The many faces of human trafficking victims

A distant relative of mine was trafficked.

Depending on what you’ve read and seen in the media, you may not expect this story to look like this: he is male, and wasn’t destined to become a sex slave, but a construction-site slave. Desperate for a job in Western Europe, he left his Ukrainian village with some sketchy individuals, was forced to trek through a marsh in freezing weather, and was eventually discovered on a train by police, still determined to reach his destination.

This spring, an article on modern-day slavery was published in the L. A. Times – it warned readers that slavery is far from over, that, in fact, there are more slaves today than before, and that slavery has many faces and many forms.

The article mentions prostitution, and argues that not all prostitutes are sex slaves, and that the U.S. legislators, by focusing mainly on the sex trade, are not seeing the complete picture. I understand that this will be a point of contention to many reading this site. Overall, it’s not an easy article to read, but I do hope you guys might find it useful to engage with.

Now, it seems obvious to me that rape goes hand-in-hand with other forms of coercion. For example, a woman enslaved as a domestic worker will often get raped by her captors. She may not be a trafficked prostitute, but is a sex slave, and many other kinds of slave besides that. And enslaved males can also be subject to rape and sexual abuse.

I’ve read that the English word “slave” actually originated with the word “Slav” – because of the high instance of enslavement of Slavs in the Middle Ages. History is repeating itself. Of course, modern-day slavery is everyone’s problem, as it seems to exist on every continent.

A friend of mine works in law enforcement in Kyiv, Ukraine. He frequently runs up against the desperation of women who will do anything to change their circumstances. And a lot of the prostitutes he meets tell him that they don’t want to get out of prostitution, they just want to be left alone by police and abusive pimps. The vast majority of them do not sanitize what they do, but some prefer it to working at McDonald’s, as he once put it.

He also told me that when he cautioned a woman against associating with a criminal gang who were most likely going to sell her abroad, she all but spat in his face. Not because he was saying something that wasn’t true, but because she wanted to get out, she had to change her circumstances, and take a chance. What struck him then was the dissonance between all manner of good intentions and the unforgiving reality of poverty.

And so it goes.

While I do not agree with her on everything, I find that Pawlina of The Natashas blog often has good things to say on the subject (and wish that she was still updating it). For other resources, I recommend checking out the State Department rankings of individual countries in regards to this phenomenon. People have said that these are not unbiased, but they’re a good start for those of us just starting to find out about what’s happening.

One of the worst things about this phenomenon is the tendency to blame the victim. I see it in Jordan, in the States, in Ukraine, in the UAE, and elsewhere. Race, class, gender, ethnicity, religion, and more, often play into the way the blaming is constructed. For example, I know a person who was sympathetic to the story of my male relative, yet refused to believe that trafficked women are anything but greedy bitches who get what they deserve. I’ve seen people express shock that a white-skinned woman can be bought, but are not at all weirded out by, say, a Sri Lankan woman being held captive in a wealthy household in the Middle East.

Now, if you’d like to support the anti-trafficking effort in Ukraine, I recommend checking out La Strada. This link should take you the English-language version of the site. You can find out ways to donate, etc.

The evil of slavery, its repercussions through the ages, and the way it has endured, makes me feel small and afraid. In those moments, I like to think of those fighting the good fight as hobbits (don’t laugh), walking up to Mount Doom. I need an analogy that can give way to some semblance of hope. But is there a reason to hope? You tell me.

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15 comments for “The many faces of human trafficking victims

  1. July 1, 2008 at 8:08 am

    Please read this article. Talking about sex work and sex trafficking in the same breathless fury does no one any good. Hopefully that was not how you intended this post to be.

  2. She-Ra
    July 1, 2008 at 8:29 am

    Whilst i agree with you about the way women are blamed for being trafficked and prostituted, would just like to say that La Strada supports the legalisation of prostitution and doesn’t advocate the criminalisation of demand- ie those that cause the harm. In this respect organisations such as European Women’s Lobby who have done a great series called Not for Sale, MARTA Women’s Resource Centre in Latvia and Stigamot in Iceland are well worth a look.

  3. Arizona
    July 1, 2008 at 9:07 am

    This is an interesting piece about the trafficking of women for prostitution in Australia, by the president of the Australian Sex Workers’ Association, Elena Jeffreys. She points out that the frequent raids by police, which overwhelmingly target migrant sex workers, are a poor way of uncovering actual trafficking, and have the side effect of disrupting the legal sex workers’ business.

  4. July 1, 2008 at 9:18 am

    Great post.

    Trafficking is not just about sex. I read this a while ago

  5. July 1, 2008 at 9:25 am

    Plus, it’s also worth thinking about how people’s autonomy is viewed. Obviously, in cases of trafficked people, their choices are limited, but saying they are passive victims is an insult to the choices they do make.

    Then there’s the problem of people blaming/shaming them for making those limited choices – like your example of calling trafficked women greedy bitches.

  6. July 1, 2008 at 10:07 am

    Sonia, where exactly did you see breathless fury in my post? I thought I was being rather cool and collected there! I don’t believe that sex work and trafficking are always the same thing, which is I brought up the words of my friend – who is, like the people at La Strada, ultimately for legalization and regulation of sex work.

  7. July 1, 2008 at 12:03 pm

    You are right. I apologize. I was reading too much into your post because of a disturbing conversation in my own life. Sorry. My comment was needless.

  8. July 1, 2008 at 6:06 pm


    I just wanted to chime in to say how much I love your columns. It’s been a while since I’ve read this site and I just came here for a fix after debating with some men over at a blog about Russia, about the plight of women in Russia. My head is spinning.

    Anyway, I really love your posts. I’ll be checking back more frequently now.

    On the topic, Frontline did a very good documentary on the subject a while back.

  9. July 1, 2008 at 8:33 pm

    Many people try to view slavery as something that happens elsewhere but it happens in western nations all of the time. Many of the products we regularly consume without thinking are produced by slave labor. Chocolate for instances is famous for slavery during production and yet every Easter we gorge ourselves with chocolate to celebrate. The slaves who are beaten so that we can have a sweet treat often have never even tasted chocolate themselves. The slave trade is perpetuated by our uneven system of exchange. What is also disturbing is that slavery is cheaper than it ever has been. It costs less than 100 dollars to buy an adult male slave. It’s very cheapness makes these bodies even more disposable.

  10. July 2, 2008 at 5:53 pm

    Thanks for the kind words, Natalia. With this article you’re making me reconsider my decision to discontinue the Natashas blog…

    One of the reasons I started it was out of despair over my stepdaughter who was caught up in the drugs/prostitution scene. Now that she has left it behind her, I have less personal anguish as an incentive to continue. Another reason was to raise awareness of human trafficking, as at the time there was so little of it. That has changed as well.

    And now that I read what I just wrote, I see that my motivation both to start and stop the blog was far more selfish than altruistic. I’m humbled that you found it interesting and still consider it a useful enough resource to cite here. Thank you, and keep up the good blogging.

  11. Dana
    July 3, 2008 at 2:49 am

    Wow, that is depressing. I found the Times article very informative, I only object to the statement that prostitution is “always degrading”. Yeah, thanks for that part, it really ruined the article for me.

  12. July 3, 2008 at 4:40 am

    Dana, I agree. I’ve actually mentioned this on my personal blog at the time – it’s a really good article, and the writer obviously wants to express a highly nuanced viewpoint, but making a statement like that is not exactly nuanced.

    I wasn’t going to mention it here, because I didn’t want the discussion to go in that direction, but perhaps I should have. It would only have been fair.

    It’s my mistake.

  13. July 4, 2008 at 3:29 am

    There’s something fishy about the motives for trafficking. When you can find people willing to do cheap menial labor and even sex work by “choice,” why is there a need to deceive, coerce, and trick so many of them into it? Why lie to somebody that they’ll be doing housework, when there are already plenty of people ready to do the sex work? Aside from making money off slave labor, I honestly believe there is a disturbingly large market for rape and sadism out there. I wonder sometimes if traffickers aren’t catering to customers who want people they can control and abuse and mistreat for profit as well as pleasure.

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