Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Victims of Sex Trafficking and the Illusion of Choice

  By: Leena Saleh
When you read a news story about a young girl getting involved in the sex trade, what are some questions that come to mind? Did she want to make money? Does she not know the consequences of getting involved? Was she abused at home? Notice that none of these questions address the people directly responsible for buying or selling sex and profiting, quite successfully, from the exploitation of said young girl.

In a recent editorial, Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times wrote about Emily, a 15-year old girl who ran away from home and became involved in the sex trade. Kristof said she became a prostitute and abandoned her parents, who were stricken with grief when they heard the news. He, too, tried coming up with rational answers for these types of questions and took it once step further to insinuate that Emily had made some poor choices. While Kristof mulls over whether other 15-year old girls like Emily will “consent” to being sold into prostitution, pimps work on recruiting their next victims.

Let’s take a step back and address the obvious elephant in the room. Under federal law, minors cannot give consent. No, as Kristof said, Emily did not have a “gun to her head,” and yes, she seems to have “voluntarily connected with her pimp,” but what seems to have been left out of the discussion are the proven methods of coercion carried out by pimps, such as showing false romantic interest, posing as benefactors, trapping victims in debt bondage, and performing other acts of psychological manipulation. Kristof’s glaring oversight aside, Emily is 15, well below the age of consent. So her ‘voluntary connection’ wasn’t voluntary at all.

Kristof is not unique in his deficit of attention to the real problem. Our culture perpetuates a particular framework: girls become victims of sexual assault, sex trafficking, and rape; this requires us to find out what they did to cause it. Sex trafficking victims are often put under a magnifying glass. Their individual choices, state of mind, and behavioral patterns are relentlessly analyzed and questioned over and over again. Rather than being rescued from their situation, they are re-victimized, which is exactly why federal law continues to be reformed in order to protect minors.

Sex trafficking is a multi-billion dollar industry. What concerned parents like Emily’s have to lose is everything traffickers have to gain. Do we want to live in a society where women and girls are purposefully recruited, bought, sold, and exploited for years on end, only to have those who profit (those selling and buying) emerge completely unscathed?

Kristof’s equation for a solution comes down to dealing with girls like Emily by figuring out why they “choose” to become trafficked. The idea is that this will prevent pimps from recruiting them. However, there is a more viable solution that has been backed by credible research: deter men from buying sex by holding those who profit accountable. This will result in a shortage of demand, and therefore a decrease in the supply: women and girls.

For those who doubt that ending demand for paid sex is possible, consider the study conducted by the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation that reveals otherwise: the study found that men could be deterred from buying sex if they faced real consequences, such as fines of $1,000 or more or public accountability for what they had done.  A deficient demand will cripple the industry and put an end to the recruitment process, giving girls like Emily a fighting chance.

Woody Allen and Rejecting the Monster Myth

By: Kaethe Morris Hoffer
I enjoy (many) Woody Allen movies, even though I've long believed he molested his daughter. I sing along when I hear Michael Jackson on the radio, even though I think he was a pedophile. I'd even vote again for Bill Clinton, even though I've always regarded the women who accused him of sexual harassment and assault as credible.

It's not that I think there shouldn't be consequences for abusive sex--I just believe that we should be able to hold predators accountable while still making space for them in our society. Condemning someone's worst acts simply doesn't require that we stop acknowledging their humanity or talents. Allen, Clinton, Jackson: I think all these men engaged in some monstrous acts of violation. But I don't think they are monsters, and the idea that only monsters engage in sexual violation is a myth we need to reject.

I am the Executive Director of the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation, an organization whose mission is to create accountability for sexual harm and eradicate sexual exploitation. I've spent the better part of the last twenty years standing with individual survivors of rape and prostitution, urging police and prosecutors to believe victims and initiate prosecutions, and filing civil lawsuits to create accountability when the criminal system fails to act (which is very often).

But does vilifying those who engage in sexual predation actually help survivors? To begin with, the more we insist that being decent or admirable is fundamentally incompatible with engaging in sexually abusive behaviors, the more difficult we make it for individual survivors who are abused by people whose humanity and/or talents are undeniable. While most people never engage in sexual abuse, most of those who do have good qualities that are plentiful and undeniable.

The monster myth isn't only a problem because it increases hostility and skepticism towards victims who report being harmed by apparently or otherwise decent men (or, rather less often, women). Extreme rhetoric and draconian penalties also discourage violators from taking responsibility for their actions: admitting to a sex offense is tantamount to declaring oneself an irredeemable degenerate. The legal consequences include lifetime pariah status and never-ending career and housing limitations pursuant to sex offender registry laws.

When Dylan Farrow recently wrote about being sexually violated as a child, she challenged readers to name their favorite Woody Allen film before and after reading a description of the sexual abuse he inflicted on her--quite explicitly endorsing the idea that it is not possible (or acceptable) to celebrate a person's talent and believe they engaged in sexual abuse. I can't blame her. An unwillingness to acknowledge that individuals can be capable of both extreme good and extreme bad is not unique to her, and our entire culture bears responsibility for the fact that she regarded celebrations of Allen and his work as a personal rebuke to her—a message that she should be silent and "go away."

So I understand that admiration for Allen feels like a slap in the face to his accusers. But still, I don't think that standing with victims requires adherence to the view that only evil men engage in rape. This view is far too simplistic, and it promotes the idea that evidence that a man is capable of kindness, love, respect, or gentleness, somehow constitutes proof against allegations of him engaging in sexually violating behavior. Just last week, for example, Barbara Walters implied that she could not believe Dylan's allegations because she has personally seen Allen be a loving and attentive father.

As a society, we must stop acting as if there are only two legitimate responses to an accusation of sexual violation: either choice A) "He is a monster" or choice B) "She is lying (or mistaken)." We must stop this because as rape victims quickly apprehend, most people quickly gravitate towards option B. For as long as those victims who do speak up are mostly disbelieved and disregarded, the great majority of victims will continue to nurse their wounds in silence, and that minority of men who engage in sexual predation will have little incentive to change their ways.

To prevent sexual violation from occurring, we must be willing to see that otherwise good people might be perpetrators. Consider, for example, what Woody Allen said to People Magazine in 1976: "I'm open-minded about sex.  I'm not above reproach; if anything, I'm below reproach. I mean, if I was caught in a love nest with fifteen 12-year-old girls tomorrow, people would think, yeah, I always knew that about him."  I find this quotation chilling, but it is not proof that he is a monster. Despite this quote—which rather clearly suggests a sexualization of pre-teens--I imagine that the majority of people in his inner circle--people who were exposed, as Barbara Walters has been, to his genuine capacity for loving and attentive kindness--viewed him as someone who "couldn't" be a man who would sexually violate a seven year old.

For as long as our rhetoric about sex offenders continues to be as extreme as it is, accusing someone of rape will continue to be taboo (perhaps more taboo than engaging in sexual violation).  And expectations that only 'monsters' are capable of rape will continue to limit our ability to acknowledge or respond to conduct that violates dignity and integrity--let alone attitudes or comments which suggest that an adult is inappropriately sexualizing children.