, assaulted, and finally murdered over the course of 30 minutes while several witnesses looked on without intervening on her behalf, social psychologists Darley and Latane prompted a hard look at what’s now known as the “Bystander Effect”. The Bystander Effect points to a direct correlation between the amount of people witnessing an emergency to the probability that an individual will take action to resolve it: the more people, the less responsibility a person naturally feels to take action.
However, other factors also play into a lack of action, including the idea that society is powerless to stop global or even local social injustice. Confronting the gross violation of civil rights is a daunting challenge- but it’s been done before. Many might argue that similar confrontations are taking place in parts of America today.
Society’s role in perpetuating conditions of exploitation is not easily defined.
In fact, sometimes it boils down to commonly accepted norms. Traffickers use many myths about victims and even johns to justify exploitation. As well as the bystander effect and myth of helplessness mentioned above, widely accepted notions about of both male and female gender expectations also work to their advantage.
Harmful societal expectations of female sexuality might seem like they’re hard to miss, but they pervade music, media, and advertising in both subtle ways and not-so-subtle ways, for instance in song lyrics that make no bones about placing women into exploitative circumstances:
“This girl’s 17 now I’m a pedophile
Now she’s showin’ me her **** I think this girl’s gone wild…
Turn off the lights and now I’m gonna film it
Turn on the night vision like she’s Paris Hilton…”
We not only accept such attitudes about women; we set it to rhythm and dance to it.
Adult females are not the only ones on which society imposes external expectations of sexuality. This past summer, Abercrombie and Fitch representatives found themselves reeling after some seriously negative PR. The company released a line of push-up triangle bikinis that they marketed to girls as young as 7 years old. After the public backlash, they announced that the line was probably best suited for preteens, instead.
The consequences of hypersexualizing children, particularly female children, do not automatically lead to victimization by pimps, nor are lyrics in songs or images in advertising to blame for the sexual exploitation of adults. However, the American Psychological Association released a recent report on the sexualization of young girls and its consequences. According to the Task Force,
“…girls internalize and reproduce… this objectified perspective through ‘self-objectification’…[which] involves adopting a third-person perspective on the physical self and constantly assessing one’s own body in an effort to conform to the culture’s standards of attractiveness. Self-objectification in a culture in which a woman is a “good object” when she meets the salient cultural standard of “sexy” leads girls to evaluate and control their own bodies more in terms of their sexual desirability to others than in terms of their own desires, health, wellness, achievements, or competence. (American Psychological Association Task Force)
In plainer words, society not only sees girls as (future) means of sexual gratification, but also teaches girls to see themselves as such instruments.
As for the johns involved in fueling the industry? Like women, men are also assigned to narrow definitions of masculinity and male sexuality. A report called Female Juvenile Prostitution: Problem and Response points out how the false idea “that men have uncontrollable sexual urges that must be fulfilled…” assigns the prostitute to a the role of an object to be used for sexual gratification. However, it also strips the male of power: it makes him a victim of his own sexual urges, incapable of making decisions that are best for him and/or a potential victim of trafficking. Ironically, such a myth renders him impotent, powerless to control himself. It turns the male into an animalistic shadow of a human being capable of reason, logic, and compassion. This type of attitude regarding male sexuality puts him into the role of a consumer of women for his own sexual appetites.
So who’s at fault?
The only ones directly at fault for the crimes of human trafficking are the ones that are benefiting: the pimps, madams, johns, and the accomplices and officials that are paid off by them.
However, it’s everyone else’s problem. Not only does the crime strain our financial and legal resources, it’s a terrible injustice that appalls each one of us. Once we’re aware that it’s occurring, it demands response. How will you respond?
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