Challenging the merchants of human slavery

We need to remind people that the sex industry has created a structured system of merchandising humans. We should not horrify people, but teach them ways to understand the problem and inspire them to be part of the solution, says Lydia Cacho

Lydia Cacho
30 November 2012

Politicians and citizens are still discussing prostitution and sexual freedom with the same arguments that we used back in the sixties. But I would like to point out that the phenomenon is quite different. We are witnessing the comeback of misogyny, and the organized crime gangs have found the formula to make big bucks out of buying and selling women, girls and boys as disposable objects to be sexually abused. It is not even a matter of eroticism, but a business of money and power. So let us face one challenge: how do we discuss prostitution and sex trafficking in the 21st century?

Let’s say that sex in the case of the sex industry is not a personal individual choice, but a political issue, a human rights matter. I am not a philosopher, nor will I discuss freedom as if we where in a lab analyzing bacteria. We are talking about an international crime perpetrated every year by millions of men and women - normalized, glamorized, industrialized sex slavery. We have to be really careful when we discuss sexual politics. I like how Kate Millet defined the term "politics", she said it shall refer to power-structured relationships, arrangements whereby one group of persons is controlled by another. Therefore we have to talk about the politics of sex in the 21st century globalization framework. We need to take all the actors involved and make a reality map, for example how the tourism industry is getting around the anti-trafficking laws worldwide with five stars all-inclusive hotels/brothels in countries like Dominican Republic and Mexico. We need to recognize that the clients are Americans, British, Russians and men from all over the world with the economic possibility to buy human beings for leisure purposes.

Woman with microphone sits on steps between two women in bright sunlight

The author interviews families affected by the sex trade

There is absolutely nothing wrong with women wanting a passionate and free erotic life, however this is not what we are talking about. I believe we are trapped in a world discussion of weather sex can be slightly violent or extremely violent, weather some man’s choice to buy sex with a virgin teenager in a brothel should be legalized or hidden. If she is seventeen it’s a crime to rape her, but if she is 18 it’s all right to sell her. Some says if a mother needs food and has a daughter to exploit her sexually to feed the family…well that is a good way to overcome hunger in Vietnam or Guatemala. You would be surprised what I’ve heard in the last five years travelling around the world interviewing hundreds of children and families victimized by this industry.

While writing my book Demons of Eden en 2003, I discovered an international criminal network of sex trafficking and child pornography. Meeting all these little girl victims changed my life forever, not only because as soon as I started writing about the perpetrators in the newspaper I received serious death threats, but also because even in their darkest hours, after the nightmares and the mood swings, the girls insisted they would tell me the entire story with one condition: that I would try my best to make sure Succar Kuri (the ring leader) and his accomplices would nor rape or sell another girl as long as they where alive. The answer I gave them changed my life. I had to keep the promise to never abandon them. Being a good reporter entails investigating the truth and never forgetting the human condition of the ones trusting you with the story of their lives. After 8 years of trial, Kuri was sentenced to 113 year imprisonment last year; I am proud my reporting and our collective activism helped to get the first historical child pornography sentence. But the most important thing that I witnessed is how social and legal changes come to be if one has patience, ability to push for implementation of new laws, and the skills to take an issue from horrifying discovery to a just cause that is a social challenge and in which everyone must play a part. Taking an apparently isolated story to explain how it potentially affects your community and your own family is the true challenge of denouncing Human Slavery.

The author working in the Dominican Republic, June 2012

We have good laws mainly thanks to the women’s movements that have not stopped for a minute pressuring politicians and legislators to issue new laws to abolish violence against women and girls, against human slavery, and against child pornography. But there is a need to discuss the economy of criminal activities against women and to understand that mafias are driven by profits. If the market collapses - if men stop buying women, girls and boys as objects - mafias will eventually look for something else. But let’s not fool ourselves: all society has to work on prevention, sexual and erotic education of girls and boys, making sure girls do not buy into the sex mafias rhetoric of prostitution as a form of female liberation.

To discuss sex trafficking we must remember that the use of sex as a way to oppress and subjugate individuals comes from ancient times. We must bring more real, down to earth evidence to the debate on human trafficking and sex trafficking that includes teen and child pornography. We should not horrify people, but teach them ways to understand the problem and inspire them to be part of the solution, and remind people that the sex industry has created a structured system of merchandising humans. Every day we see some famous women with a hyper-sexualized addiction to media exposure, pro-porn, fearful of ageing and fascinated with cosmetic surgery, vaginoplasty etc. They become role models for sexism, but most importantly they are the perfect vaccine for the awful truth about sexual objectification, because for one woman who glamorizes porn, violent sex and prostitution, there are hundreds of thousands who are slaved and forced into something I assure you is far from glamorous. I feel the need to vindicate our right to affirm that this is not a moral-prude debate, it is an ethical one, because there are 1,4 million people out there who are slaves of cultural values, slaves of the sex industry, of an unequal economic system, and of society's apathy to feel and understand the pain and the violation of rights of others. The choice the world economy is giving these people is to become slaves, the mafias knows it - from the Mexican cartels to the Japanese Yakuza - and they are smiling all the way to the money laundering banks.

I believe you cannot honestly discuss sex trafficking if you not dare to take a stand on prostitution. Of course we cannot ignore the human rights of all adult women in the sex industry; we must hear their voices and respect them, although we shall never get confused into thinking that because 5% of prostitutes are free and well off, that they represent most of the woman who enter the industry due to child abuse, inequality, poverty and gender based violence. If you study countries with efficient gender equality standards, you will see almost no local woman enter prostitution. They have choices and real chances that make an absolute difference. That must be our global goal for all women.

Our silence and fear give power to the growing mafias and the increasing proliferation of Boy lovers who marry young women to exploit them in at-home brothels. Only if through the justice system and the educational system we show them for who they really are -merchants of human slavery- we will take the power away from them, and change the minds of young men prone to become pimps. The whole of society has to work on prevention, sexual and erotic education of girls and boys, making sure girls do not buy into the sex mafia’s rhetoric of prostitution and pornography as a form of female liberation. There is nothing more powerful than being the owner of your body, your erotic life, and your freedom. Politicians play a key role discussing how free market capitalism has increased inequality and sexism; new policies are required, and for that politicians need to truly defend gender equality (most of them confuse gender issues with female issues). New programs for masculinity development and boys education on human rights and peace education are a must.

We must address masculinity issues. We need men to question how they perceive violence as the only means of solving conflicts, because that is what they have been taught. We need men from around the globe to question each other’s view of manhood, of eroticism and their perception of women. We need them to assume responsibility for fuelling a criminal industry and participate to bring it to an end. All men are needed in this quest, from teenagers to the elders. I have seen the result of preventive education, of justice and of men and women walking side by side to change one community at a time.



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