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Sexual Gulags
Facing and fighting sex trafficking.


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Earlier this month, in preparation for a syndicated column I was about to work on the worldwide sex-trade, I e-mailed Lisa I. Thompson, “Liaison for the Abolition of Sexual Trafficking” at the Salvation Army’s national headquarters in Arlington, Virginia, posing a few questions to her about her work and the battle she’s fighting for innocent victims of our modern-day slavery. She came back with detailed answers packed with information about the Salvation Army–including its 19th century fight against sex trafficking–and this modern-day fight. I had to share what she had to say; my correspondence with Thompson follows.–Kathryn Jean Lopez

Lopez: Why is the Salvation Army in this fight against the sex trade?

Lisa I. Thompson: To understand why the Salvation Army is so deeply committed to the modern-day fight against sexual trafficking, it’s necessary to understand our organization’s roots and early history. The Salvation Army was founded in London, England, in 1865 by William and Catherine Booth, revolutionaries in their time. They went against every Victorian convention and took their ministry to the dirty and dangerous streets of London’s east side where they reached out to the destitute and desperate.

To some people it will likely be surprising to learn that in the late 1800s there was considerable sexual trafficking of women and girls in the U.K. (as well as Europe). Under the leadership of Josephine Butler, an evangelical Christian, a movement on behalf of these women and girls took shape. Following on the heels of the successful movement for the abolition of the African slave trade in the British empire, Butler ignited another abolitionist campaign: This one for the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts, legislation which had legalized prostitution in several garrison towns of England in the 1860s. Her campaign to end the commercial sexual exploitation of women and girls eventually spread throughout Europe, where several countries had adopted various forms of regulated prostitution, and where traffic in women and girls flourished.

Like the Booth’s, Butler was also a revolutionary. She upset the social norms of her time when she dared to speak publicly before men, which simply was not done in her day, and then added insult to injury, when she spoke on the scandalous subject of prostitution. It was 1886 before she saw the Contagious Disease Acts repealed, and there were many more years of struggle ahead on behalf of women in Europe and India.

It was during the 1880s that the Salvation Army joined Butler in her movement to rescue and restore “fallen women”–the Victorian-era euphemism for women in prostitution (who were more often pushed over the precipice of virtue rather than fallen!). The efforts began in 1881 with the opening of a home for women seeking to escape street life. A similar home soon followed.

However, the Salvation Army’s efforts to help women and girls in prostitution did not stop there. In one of the most fascinating chapters its history, the Salvation Army participated in the execution of an undercover investigation into the trafficking of young girls for prostitution–a detailed account of which was published in July 1885 by the Pall Mall Gazette in a series of articles called, “The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon.” At the heart of the series was the report of how W. T. Stead, Pall Mall Gazette editor, arranged for the purchase of a young girl, Elizabeth Armstrong, from her mother, with the mother’s knowledge that the girl would ostensibly meet with an illicit and immoral fate. To say that the series created a national sensation is an understatement. The circulation of the Pall Mall Gazette rose from twelve thousand to over a million and there was near rioting in the streets as people fought to obtain copies of the paper.

In the months that followed, the fervor created by “The Maiden Tribute” series helped foment public opinion in support of the Criminal Law Amendment Act, a measure which when passed in August 1885, raised the age of consent from 13 to 16 (although reformers sought 18). The Salvation Army’s advocacy efforts were a major catalyst in the bill’s passage. In addition, to speaking to large crowds of people on the topic of protection of young girls, Catherine and William Booth, wrote a petition to the House of Commons in support of the Criminal Law Amendment Act, which in the course of 17 days received 393,000 signatures!

On the heels of this great victory, the crusaders received a blow, when in September 1885, many of those involved in the “purchase” of Elizabeth Armstrong, including W. T. Stead, Bramwell Booth (one of the Booth’s adult children), and Rebecca Jarrett (a Salvation Army convert who procured the girl), were pressed with criminal charges irrespective of their motives in the case. William Booth expressed his consternation this way: “. . . it seems to me more like complaining of the dogs that bark in order to show the enemy is there rather than of the wolves that bite!” Bramwell was acquitted, while Stead received a three month sentence and Jarrett a six month term.

Nevertheless, the Salvation Army’s efforts on behalf of those caught up in prostitution expanded. William Booth conceived of a “New National Scheme for the Deliverance of Unprotected Girls and the Rescue of the Fallen.” Of his scheme he held high hopes, saying, “If it can be matured and got into operation on the scale here described, I believe it will constitute one of the most effective onslaughts on one of the blackest strongholds of the devil, and be a means of rescuing tens of thousands of the most despairing and wretched victims of his fiendish designs.”

Among the plan’s elements were:

The establishment of a central office of help and inquiry in London, which was to be a place of refuge and escape to the vulnerable and the exploited alike, and to which parents and others could make inquiries regarding those feared “gone astray.”

The immediate and extensive establishment of homes of refuge for those “actually fallen.”

The Salvation Army also formed Midnight Rescue Brigades for “Cellar, Gutter, and Garret” work, sending its “brigades” at night to the back allies and attics in which they might find women and girls longing for another life. Commenting on this work, Catherine Booth said, “I felt as though I must go and walk the streets and besiege the dens where these hellish iniquities are going on. To keep quiet seemed like being a traitor to humanity.” And besiege they did. In 30 years time, the number of the Salvation Army rescue homes grew from one in Whitechapel to 117 homes in Great Britain and around the world.

In the 21st century, the Salvation Army finds history repeating itself. Once again we are fully engaged in the fight against sexual trafficking. To do anything less we risk becoming traitors to humanity and of our heritage.

Lopez: What is the most significant challenge facing the U.S. in 2006 on this front?

Thompson: Two months ago I would have said that passing legislation with measures to provide assistance to U.S. citizen victims of intra-country sexual trafficking, as well as to combat U.S. demand for commercial sex were our biggest challenges. The good news is that the Title II provisions of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2005 (TVPRA 05), which the president signed into law earlier this month, enact measures designed to address both these issues. Specifically, the law allows the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to develop and expand social-service programs to assist U.S. citizen victims (as well as alien victims) of sexual trafficking that occurs, in whole or in part, within the territorial jurisdiction of the U.S. Additionally, TVPRA 05 will allow the U.S. Department of Justice to make grants to states and local law-enforcement agencies to establish, develop, or expand programs that investigate and prosecute persons who engage in the purchase of commercial sex acts, and to educate persons charged with, or convicted of, purchasing or attempting to purchase commercial sex acts.

With these aspects of the new law in place we have taken new ground in the fight for the abolition of sexual trafficking. Why? First, because U.S. citizen victims of intra-country sex trafficking were the orphans of the original Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA 00), and second, because curbing demand for commercial sex is essential to ending sexual trafficking.

The social-service programs that were developed to provide assistance to victims of sexual trafficking (as well as labor trafficking) following passage of the 2000 Trafficking Victims Protection Act have emphasized aid to foreign nationals rather than U.S. citizen victims. Aid to U.S. citizen victims was not explicitly prohibited, but the argument was that U.S. citizen victims should be able to access assistance through existing social service providers. If only this were true. Yes, there are a few social-service providers that do heroic work with U.S. citizen victims, but generally such services are provided on an ad hoc and piecemeal basis with little to no federal funding, and the number of organizations providing such services is small contrasted with the need across the entire country.

Compounding the problem, U.S. citizen victims generally weren’t viewed as victims. Sure, with a little training the average law-enforcement official or prosecutor will begin to realize that foreign women in prostitution could very likely be trafficking victims, but it takes a lot more training and understanding for most law enforcement officials, city officials, prosecutors, and the general public to recognize that U.S. citizens in prostitution can be, and frequently are, victims of sexual trafficking.

Some readers may think that prostitution is irrelevant to the issue of sexual trafficking out of the perception that sexual trafficking and prostitution are two separate things. But keep in mind that all prostitution of persons under the age 18 is ipso facto sexual trafficking, and that the vast majority of adult women in prostitution in any given country experience levels of physical and psychological coercion, abuse, and torture that plainly classify them as victims of sexual trafficking. The problem for most people is that they fail to recognize signs of coercion and abuse, and fail to take into consideration factors such as traumatic bonding, the survival strategies employed by persons abused in prostitution, as well as the fact that many children abused in prostitution eventually age to become adults in prostitution.

Indeed prostitution and sexual trafficking are symbiotically related. If a person is sexually trafficked they are exploited in one or more forms of commercial sexual exploitation such as prostitution, pornography, and nude dancing. The fact people are trafficked for use in a particular industry clearly links the phenomenon with that industry, which in this case, is the “sex industry.” So then, the degree to which prostitution as an institution is accepted, normalized, and allowed to flourish in a community, is the degree to which sexual trafficking will also thrive.

Lopez: Prostitution I’ve seen across from National Review’s offices here in Manhattan, we all know it exists and that it’s not exactly Julie Roberts falling for Richard Gere at the Regent Beverly Wilshire. But is there really a big market out there to sustain this awful, widespread trafficking?

Thompson: [You ask about] demand. Most efforts to combat sexual trafficking in the U.S. and abroad have applied “supply-side” approaches. In other words, their emphasis has been on reaching those who have been, or who are at-risk of, being sexually trafficked–especially those living in source countries for trafficked persons. Such efforts have included much-needed activities such as awareness raising campaigns among populations of vulnerable women and girls; anti-poverty, literacy, and micro-finance programs conducted in source countries; identification and rescue of trafficked women and girls from places such as brothels; legislative initiatives that provide protections, like special visas, for those rescued from sexual trafficking; as well as, the development of social services to help survivors of sexual trafficking restore their lives. Such approaches are essential and important. Yet there has been a conspicuous absence of initiatives or programs which address the other side of the equation–demand for commercial sex.

Those who demand bodies to consume in commercial sex fuel the need for a supply of those bodies. Traffickers are simply supplying women and children through acts like recruiting, procuring, transporting, and the selling of persons to meet that demand. Fortunately for the sex trafficker, there is a global marketplace made up of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of brothels, bars, strip clubs, massage parlors, escort services, and street corners where men purchase people for use in sex acts. This is the demand. Most people casually refer to this marketplace, its consumers, “business owners,” “employees,” and “suppliers,” in total as the commercial-sex industry. I call it the Sexual Gulag.

Here are a just few Sexual Gulag highlights:

In Japan, where prostitution is not legal, but widely tolerated, the sex industry is estimated to make [the equivalent of $83 billion in U.S. dollars]. There are an estimated 150,000 foreign women in the sex industry. Many of them are known to be trafficked from the Philippines, Thailand, Korea, Russia, and Latin America each year.

Prostitution in the Philippines is a de facto legal industry that is now the fourth-largest source of gross national product (GNP) for the country. Estimates vary but the likelihood is that there are nearly half a million persons in prostitution in the country and an estimated 100,000 of them are children. Three hundred thousand sex tourists from Japan alone are believed to visit the Philippines every year.

More than 2.3 million girls and women are believed to make up India’s sex industry. The U.N. reports that an estimated 40 percent are below 18 years of age. In 2004, it was reported that transactions in prostitution are worth [the equivalent of $4.1 million in U.S. dollars) a day; [$8.5 billion in U.S. dollars] per year.

A 1998 study by the International Labor Organization on the sex industries of four Asian countries, reported that Indonesia’s sex industry was as much as 2.4 percent (US $3.3 billion) of the gross domestic product and as much as 14 percent (US $27 billion) of Thailand’s gross domestic product. The report stated, “The stark reality is that the sex sector is a big business that is well entrenched in the national economies and the international economy,’ with highly organized structures and linkages to other types of legitimate economic activity.”

Considering that all those billions of dollars ultimately represent untold numbers of discreet sex acts bought and paid for by purchasers, it is obvious that even the most unskilled and inept of sex traffickers will have little difficulty selling his “product” in light of such overwhelming global demand for human flesh (and so many venues for its sale).

Lopez: But what about the demand here at home?

Thompson: At present there is precious little statistical information about the scale of America’s commercial-sex industry. What we do know from survivor stories, the work of advocacy groups across the country, and the growing number of federal investigations into organized sex rings, suggests that prostitution is rampant. Anyone not persuaded about seriousness of the problem in the U.S. need only read the recent series of articles from the Toledo Blade. Reportedly, just last month federal investigators charged 31 men and women with transporting girls across state lines as sex slaves as part of a sex ring that rotated Toledo teens through truck stops and rest areas in Pennsylvania, California, Michigan, Indiana, Georgia, Maryland, Tennessee, California, Florida, Louisiana, and other states. Some federal investigators purportedly consider Toledo, Ohio, as the U.S.’s number one center for the recruitment and grooming of girls for prostitution. And while Toledo may be the recruitment hot spot, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, functioned as the ring’s distribution center. The city, where five major highways meet, delivered an unending supply of paying customers. Last fall U.S. News and World Report also carried a story exposing the dark and brutal reality of life as a prostituted youth. Additionally, the story reported on the Innocence Lost” initiative, a campaign launched by the FBI dedicating 40 agents to task forces in 14 cities with the highest incidence of prostituted youth. Since the campaign’s inception, almost 40 federal indictments against accused sex traffickers and pimps have been obtained. This is excellent. Still I can’t help but marvel at all the emphasis on the “suppliers” versus the “paying customers” who clearly make organized commercial sex so profitable for the pimps. Surely johns are also culpable. But so far there are few major law enforcement initiatives aimed at targeting demand (albeit some communities are beginning to take this approach such as Oakland, Ca.).

The recent passage of the Title II provisions of TVPRA 05 at last provides the necessary catalyst to spur the development and expansion of programs to investigate, prosecute and educate persons charged with, or convicted of, purchasing or attempting to purchase commercial sex acts.

Lopez: What’s next on your action-item list for D.C.?

Thompson: Now our biggest challenge is to see that Congress appropriates the necessary funds to carry out the activities outlined in Title II. This will require a Herculean effort on the part of advocates, concerned citizens, and members of Congress dedicated to fighting sexual trafficking. The TVPRA 05 passed so late in the year that the Title II provisions were not incorporated in the federal government’s budget for 2006, and we are against a tight timeline for incorporating Title II funding into the federal budget for 2007. Concerned readers should call their U.S. representatives and senators asking them to vigorously seek and support federal appropriations for Title II of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2005.



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