Politics & Policy

The New Abolitionist Movement

Donna Hughes on progress fighting sex trafficking.

Donna M. Hughes, an occasional contributor to National Review Online, is a women’s-studies professor who speaks out about issues that you’d think her fellow feminists would, but too often don’t. For 17 years she’s worked at studying and fighting sex trafficking and, like her fellow advocates, has found a powerful ally in our current president. NRO Editor Kathryn Lopez recently talked to Hughes about the recent sex-trafficking reauthorization bill that the president signed and the wider fight against this modern-day slavery, foreign and domestic.

Kathryn Jean Lopez: When people hear about sex trafficking, they think Thailand, not, say, New Jersey. How much of a problem is sex slavery domestically?

Donna Hughes:We have a serious problem of 1) foreign women and girls being trafficked into the U.S. and 2) U.S. citizen women and girls being trafficked by U.S. citizen pimps. We don’t really know how many victims there are because no one has counted or directed resources to surveying the problem. Most of what people see as prostitution is actually trafficking because it involves force, fraud, and coercion or underage girls. Pimps are vicious, violent criminals who tightly and brutally control their victims to the point they are enslaved. And most prostitution is pimp controlled. The independent call-girl/hooker is mostly a myth. You can get a rough idea of how much sex trafficking–foreign and domestic–is in your community by looking at the advertisements for massage parlors and other fronts for prostitution. These places are full of trafficking victims.

Lopez: How important is the sex-trafficking law that the president signed earlier this month? What will it do that is most important?

Hughes: The Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA) passed was passed unanimously by the House and Senate. President Bush signed it into law on January 10.

Title I–Combating International Trafficking in Persons–is important. I’ll focus on just one provision that abolition activists have been advocating for several years, that foreign countries should be evaluated in the annual State Department Trafficking in Persons Report on whether they tolerate prostitution and sex industries that create a demand for foreign and domestic victims. Now a minimum standard for the elimination of trafficking will include “measures to reduce the demand for commercial sex acts and for participation in international sex tourism by nationals of the country.” This will begin to hold countries accountable for tolerating a sex trade that is populated by vulnerable women and girls trafficked from abroad and allowing its citizens to go abroad and sexually exploit children.

Title II–Combating Domestic Trafficking in Persons–is ground breaking. Title II started out as the “End Demand for Sex Trafficking Act” (HR 2012-S 937). It addresses the victimization of U.S. citizen women and girls by pimps in the U.S. It is a funding bill that provides incentives to local and state agencies to enforce existing laws against pimps and “johns,” the men who purchase sex acts. These perpetrators make up what is referred to as “the demand.” ‘Johns” create a demand for victims of sex trafficking by seeking out and purchasing sex acts, and pimps or domestic traffickers create a demand for victims by making enormous illegal profits from coercing victims into performing sex acts. In most cities, pimps make up less than one percent of all prostitution-related arrests. The low arrest rate creates a favorable climate in which pimps recruit victims and profit from their victimization. Consider the amount of money a pimp is making if he controls just two or three girls and forces them through beatings to make $500 to $800 a night–every night.

Title II provides funding for services for women and girls to assist them to get out of prostitution. We know from research that 90 percent of women in prostitution say they want out, but there are limited services available and often little sympathy for victims trapped in the sex trade. For too long prostitution has been a low priority or considered a victimless crime. At most, it was viewed as a nuisance crime. Officials ignored the damage that pimps and traffickers were doing to individual women and girls and to the whole community by allowing the illegal sex industry to operate openly. Pimps felt so confident, they held public celebrations, called Players’ Balls, at which they gave out Pimp of the Year Awards. Over the last decade an entire culture has emerged that glamorizes the brutality of pimps. Rap musicians and media glamorized pimping and clubs held Pimp and Ho parties, where young couples dressed up and pretended to be pimps and prostitutes. Even the mainstream media ran stories of the new independent women who made money by selling sex.

Title II authorizes surveys of sex trafficking and the illegal sex industry in the U.S. To date, no such comprehensive studies have been done. I did a study of sex trafficking in the U.S. in 2000. It was one of the first research studies to address this problem, yet considering the scope of the problem, woefully inadequate. Title II also directs the Justice Department to hold conferences to address domestic sex trafficking. These surveys and conferences will expose the reality of this destructive criminal culture and lay a factual foundation on which to develop law-enforcement and social-service responses.

Lopez: You were at the signing ceremony, right?

Hughes: Yes.

Lopez: Was there any one woman, one child you were thinking about as you watched the ceremony?

Hughes: Well, not just one. There are many victims/survivors I know who never had anyone see them as real people deserving of dignity and justice.

Here’s an excerpt from the congressional testimony of Tina Frundt. Tina was very active in our coalition meetings and helped educate many of us about what really happens to girls on the streets in the U.S.

When I was 14, I ran away from home to be with a wonderful guy I met that was in his mid-20s. We had a great plan about us living together, making money together, and becoming rich. I thought this was everything I had always wanted, until he told me that if I loved him, I would help make money for us. By the time I thought I was in love with him, he had given me too much to go back home. I was then introduced to the other women that he was pimping, who I hadn’t known about before. That’s what happens with pimps–at first, [it’s] just you and them, but then there were four of us.

We went to Cleveland, OH, and he immediately said that I was going to go out with the 3 other women, so they could show me how to make money for us, for all of us together, as if we were like a family. Later on that evening, his friends that he knew came by the motel. At first he told me to have sex with one of them, and I didn’t want to, so his friends raped me. Afterwards, he said that wouldn’t have happened if I would have just listened to him at first. So I took it as my fault. Instead of being angry at him for being raped, I was angry at myself for not listening to him in the first place. Right after that is when he picked my clothes out, told me what to wear, and forced me to go out on the streets.

When I first went out into the streets, and I had to meet my first John, I felt like this was something I didn’t want to do. I walked around the streets back and forth for hours, hiding, until the morning. Our quota was $500 but I had only made $50 that night to give back to the pimp. So he beat me in front of the other girls and made me go outside until I had made the money. … Not only was I shocked, I was scared. What would happen to me if I did try to leave, and who would believe me if I told them that this was going on? So I worked from 6am until 10pm that next night, without eating or sleeping. I came back with the $500, but in his mind, I still hadn’t learned my lesson. So I had to go back outside until 5AM the next morning. After the second day, he finally bought me something to eat, but as a punishment to never to do it again he locked me in the closet to sleep.

Tina is now a healthy, strong mother and professional who works as the street-outreach coordinator for the Polaris Project in Washington, D.C. In my experience, this is a typical story of how girls get recruited and then brutalized in prostitution in the U.S. Most people don’t understand the experiences of victims and too many people treat them as throwaway girls. That changed significantly when President Bush signed the TVPRA.

In the 1990s, women’s groups in Portland and San Francisco started educational-diversion programs–”john schools”–for men arrested for soliciting a prostitute. The goal was to educate men about the harm they were doing to women and girls and the risks to themselves when they engaged in illegal activity. Norma Hotaling of the Sage Project’s “john school” said that only when men’s “demand” for victims was countered would the number of victims decrease. Her “john school” project has become a model and is replicated around the country and even around the world. Title II will encourage other communities to set up programs to investigate and prosecute purchasers of sex acts. In November 2000, I wrote and presented the World Lecture on Sexual Exploitation at the Queen Sofia Center for the Study of Violence in Valencia, Spain. Entitled “Men create the demand; women are the supply“; it was a new theoretical formulation of the dynamics of sex trafficking. Up to this point, discussion of the causes of trafficking focused on the conditions of the countries from which women were recruited. Activists and scholars concluded that poverty, inequality, and unemployment were the root causes of trafficking, and therefore only global economic adjustment would end the trafficking of women. This is what I called a “supply-side” analysis, meaning the conditions that make it easy for traffickers to recruit victims were to blame. Certainly, poverty contributes to the problem of trafficking, but many of us pointed out that traffickers are criminals who prey on the vulnerable and a more ready solution was to arrest and prosecute criminals and provide services to victims. Then in November 2002, I gave a talk at a contentious anti-trafficking conference at the University of Hawaii entitled “The Demand: The Driving Force of Sex Trafficking.”

The terms in which trafficking was discussed and the analysis of causes and solutions shifted away from purely economic causes to a focus on criminal activity and how that could be stopped in destination countries. In October 2003, at the United Nations, President Bush called upon world leaders to come to the assistance of victims of the sex trade, who suffered because of a “special evil.” He addressed the demand for victims, by saying, “Those who patronize this industry debase themselves and deepen the misery of others.”

At the signing ceremony earlier this month, President Bush specifically mentioned “the demand” in his speech–and received a round of applause when he condemned it. To have a law that addresses the demand for victims and have the president address it is a fulfillment of the goals of my work.

By the way, Kathryn, I should mention that National Review Online played an important role in shifting the focus of the trafficking and prostitution debates. In October 2002, NRO published my article entitled “Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing,” which exposed the agenda of some of the liberal feminist, leftist anti-trafficking activists. They were using the anti-trafficking debate to advance their efforts to legalize prostitution. They claimed that prostitution was an important economic option for women in poverty, and advancing the rights of “sex workers” was the way to combat the trafficking of women. Over the next few years, NRO published important pieces that tracked the anti-trafficking debate and exposed the pro-prostitution groups’ efforts to use the anti-trafficking movement for their own goals.

The TVPRA, especially Title II, will have a tremendous impact on the illegal sex trade in the U.S., and it will have a ripple effect internationally. Ambassador John Miller, director of the State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Office, will be able to point to the U.S. as example to encourage other countries to crackdown on their domestic sex industries by arresting pimps and providing services to victims.

Lopez: How are we making a difference internationally?

Hughes: The annual State Department Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP Report) is having a huge impact. The report evaluates each country for its efforts to comply with a minimum standard to combat trafficking. Backed up with the threat of sanctions, Ambassador Miller is able to engage other governments and get a response from them. Many anti-trafficking initiatives, including arrests and prosecutions of traffickers, have resulted from the original Trafficking Victims Protection Act 2000 and the TIP reports. Progress has been uneven, but it has made a tremendous difference. At President Bush’s direction, federal agencies have made combating trafficking a priority. Every agency has had a response. USAID and the State Department have altered their pattern of funding. At President Bush’s and Congress’s direction, groups that support the legalization of prostitution are no longer eligible for funding. (Funding for groups that worked to “empower” victims of trafficking rather than rescue them, and supported unionizing prostitutes as the solution to trafficking started under the Clinton administration). Now, there is an emphasis on funding groups that help women and girls get out of prostitution.

Lopez: How important has the president been in this fight?

Hughes: President Bush has been the crucial factor. He has created a political climate in which all of us, from local activists to high-ranking political appointees, could do this work. Mainstream feminists like to say he’s anti-woman, but by supporting the abolitionist work against the global sex trade, he has done more for women and girls than any one other president I can think of. And he seems to have done it because it’s the right thing to do, not because of pressure or favoritism. The new law and policy will literally initiate change for millions of women and girls around the world. Years from now, when the anti-Bush hysteria has died away, I believe he will be recognized as a true advocate for women’s freedom and human rights.

The mainstream media has ignored this story. Most of the coverage has come from the conservative press as a result of faith-based groups’ involvement in coalition efforts to support the new law and policy. I believe it is a result of the liberal media dislike of the Bush administration and the lack of mainstream feminist groups’ acknowledgement of Bush’s efforts to fight sex trafficking. Most mainstream journalists don’t search out the facts, and instead accept the stereotypes and anti-Bush propaganda. When I speak favorably of what the Bush administration has done to support the anti-trafficking movement, people are often shocked because it isn’t consistent with their view of President Bush or the Bush administration. Hopefully, history will set the record straight.

Lopez: Who have been some of the other key figures?

Hughes: Laura Lederer, senior adviser in the State Department’s global-affairs office had a key role in drafting the national-security directive that President Bush issued in 2002. The directive laid out the U.S. policy on prostitution and trafficking. Lederer has a 30-year history of fighting pornography, prostitution, and sexual exploitation. She thoroughly understood the problem and the nuances of all the debates around trafficking. She was able to assist the Bush administration is drawing up a far reaching, visionary plan for the abolition of trafficking.

Ambassador John Miller, head of the “Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons,” has been a brave, energetic leader of the new abolitionist movement. He is well respected by his former colleagues in Congress, and he is popular all over the world with conservatives, faith-based groups, and even the feminists love him. When he took the job as director of the TIP office, he said it would be an activist office, and he has carried the banner of abolition all over the world.

Claude Allen, President Bush’s domestic-policy adviser and former deputy secretary of health and human services, demonstrated early on that he “got it” when it came to the victimization of women and children, and he was willing to be a strong advocate for the new abolitionist policy. He was the first Bush-administration official to step out and announce that a different approach to trafficking–particularly involving prostitution–was to be undertaken. He gave this speech at the now-infamous anti-trafficking conference at the University of Hawaii. He supported Title II of the TVPRA when some others wanted a weaker approach to domestic sex trafficking.

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is overseeing a nation-wide crackdown on prostitution and child-pornography rings. Almost every day there’s news of another bust of a pimp or prostitution ring by federal agents. Federal law-enforcement agents, including those in homeland security, are working closely with state and local police on trafficking in an almost unprecedented way. He has made prosecution of obscenity a priority, and I believe we are soon going to see the connection between the production of pornography and trafficking very soon.

Lopez: Who are some of the private organizations that are most effective on this front?

Hughes: Well, that varies so much country to country. There are heroes everywhere rescuing victims, providing services, and fighting local political battles. I suggest you consult the annual Trafficking in Persons reports which each year identify several heroes from around the world.

It is really a coalition of groups that have been effective in advocating for the new law and supporting President Bush’s policy. Organized by Michael Horowitz of the Hudson Institute, the coalition is made up of survivors of sex trafficking, conservative, faith-based, liberal, and feminist groups. They have worked together to support John Miller in the Trafficking Office, push for implementation of policies outlined in President Bush’s NSPD, and draft and lobby for the TVPRA. I’ve been involved with this coalition, and it has been an amazing experience to work so closely and cooperatively with people from such different groups. I’m in the feminist wing of the coalition. The Polaris Project, a service organization based in Washington, holds up the liberal/progressive wing. There are many survivors of prostitution/sex trafficking involved, including survivor-based service providers in San Francisco, St. Paul, Phoenix, Washington, D.C., and Kansas City. Several survivors, including Tina Frundt of the Polaris Project and Julia Guzman of the SAGE Project, testified before Congress or spoke to high-ranking governmental officials who were just blown away by their stories. They put a human face on sex trafficking in America.

Then there are the powerful faith based groups–the Salvation Army and the Southern Baptists, in particular. Conservatives groups, such as Concerned Women for America, are among the leaders.

Lopez: You spend so much time on this issue. It must be so dispiriting. Why do you do it and how do you keep from distress?

Hughes: I’ve spent about 17 years working on this issue–most of that time I was on the losing side, as those who supported “sex worker” rights won almost every political battle. The mainstream feminist groups wanted to allow women to make the “choice” to be prostitutes and only oppose “forced prostitution.” The Clinton administration funded and supported this approach. I thought we had lost. Those were the depressing years. During the late 1990s, almost all the media stories were about how empowering prostitution was, how much money the women made, how pimps were disappearing, how women were independent businesswomen, and how women in India were forming unions and collectives to fight for their rights as sex workers. The utopian vision that prostitution could be turned into a form of legitimate work for women by empowering victims and organizing unions ruled in all U.N. meetings, feminist conferences, and a number of government offices. Now that was depressing!

Slowly that is changing. Media stories are increasingly describing prostitution rings in which women and girls are beaten, raped, and enslaved. That may sound more depressing, but to me it is much better because it’s the truth. I used to hear stories like that all the time from victims, but they never made it into media stories or congressional testimonies. Now, the truth about prostitution/sex trafficking is emerging and agencies are responding as never before. I think more pimps and traffickers have been arrested in the last year than in the whole previous decade.

There is movement underway to hold perpetrators accountable and assist victims of sex trafficking. I got involved in the anti-sex trafficking movement as an outgrowth of my involvement in the anti-rape movement in the 1980s. To me it was obvious that this was a form of violence against women and a women’s-rights issue. It came as a complete shock to me that some women, calling themselves feminists, were pro-pornography and pro-prostitution, or called it a choice. It has been tremendously gratifying to me to work with a broad based coalition on this issue. Although we come from different political views, we base our work on principles of dignity, freedom, and human rights. By getting down to basics, we’ve formed a movement that is going to liberate thousands of women and girls in the U.S. and millions of women abroad. That makes me feel good.


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