Sex trafficking—difficult to define and even harder to find and eliminate–is often perceived as an abstract dilemma of developing countries, relegated to the poorer corners of the globe. It’s a problem often misconstrued as one suffered exclusively by prostitutes or drug addicts.
Although the subject is one not faced or even mentioned often, faculty and students at the University of Colorado in Boulder both recognize and strive to amend the explicit but understated results of modern-day slavery through awareness and activism.
But Robert Buffington, a 57-year-old associate professor of women and gender studies at CU Boulder, says that while there are often misconceptions on the nature of sex trafficking and its victims, it’s a distinct global problem and its clarity is visible here even in Colorado.
“The definition that the U.N. uses—and the U.S. State Department has a version—doesn’t specify sex trafficking,” Buffington said in reference to the much-contested definition of human trafficking. “The definition is not specifically about sex trafficking. It would be within human trafficking, or the exploitation that happens when putting people into sex working.”
The U.N.-accepted definition of trafficking is as follows: Trafficking is “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, or fraud, or deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving or payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs,” according to the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking Persons.
Buffington said the difference between sex trafficking and prostitution, two similar issues often confused with one another, is that trafficking involves a certain amount of coercion.
Buffington explains this in his class at CU, “Sex, Power, Politics: an International Perspective.”
“For some feminist theorists, there isn’t a difference,” Buffington said. “Nobody volunteers to be a prostitute—that’s their issue. For most people, prostitution is sex work. And it’s the way you make money. You’re not trafficked if nobody’s coercing you and nobody’s moving. Trafficking involves moving somebody and moving somebody either through deception or coercion or intimidation so trafficking involves movement. Prostitution doesn’t necessarily.”
However, you can traffic people into prostitution, Buffington said. So while prostitutes aren’t necessarily trafficked, the debate pertains to whether or not women actually choose to become sex workers.
Mary Currier, a 19-year-old senior majoring in ethnomusicology, said that sex trafficking is not just a tangible issue in the United States, but that it also happens right here in Colorado.
After having lived and worked in Calcutta, where Currier said her eyes were opened to the injustice of slavery, Currier also acknowledged that she hadn’t realized how she had played a part as a consumer of products made with sweatshop labor.
“So I came back and was really interested in slavery, and the more heard about slavery, the more I heard about trafficking,” Currier said. “I learned that there’s not just trafficking and slavery worldwide, but trafficking and sex trafficking of girls, teenage girls in the U.S. and in Colorado even. So my interest started global, but it’s become more of a problem here too.”
Currier, a member of the student group CU Students Against Modern-Day Slavery or CU-SAMS, said she took a class called “World Music Video Project as a Catalyst for Social Change” last semester where she was given the opportunity to produce a documentary on a social issue of her choice.
“I thought it would be awesome to do a project on trafficking, but really there’s very little information,” Currier said. “Like there’s a lot of national statistics but finding statistics in Colorado is pretty tough.”
There’s no contention about the fact that sex trafficking occurs in the United States. According to Polaris Project Web site, an organization dedicated to combating human trafficking and modern-day slavery, “much like the majority of other countries affected by human trafficking, the U.S. has a large internal or ‘domestic’ component of human trafficking for the purposes of both sexual and labor exploitation.”
But the subtleties lie in the numbers of victims involved and the methods through which they are coerced. Sometimes trafficked sex workers say “Yes” throughout the whole process, but only under threat of physical violence or danger to family members, Buffington said.
Those differentials are some of the reasons that make finding trafficked humans so difficult.
Regardless, Currier set out to make a documentary that explored the narrative and perceptions of the trafficking that occurs in Colorado. What she learned along the way pertained not to what people knew, but to what they didn’t know.
“First I learned that people didn’t know,” Currier said. “Doing the student interviews that we did, and random interviews in Denver, was pretty amazing. People have not heard of sex trafficking. If they have, they think about places far away, like far away places famous for prostitution.”
Jenny Magnus, a 22-year-old senior majoring in international affairs and with a certificate in leadership, is also a member of CU-SAMS. She said the distance that the public distinguishes between themselves and traffickers is much smaller in reality.
Magnus, who said she first heard about sex trafficking during her sophomore year, is currently working on a project to build a safe home for victims of sex trafficking in Colorado, specifically for girls under the age of 18.
The reason a safe home in Colorado is so necessary is because Denver is a drop-off spot for trafficked humans, Magnus said.
“Denver is a high trafficking area because DIA is an international airport,” Magnus said. “And because I-25 and I-70 interconnect, and a lot of girls are trafficked along trucker routes, or they’re moved around the country in trucks.”
Buffington agreed on the possibility of Denver being a high-volume traffic area, though again stressed the difficult in knowing how many persons are moved, or through what avenues.
“I don’t think anyone knows, honestly,” Buffington said. “And I don’t. So I think because it’s a migration corridor up from Mexico, I’m guessing there’s probably more of it going through Colorado, especially the Denver area where there’s an airport or intersections.”
Then there’s the high potential for an increase in the numbers of trafficked people around big events. In 2008, Denver played host to the Democratic National Convention, and while the convention broke barrier with their green initiative, other issues slipped into the background.
Because statistics are impossible to calculate, there’s no way to estimate any swelling in the amount of prostitution around political events. But both Buffington and Magnus agreed that in all likelihood, it did.
“At the DNC, when there’s a concentrated event with a lot of tourism, you see a spike in prostitution,” Magnus said. “So girls and their pimps will come into Denver to get new clients. They know they’re going to have work. The difference between sex trafficking and prostitution is unclear, especially when girls and boys are under the age of 18, cause it’s hard to prove they did it unwillingly.”
It’s the issue of age and consent that further entangle the convoluted problem of sexual slavery. But perhaps one the biggest difficulties facing modern-day slaves are the lack of resources available to them.
Magnus said that partially why her idea for a safe home in Denver was so feasible was simply because they didn’t exist.
“Part of why a safe home here would be really great is because, one, there aren’t any comprehensive safe home facilities in the United States,” Magnus said. “Youth are really difficult to work with in the U.S. because legally, right now, you can’t house a minor for more than two days or more than 48 hours without consent of a parent or legal guardian.”
But sometimes, a lot of the youth in prostitution don’t have permission to be there, or their parents put them there in the first place, Magnus said. But what’s been hardest for her to wrap her head around, Magnus said, is that sometimes women want to stay in prostitution.
“I guess I assumed that, people want to leave and that people don’t like the lifestyle,” Magnus said. “And I think that part of what I assume is that the treatment the girls receive is always awful. You know where pimps rape their girls, or get them addicted to drugs, or have them commit crimes that despite that, girls want to stay in prostitution. To me that’s really hard to swallow still right now.”
It may be this perception of intimidated consent that makes the topic of sex trafficking such an unspoken one. Manipulation and mental abuse are often tenets of sex trafficking discourse, and while victims sometimes agree to all their abuses, it’s this moral ambiguity that makes the it hard for the public to discuss.
“I think the reason why people don’t want to talk about it is because they think it’s something that shouldn’t be happening, it says something bad about society, when people are trafficked,” Buffington said. “And then they think it’s happening to other people. My issue with the general public is that people aren’t as sympathetic as soon as they feel that the sex worker has crossed a certain line. But as soon as you’ve said yes in a bunch of circumstances, when you could conceivably have said no, people get less and less sympathetic. More and more it looks like it’s a moral failing on the part of the individual.”
Still, while trafficking is something not typically discussed in the public dialogue, efforts from non-profits, non-governmental organizations and recently, the Colorado legislature, have stepped up the fight against sexual slavery.
The 2010 Anti-Human Trafficking Bill for Colorado was recently proposed and aims to add human trafficking to the Organized Crime Act. According to the bill, it, “repeals and relocates, with amendments, provisions relating to trafficking in adults, trafficking in children, and coercion of involuntary servitude.”
Most importantly, it’s imperative to raise awareness on the perils of sex trafficking. Currier said that part of the process of making her documentary stemmed from taking something full of facts and turning it into a tangible process.
“People need a story, and need hope if they’re going to engage in an issue,” Currier said. “So we struggled with making statistics and a really tragic set of facts into a hopeful story that people could follow along with. People love stories that have hope, like, here is something we can do. This can be changed.”
Contact CU Independent Staff Writer Sheila V Kumar at Sheila.firstname.lastname@example.org.