Illustration by Paul Windle
In the 2008 film Taken, Liam Neeson plays Bryan Mills, a retired CIA operative whose undercover past is called into action when his daughter is kidnapped while traveling abroad and sold into sexual slavery. Using his counterterrorism skills to torture and murder those who stand between him and his daughter’s captors, he eventually rescues his daughter and comes home a hero, with no consequences exacted for the violence he’s inflicted in the name of his daughter’s safety.
The film was a commercial, if not critical, hit (a sequel is forthcoming in 2012), perhaps because, like many a made-for-TV movie or Law & Order: Special Victims Unit episode, it served a voyeuristic interest in the world of forced prostitution and sex trafficking involving attractive young, white, middle-class female victims and ethnically Other (Eastern European in this particular case) male perpetrators. Its success also mirrored the real-world events of a presidential administration that justified the use of torture—euphemistically referred to as “enhanced interrogation techniques”—as a valid means of preventing catastrophic terror attacks, and which dismissed reported cases of extreme prisoner abuses like those at Abu Ghraib as exceptions: safety at any cost, by any means necessary.
The self-purported inspiration for Bryan Mills was retired colonel Bill Hillar of the U.S. Army Special Forces (a.k.a. the Green Berets), who was a popular keynote speaker, trainer, and consultant on the topic of human trafficking. Claiming to have multiple advanced degrees, he gave lectures, trainings, and consultations in which he described his daughter’s abduction into sex slavery to law enforcement officials, private groups, and college audiences. According to Hillar, his daughter was abducted and sold to a brothel while traveling through Southeast Asia with a friend. Using his professional connections as a counterterror specialist, Hillar supposedly, like Neeson’s character, traveled around the globe in search of his daughter. But, as he sadly told audiences, his story did not have the same ending: Despite his efforts, his daughter never came home.
Hillar was widely acclaimed as an American hero who, despite his loss, continued to share his experience and expertise in an effort to end human trafficking. In November 2010, he was scheduled to present the keynote lecture at the annual conference of Oregonians Against Trafficking Humans (OATH), on whose board he served. When, at the last minute, he canceled his appearance due to personal circumstances, OATH instead presented a video recording of one of Hillar’s earlier lectures.
As an audience member at that presentation, I felt unsettled by Hillar’s demeanor in the video. There was something off in his graphic, detailed description of the taking, selling, and murdering of his daughter, and the fact that there was little to no mention of their relationship prior to her abduction. So I wasn’t entirely surprised to learn, months later, that the “personal circumstances” that precluded Hillar’s appearance at the conference included a pending investigation into his long history of fraud. As it turned out, Hillar never served in the U.S. Army, let alone the Green Berets. He had no academic credentials, nor any expertise in counterterrorism. And his daughter was never kidnapped, trafficked, or murdered.
Yet the simulacrum that is Bill Hillar has become part of the reality of the anti-trafficking movement, in which a language of militarization and vengeance is the basis for a disturbing take on activism in the name of the exploited.
“Human trafficking” is a relatively new term to describe the selling and trading of people. While it had been used in policy contexts in the past (as in the 1949 Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others), it entered common parlance around 2000 with the passage of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. A quick search on a news database shows that there were only three references to “human trafficking” or “trafficking in humans” before 2000. It was mentioned 9 times in 2000, 41 times in 2001, and broke 100 mentions for the first time in 2005. In 2010, there were more than 500 references.
The proliferation of the term signifies a rhetorical shift on the part of the U.S. government. Simply put, framing forced migration and labor (sexual and otherwise) as the work of international criminal enterprises, comparable to the smuggling of drugs and weapons, elides the reality that it is a social and economic issue arising from poverty, economic disparities, globalization, and unreasonable restrictions on migration. The U.S. government’s approach places the focus squarely on identifiable enemies who are often construed, like the kidnappers in Taken, as evil, sadistic, ethnic Others—ignoring the ways in which capitalist social and economic structures (some of which the U.S. government has actively promoted) make people vulnerable.
As a result, the United States’ recent committment to a “War on Trafficking” mimics previous efforts—the epically failed “War on Drugs,” the nightmarish “War on Terror”—copying the “Just Say No” urgings of the former and the “Either you’re with us or you’re against us” rhetoric of the latter and offering an easy, black-and-white worldview that lacks structural analysis into systems of inequality and domination.
Take anti-trafficking newcomer Stop Child Trafficking Now (SCTNow), which is quickly gaining the support of companies like Facebook and Microsoft as well as the blessing of celebrities like Ashton Kutcher. The organization describes its “innovative approach” to addressing the trafficking of minors thus:
Stop Child Trafficking has chosen to fund a bold, new approach, one that addresses the demand side of child sex trafficking by targeting buyers/predators for prosecution and conviction. […] SCTNow has launched a national campaign to raise money for retired military operatives targeting the demand side of trafficking…. These operatives use the skills developed in the War on Terror in this war to bring down predators. Professional law enforcement have vetted this strategy and are eager to work with these operative teams once funding is secured.
Special Operative Teams gather information about child predators both in the U.S. and abroad…. These teams possess skills beyond the average military or law enforcement individual—skills that enable them to achieve their goals in foreign lands independently, without support of U.S. law enforcement resources.
Part of me wishes that this approach could really work. But shouldn’t we be a bit hesitant to trust military operatives who developed their skills in the War on Terror, seeing as how these same “experts” led the United States to invade a country that had nothing to do with 9/11, detained Arab and Muslim Americans without due process, tortured innocent civilians and prisoners of war, conducted surveillance on Arab and Muslim communities in the United States, “renditioned” suspects to countries to outsource torture, and illegally wiretapped our telephone calls?
SCTNow’s description of its “special operations”—which the organization outsources to Global Trident, a private for-profit military intelligence firm with close ties to defense contractor Northrop Grumman, evangelical Christian outlet Middle East Television, and former members of military and domestic intelligence agencies—is troubling. Equally disturbing is the fact that, as a private organization, “the Special Operatives are not bound by the same restrictions that keep U.S. law enforcement from conducting research against sexual offenders.” Thus, the intelligence they gather need not be limited to something that is directly related to trafficking or even prostitution. Operatives are encouraged to record anything and everything that they deem relevant or interesting, which means they can collect information about immigration status or the personal lives of people uninvolved with sex trafficking. Because the organization is a private entity, the usual policies of evidence discovery do not apply, and neither do prohibitions against racial profiling and entrapment. There is no public oversight. So while the organization claims to obey all applicable laws, can we feel truly confident when these same experts violated laws and regulations in their supposed pursuit of “terrorists”?
SCTNow, like many contemporary anti-trafficking organizations such as Shared Hope International and Love146, is part of a Christian fundamentalist movement (an article in the November 2011 issue of Christianity Today even carried the subtitle: “Leading [Portland, Oregon’s] efforts to halt child trafficking is a network of dedicated Christians. Just don’t go advertising it.”). SCTNow was founded by Ron Lewis, the televangelist pastor of North Carolina mega-church King’s Park International Church, and his wife, author Lynette Lewis. Though I have spoken to several members of SCTNow who insist that most of the organization’s money comes from its nationwide “awareness walks,” King’s Park appears to be the organization’s single largest funder. Other prominent funders of anti-trafficking groups include NoVo Foundation, started by one of Warren Buffett’s children, and Hunt Alternatives Fund, founded by heirs to the fortune of Texas oil tycoon H.L. Hunt.
Given this background, it is not surprising that SCTNow, along with similar anti-trafficking concerns, uses a simplistic language of good and evil in its discussions of trafficking. In this way, its selling of the anti-trafficking movement closely mirrors the selling of the “War on Terror” in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Instead of untangling the resentment against American imperialism built up globally through centuries of exploitation, many Americans rushed to accept the nonsensical explanation, put forth by politicans and pundits, that terrorists “hate us because they hate freedom.” We wanted enemies that we could name and locate so that we might destroy them, not lessons in humility and self-reflection. Likewise, today’s mainstream anti-trafficking movement appeals to middle-class Americans with the idea that trafficking happens because there are bad people out there just waiting to take your kids away from schools and malls. Thus, its prevention efforts focus less on the systemic realities of poverty, racism, domestic abuse, and the dire circumstances surrounding runaway and thrownaway youth, and more on installing high-tech security cameras at schools and stationing more security guards at malls. And it measures the success of its activities by the number of criminal convictions it achieves, rather than by the long-term health and well-being of the women and children who are most at risk.
Furthermore, contemporary anti-trafficking efforts like SCTNow and USAID, with its “anti-prostitution pledge,” conflate prostitution and trafficking, even when their efforts are well-meaning. They may rightly reject the Hollywood myth of the glamorous, happy hooker who’s fully in control of her circumstances, but in doing so they substitute an equally simplistic trope that denies resiliency and agency in the choices people make to survive structural inequalities. This, too, appeals to a simplistic idea: Namely, that no one chooses to engage in prostitution unless they are physically or psychologically forced to do so. If we believe that prostitution happens because bad people (often depicted as men of color) force good children (often depicted as white and middle-class) into engaging in it, all we need to worry about is how to keep these bad people out of our schools and communities and let law enforcement handle the rest.
Indeed, there’s a historical precedent for what we’re witnessing today. In the late 19th and early 20th century, the profile of the American citizenry was changing: Racial and sexual anxieties took hold in the United States as emanicipated slaves moved north, white women organized to demand suffrage, and immigrants from Eastern Europe and Asia flocked to the country. One result was a “white slavery” panic stoked by xenophobia. In response, an evangelical Christian movement was mobilized to combat the alleged evil. The presence of Asian women in brothels drew particular attention; because Asian women were considered hyper-submissive and therefore incapable of exercising agency, it was assumed that they had been imported for the purpose of sexual slavery. The panic eventually subsided without producing any actual evidence of such slavery, but its rhetoric did produce the nation’s first federal law against prostitution and trafficking, the Mann Act, and effected the extension of the openly racist Chinese Exclusion Act.
It’s not a stretch to say that the United States today is in the midst of similar anxieties about the nation’s racial and ethnic makeup. Anti-immigration sentiment is violently high, and legislations, such as that enacted in Arizona in 2010, are dangerously broad. Fear of terrorism is used to justify discriminatory treatment toward Muslims, Arabs, and many others who don’t fit a status-quo “American” look. Queer and trans people are still marginalized, but are coming closer to equality every day, at least in their legal status, including the right to marry someone of the same gender. And of course, we have a president of the United States whose father was an immigrant from Kenya and whose middle name is Hussein. So it’s particularly frustrating to witness the rise of a simplistic, military-minded anti-trafficking movement that refuses to engage with the social, economic, and political nuances of the environment in which it exists. Even more galling is the movement’s failure to acknowledge (and is, in fact, responsible for) undoing the many existing collaborations between public health officials, anti-violence activists, healthcare professionals, homeless advocacy groups, advocates for youth, immigrants, queer and trans people, groups led by people of color organizing within their own communities, sex workers, and other groups that took many years (beginning in the early stages of the 1980s AIDS epidemic) to develop.
Many of the groups in this broad coalition, especially the small grassroots groups led by members of vulnerable communities themselves, have been forced to shut down or scale back due to harsh economic conditions in recent years, while groups led or influenced by religious ideologues and law enforcement officials are expanding their reach as they receive anti-trafficking grants. Groups that have traditionally worked together are split between those that prioritize working with and seeking to empower the people who engage in the sex trade and those that support using state powers to crack down on prostitution. Some feminist foundations that previously supported grassroots groups—the Women’s Funding Network and New York Women’s Foundation among them—seem to have put their dollars on the anti-trafficking bandwagon. Women’s Funding Network, for instance, recently sponsored and promoted a methodologically flawed study claiming that sex trafficking of minors on Internet classified sites in New York, Michigan, and Minnesota had increased by up to 65 percent in just six months.
Groups committed to social and economic justice are being replaced by a movement that promotes religious ideology, action-hero solutions, and flawed research (e.g., the oft-repeated but false claim that the “average age of entry into prostitution” is 12 to 14, or that 100,000 to 300,000 youth are forced into prostitution in the United States). The mainstream anti-trafficking movement negates the history of resistance against violence and self-empowerment within marginalized communities, and seeks to further militarize our schools, our borders, our public spaces, our society. And, as has been pointed out by the likes of INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, granting more power to police, courts, prisons, immigration enforcement, and counterterrorism “experts” very often makes women and girls of color, as well as other marginalized people, more, rather than less, vulnerable to violence.
Take, for instance, the November 2010 raid of Club 907 in Los Angeles, a “hostess club” where men pay women to drink nonalcoholic beverages with them and to dance for them, fully clothed. According to the L.A. Times, the raid was intended to investigate allegations including labor code violations and human trafficking, but 81 out of the 88 people arrested were women working as hostesses, many of them undocumented immigrants who had been instructed by club management to obtain fake IDs. The Times further reported that the hostesses were “required to earn $600 a week for the club, which means being selected by men to socialize for at least 20 hours.... Those who don’t meet the quota see their wages drop to 16 cents a minute and receive no paycheck at all until they make up the shortfall. If a customer leaves without paying, the dancer is in debt to the club.” The police knew in advance that many women working at the club were likely to be undocumented, and that they were likely to be severely exploited by the club owners, in conditions possibly reaching the legal definition of human trafficking. Yet the cops moved in as if the women were the criminals rather than the victims. That they arrested more than 80 women on criminal charges arising from their undocumented status should lead us to question the authorities’ commitment to enforcing labor laws and protecting victims of human trafficking.
The battle feminists and human-rights activists are facing now is not a simple rehash of whether sex work should be legal, or can be empowering, or is itself grounds for victim status. It’s about how to acknowledge the realities of trafficking and work to curb it while not tacitly supporting and furthering the tone set by religious fundamentalists, myopic law enforcement, and sensationalistic media. In September 2010, Third Wave Foundation issued a statement that emphasized a need to recognize “young people engaged in sex work and impacted by the sex trade as critical partners in ensuring health and justice” rather than viewing them as powerless victims in need of unilateral “rescue.” With support from INCITE! and Third Wave Foundation, a group of radical women of color, queer people of color, and indigenous people who have engaged in or are currently engaging in the sex trade held a national leadership institute, which led to the recent formation of FUSE (Fed Up and Strategizing for Empowerment). FUSE works to counter the worldview that collapses the complexities and diversity of people’s experiences within the sex trade as well as social and economic factors that shape them into an overly simplistic notion of “modern-day slavery.” It opposes Hollywood-style “solutions” that harm the very people—like the hostesses at Club 907—they ostensibly aim to help, and calls for approaches that engage and empower those of us who experience the sex trade. The struggle must be ongoing, because no single policy change—decriminalizing prostitution, for instance—will fundamentally transform the social and economic structures that abet the exploitation of marginalized communities.
Activists like those in FUSE face an uphill battle in an environment dominated by organizations that mask their moralism with a desire to protect the vulnerable, politicians who want to score tough-on-crime approval points, the private security industry that makes money off crisis and panic, the mass media that profit from oversimplification and sensationalism, and celebrities who need a pet cause. Still, regardless of how one thinks about prostitution and pornography, feminists have a common investment in solutions that actually reduce violence.
Feminists have been organizing against trafficking of women, children, and others for the purpose of sexual exploitation long before televangelists, counterterrorism experts, and celebrities got on board. We can lead society once again by refocusing the anti-trafficking movement to center the voices and struggles of people whose stories are not the ones dramatized on the movie screens—and who are all the more vulnerable for their erasure.
Emi Koyama is a multi-issue social-justice activist and writer. She lives in Portland, Oregon, and blogs at eminism.org.
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