Film & TV

The Porn Industry and Human Trafficking Reinforce Each Other

Porn actresses line-up at the opening of the “Venus” erotic fair in Berlin, October 17, 2013. (Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters)
Demand for the former feeds the latter. It should stop.

If you shopped at Walmart or J. C. Penney in 2013, there’s a chance that clothing you purchased was produced in a building in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The building, Rana Plaza, was eight stories high, and the upper four floors had been built without a permit. The building was intended for shops and offices. Architects emphasized the risks of placing factories inside the building, which was not robust enough to withstand the weight of vibration and heavy machinery.

Many of the nearly 5,000 garment workers employed at Rana Plaza complained about cracks in the building on April 23, 2013. Managers disregarded their concerns. The next day, 1,134 employees died when the building collapsed. It was the deadliest accident due to structural failure in modern human history.

The fashion industry’s glamorous façade was temporarily shattered. Western shoppers demanded justice for the workers who were exploited by major fashion retailers, taking their outrage to social media. An H&M shopper posted on Facebook that he’d start shopping there if the retailer stopped “using slave labor” in its “clothing production.” Another, posting on J. C. Penney’s Facebook page, asked whether it imported any of their clothing from Bangladesh. No one with a good conscience wants to support an industry that profits from the abuse of vulnerable people.

Then why is the porn industry, which fuels the demand for human sex trafficking, the fastest-growing business of organized crime in the world, receiving more visitors each month than Netflix, Amazon, and Twitter combined?

July 30 was the World Day Against Trafficking in Persons, an initiative created by the U.N.’s Office on Drugs and Crime to bring awareness to the proliferation of human trafficking and its victims, who are mostly children.

By far the most commonly identified form of human trafficking worldwide, sexual exploitation constitutes 79 percent of it. Two percent of victims are children. (The second-most common form of human trafficking is forced labor.) According to the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) of 2000, “severe forms” of human trafficking are “sex trafficking in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such acts has not attained 18 years of age.”

The Rana Plaza collapse was outrageous because it revealed the dark, behind-the-scenes conditions of an industry that is rife with human-rights violations but masquerades as trendy and innocuous — the fruit of the victim’s labor was the apparel that hung on store racks.

Every time we purchase clothing from a major retailer, we risk supplying a demand for an industry that runs a sweatshop in a distant, third-world country. Many consumers boycotted the industry by wielding the power of their pocket to encourage all fashion retailers to improve conditions for their workers, and they did — more than 200 fashion brands signed on to a legally binding agreement that sought to promote safer garment-industry conditions.

The analogy between the garment industry controversy and the porn industry ends here: There is no way to institute ethical consumption of porn without eliminating the demand. According to many survivors of sex trafficking, there is often no way to know whether a girl in a pornographic video is appearing on camera under coercive, nonconsensual, or threatening circumstances. Viewers can’t know whether they are viewing a child or whether the “performer” is being raped on camera.

“I tried backing out and wanted to go home, not do porn at all,” former porn performer Michelle Avanti has said. “I was threatened that if I did not do the scene I was going to get sued for lots of money.”

The average age of porn exposure for men is around age 13, according to a study from the University of Nebraska. An estimated 90 percent of young men under the age of 18 have seen porn, along with 60 percent of young women of the same age. Finding porn is easier than ever, and the porn is more violent. Chances are, porn viewers have encountered videos in which performers appear nonconsensually, under life-threatening circumstances. Viewers are unable to distinguish a “consensual” video from a nonconsensual video because violence is now standard fare.

If someone contributed even one view to the 28.5 billion views of free porn online in the last year, he may have watched a victim of sex trafficking appearing under duress on camera.

In July 2007, Taboo, a magazine owned by the popular American pornographic magazine Hustler, featured a multi-page piece depicting a young mentally handicapped woman who was held prisoner and violently sexually abused by her captors for seven years. Her captor took photos of her performing hardcore sexual acts and sold them as porn over the years of her captivity. In 2011, two Miami men were charged with luring at least 50 women, over five years, into sex trafficking by offering them modeling roles. When women showed up to try out, the men drugged and raped them and then filmed the crime, later selling the videos on the Internet and to porn stores throughout the country.

Beyond the supply-and-demand connection between porn and sex trafficking is the “training manual” connection: Porn directly informs what happens to trafficking victims. Their captors and sex buyers get ideas from watching porn, which is often violent, and force victims to re-create acts they see performed in it.

If someone contributed even one view to the 28.5 billion views of free porn online in the last year, he may have watched a victim of sex trafficking appearing under duress on camera. The link between sex trafficking and porn is inseparable, and the demand for it is growing. The public should be outraged. The only solution is to stop the demand.

Marlo Safi — Marlo Safi is a Collegiate Network Fellow with National Review.

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