Trafficking occurs in nearly every country, and its networks are vast and formidable to investigate. According to the United Nations, there are between 27 and 30 million modern-day slaves in the world. And the U.S. State Department cites that 600,000 to 800,000 people are trafficked across borders every year. But these numbers are often under-reported and victims are usually hidden in the shadows, meaning that real, concrete statistics are often elusive.
It also means that there’s a lot of incorrect information out there. Everyone talks about human trafficking as a problem we need to tackle and eradicate, but to do so, we first need to separate the facts from fiction. – The Muse, “Human Trafficking: The Myths And The Realities,” Forbes, Jan. 24, 2012
When the State Department set up its office on trafficking in the early 2000s, the numbers were much more modest. The Department’s 2002 report provided an estimate that “at least 700,000, and possibly as many as four million men, women and children worldwide were bought, sold, transported and held against their will in slave-like conditions.” At the time, the George W. Bush administration was largely focused on highlighting anti-prostitution efforts.
The Obama administration broadened the focus on trafficking to include forced labor, including when no movement was involved — and officials began to label all trafficking as “modern slavery.”
A State Department official, who asked not to be identified, said that the 27 million figure used in the 2013 report came from an estimate by Kevin Bales, a professor at Britain’s University of Hull and author of a 2007 book, “Ending Slavery.” . . .
The data are relatively sparse, but the GSI extrapolates from existing numbers to make calculations in what it deems are similar countries. Essentially, researchers extrapolated from 19 countries to come up with precise statistics for the 167 countries that make up the index.
Thus data for the United States is considered relevant to calculate Italy’s total of 11,400 slaves, for instance. South Africa’s number of slaves — supposedly 106,000 — was derived from the fact that GSI researchers decided the country is 70 percent “Western Europe” and 30 percent “African” (specifically, an amalgam of Ethiopia, Nigeria, Niger and Namibia). – Glenn Kessler, “Why You Should Be Wary Of Statistics On ‘Trafficking’ And ‘Modern Slavery'”, Washington Post, April 24, 2015
I am lucky to have taken up my work as a dominatrix amid a revolution in our thinking about sex work. Writers likeLaura Agustín and Melissa Gira Grant have taken apart our sexualised, othered image, and sex workers and allies proclaim loudly that sex work is work. Banal on its surface, that statement is profound in its implications. We all work for a multitude of reasons, good and bad, mundane and heart-wrenching. It is society that frames those reasons differently, based on gender, race, class, and nationality.
Like everyone, I’ve seen the reports of people from foreign lands, brought to the west and forced to do sex work. They are called trafficked women, and are often depicted at the point of a police raid, with flashing cameras shoved in their faces. At best, they’re shown as victims; at worst, as nuisances and criminals. I write today to stand with Agustin, Grant, and Maggie McNeill, who have so powerfully argued that this portrayal, and the very concept of “sex trafficking” that underpins it, is a myth. To say this is not to sideline the coerced; in dismantling this pernicious myth, we put their lived experiences front and centre. Coercion, force, and violence in sex work are very real, but they pertain generally to life as a member of the oppressed, not just to sex work. They must be fought across the world, and the concept of sex trafficking does not help in that fight. Instead, it obscures the fact that many types of workers, from carers to builders, suffer force, violence and exploitation. Insidiously, the trafficking myth also deprives sex workers of agency and identity, as it sexualises and fetishises our lives and bodies. – Margaret Corvid, “Sex Work Is Work: Exploding The ‘Sex Trafficking Myth'”, The New Statesman, July, 2014
You know how the brain jumps from one thing to another in the midst of a conversation? It all started this morning with me noting that some folks just don’t quite “get” satire, for whatever reason. I then related something from a private FB group of which I’m a part: Someone posted a story that sounded horrible; the story itself turned out to be forty shades of bullshit; yet, a member of that group thought it a good idea for members of our group – oh-so-liberal; oh-so-earnest; it was this group that said I denied the Gospel because I wasn’t an absolutist regarding pacifism and non-violence – to speak out against this non-existent problem. Because, of course, nothing bolsters credibility like taking a stand against an imaginary problem!
Which led me to remember something I’d read a while back, regarding all the stories we read and hear and see regarding human trafficking. I wish I could find that original piece, but I found a couple others that deal with the issue itself, as well as a subset of what’s often presented to the public. In any event, the gist of that original article was simple: While real, “human trafficking” – or as the Obama Administration prefers to call it, “Modern Slavery” – isn’t nearly as enormous or pervasive as is often presented, including from official government sources. As noted in the Forbes article above, the State Department puts the worldwide numbers of those trapped in various types of human exploitation close to 30 million. As the Washington Post article notes, there are many good reason to take that number with several grains of salt; indeed, the numbers for those “rescued” from various forms of human trafficking – about 40,000 during one recent year – is also dubious. Finally, Margaret Corvid reminds us that stories of human sex trafficking are not about sex at all, even though all too often that’s the face we see in news reports about people brought to the US, or Saudi Arabia, or Europe, or wherever. The issue isn’t “sex”, it’s exploitation, and it comes in any number of forms, not just forced prostitution.
I bring this up not because I deny human trafficking occurs. Of course it does; it has since human civilization existed. As the Washington Post article makes clear, however, overblowing a problem like human trafficking, particularly when it’s all too often presented as the exploitation of children, has an impact on public policy. Dollars go where folks believe they can do the most good. Claiming tens of millions of victims of human trafficking, and pushing for its eradication within a decade, puts massive resources in to efforts that, despite the best of intentions, don’t address the real problem because they’re designed for a problem that doesn’t actually exist.
Like the name of that website, the urge to “do something” is all too often the reason truly boneheaded decisions are made. Whether it’s immerse ourselves in other country’s civil wars, invade sovereign countries based on made-up intelligence, or pour massive amounts of money to fight a problem that doesn’t exist, “doing something” is that road to hell. Good intentions don’t make good public policy. All that money and programs, they’re like a loaded gun that’s not pointing at the target. No matter how many times you pull the trigger, you’re going to miss the target every time. Even if you’re a sharpshooter.
Like the Satanic Panics of the 1980’s, it’s often better to deal with what’s really going on. Is 40,000 people “rescued” from human trafficking too high? Even one is too high, of course, so the question is irrelevant. Do those numbers – correct or not – demonstrate effective public policy or book-cooking, groups pumping up their effectiveness to keep federal dollars rolling in? We have to think smart, not just react emotionally, when dealing with a topic like the exploitation of human beings. We should consider the matter not in titillating or exploitative ways, but as it actually occurs, such as the exploitation of workers building the Olympic venues in Rio de Janeiro. That, rather than a bunch of alleged children kidnapped for the sex trade, is the problem, and one for which there are already fixes.