Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery by Siddharth Kara
(Columbia University Press)
This review may contain triggers.
At this moment, there are roughly twenty-seven million people enslaved globally, and over a million of them are sex slaves. Millions more have escaped, “earned” their freedom, or died from assault or STDs over the past twenty years – and, unless action is taken right now, millions more will become enslaved. Tellingly, almost all the countries that serve as either origins or destinations of trafficking victims have enormous, well-funded police forces devoted to drug wars, but can’t be bothered to rustle up the money for anti-trafficking efforts. The abuse of drugs has the power to whip entire populations into a frenzy, but the abuse of people is met with listless dismissal.
In Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery, Siddharth Kara seeks to dissect sex trafficking from a business standpoint, explaining the (staggering) profit margins of owning slaves, the factors that lead to slavery, and, most importantly, the practicalities of abolishing it. The bulk of the book focuses on slavery in specific regions: India and Nepal, Italy and Western Europe, Moldova and the former Soviet Union, Albania and the Balkans, Thailand and the Mekong Subregion, and the US. Each section is organized around Kara’s own travels in each country, chronicling interviews with abolitionists and traffickers alike, visits to brothels and impoverished villages, and testimonies from current and former slaves. He’s a talented storyteller – many sections read almost as much like personal essays as journalism. Take this account of his tangle with a suspicious brothel owner:
The malik yanked at my backpack, which not only held my camera, but my plane tickets and passport. I tightened my posture and refused to hand over the backpack. The tough-guy response did not work. One of the goondas handed the malik a sharp-edged piece of metal. Another goonda shoved me hard. I weighed my options, pulled out my cell phone, and threatened to call the police. For a split second they balked, and in that moment, I bulldozed out of the pinjara and sprinted down Falkland Road. They chased, but I did not stop sprinting until I was halfway across Mumbai.
Later that evening, I cursed my arrogance…. I never returned to Falkland Road. I had no business there and I feared [the slaves I’d tried to interview] had received a fist to the face on my account. That night, I suffered violent food poisoning from mushrooms and vomited thirty-four times. Justice was swift. I accepted my punishment.
The danger in a style like this, of course, is that it’s easy to make the book about himself instead of the women and girls whose stories he’s trying to highlight. And there are a few times when he allows his own harrowing experiences to push trafficking victims off the page. For the most part, though, each section is divided between explanations of the factors that drive people into slavery and firsthand accounts from current and former slaves. (There’s also a good deal of overlap between the two.) It’s tempting to think of modern trafficking as an incarnation of the old white slavery stories, in which unsuspecting women are drugged and hauled off in broad daylight, but outright kidnappings are actually pretty rare. Rather, most trafficked women either go with slave traders willingly, enticed by offers of jobs or marriage in wealthier countries even when they know that many such offers are false (one common refrain is “I hoped nothing bad would happen to me”), or are sent by parents and families, who depend on the remittances that brothels and pimps provide. Although racism, classism, and misogyny play a large part in determining who gets trafficked, the root of the problem is poverty, which limits job options, fuels desperation, and exacerbates old prejudices. “In America, you call the police,” a Moldovan woman says when asked about domestic abuse. “In Moldova, we call it tradition.” And in Sindhupalchok, Nepal, women invariably give Kara two reasons for their mistreatment: “This is our culture,” and “Men want women as slaves.” It’s no coincidence that the poorest areas with the bleakest outlooks are the ones that begin to treat women and children as commodities.
One particularly disturbing aspect of sex trafficking is that girls and women are often told that they owe the brothel owner or pimp money for their own sale. The figure is usually arbitrary, or comes with a ludicrous interest rate. The point seems to be to try and control the slave psychologically – after all, it’s much harder to resist when your very perception of yourself as a prisoner is challenged. One woman, Sushila, describes her initial experiences as a slave:
[The trafficker] took me to a bungalow in Mumbai. There were hundreds of girls in this bungalow. I did not want to go inside, but I was beaten and locked in a room. That evening the gharwali came to the room and said I was sold for forty thousand rupees [$890]. She said I had to do sex work to pay back this money. I told her I had already been raped, and that I could not bear to be with men.
“I thought no one had touched you!” she shouted, “I paid the virgin price!”
She burned me with cigarettes and beat me with a wooden ladle. I was black and blue, and my entire back was bruised. I cried the entire night.
That poor trafficker. How dare Sushila be a rape survivor and not a virgin.
Frighteningly, the story seldom ends when a woman escapes or is rescued – many trafficking survivors and victims don’t live to see the age of forty, and vengeful traffickers stalk and assault survivors who dare to venture out in public after returning home. Many women are retrafficked, some of them multiple times. It’s clear that this isn’t a problem that’s going to be solved with police raids and shelters; raids don’t alleviate the hatred of women that fuels sex slavery in the first place, and slaves are often either arrested themselves or denied care unless the testify in court – a demand that’s especially laughable when you consider that witness protection programs for them and their families are usually nonexistent. Shelters, while a welcome resource, often become a new prison for survivors who are afraid to leave or have nowhere to go.
Fortunately, solutions are where Kara’s analysis really shines. He offers a two pronged plan for putting an end to sex trafficking: a short-term strategy to invert the risk-reward ratio for traffickers and slave owners, and a long-term proposal to address global poverty. The short-term plan is based on the economic principle of the elasticity of demand, which states that the more affordable a product is, the more people will want to buy it. When a prostitute isn’t paid – or, in many cases, fed or even housed – the cost of purchasing sex goes down, and men who wouldn’t have bought sex before become consumers. Some products, like gasoline, aren’t elastic; people will buy roughly the same amount no matter what. Sex, however, is highly elastic, and it’s this weakness that can be exploited by raising slave owners’ risk of getting caught. Right now, the profit brought by slave labor is higher than even the highest fine, and the chances of going to jail are infinitesimally small. Bribes to police and judges are factored into operating costs. But if anti-trafficking forces were better paid, conviction rates higher, and punishments formidable, brothel owners would lose much of their incentive to enslave women instead of hiring them. It’s certainly a lofty goal, especially since we’re talking about an international problem, but it’s far more sensible than any of the strategies that are currently being used.
Most striking – and gratifying – is Kara’s long term goal of addressing the poverty and desperation that traffickers pray on. In a move that will surely send conservatives and most liberals into panicked denial, he lays the blame for trafficking squarely where it belongs: capitalism and globalization. Trafficking levels rose dramatically, he explains, in the 1990s – right around the time that the International Monetary Fund forced developing nations in Eastern Europe and Asia to adopt Western-style market economies and mandated cuts in health care, education, and other social services. Fragile economies quickly collapsed and, without any safety nets to catch them, citizens went from struggling to destitute. Debt mounted as the IMF introduced bailouts and privatization policies that led to inflation. This led to a one-way flow of resources, including people, from Eastern nations to Western ones. The only way to end the systems that foster trafficking is to loosen the West’s stranglehold on the rest of the world.
Is it feasible? Well, in this climate, no. Kara doesn’t pretend to have easy answers, either. But connecting everyday luxuries to the back rooms of brothels is a welcome first step. This is an issue that goes beyond fair trade labels and anti-sweatshop campaigns. You’re not going to solve this by buying the right products.
Sex Trafficking is a tough read, but it’s worth it, and necessary. Through his mix of reportage, analysis, and personal insight, Kara gives activists the tools we need to understand slavery – and then obliterate it.
See also www.freetheslaves.net.
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