Debbie Nathan has an excellent article in The Nation on how the Trafficking Victims Protection Act went awry. In theory, the law protects people who are smuggled into the country and coerced into unpleasant jobs. But in practice, Nathan writes,
it hasn't helped many people so far, and it's hurt others, while placing undue emphasis on commercial sex work and downplaying the plight of victims in other jobs, like Alice. Probably because she was "just" an imprisoned nanny and not a brothel captive, the Feds declined to criminally prosecute her boss, and they hardly publicized her case. That's often what happens with people forced to work in factories, fields, restaurants and homes -- and there are plenty of them in the United States. Meanwhile, government press releases and the news are rife with accounts of "sex slaves" -- even though the limited evidence that exists suggests sex work is not the most common type of forced labor, and even though most immigrants who work as prostitutes do so voluntarily….
The law's split personality derives from the fact that a split group created it. On one side were evangelical Christians, with their typical fears of foreigners, leftists and sex -- and their morbid fascination with forced prostitution, even though more people may be forced to pick broccoli than to rent out their genitals. Then there were feminists whose concern about the exploitation of women -- like the evangelicals' -- also fixated on commercial sex. The evangelicals and feminists seized the lobbying reins by making common cause around what both call "sex slavery."
Nathan reminds readers that this isn't the only possible way to address the problem, and she points to some feminists who "view prostitution as just one of many onerous and often sexist jobs available to poor women who migrate to support their families." Rather than asking the government to crack down on the sex trade, they argue, activists should help prostitutes organize to assert their rights:
Organizing in countries like India, they note, has educated voluntary prostitutes to identify captives in the brothels and help liberate them. That approach combats trafficking better than does relying on often corrupt, macho police. Even do-gooder raids frequently end with "victims" being deported -- or fleeing their "rescuers" and returning to the brothels. Organizing also helps sex workers protect themselves from sexually transmitted disease, violence and exploitation by pimps. Organizing would be much easier if prostitution were decriminalized, proponents of this approach believe. It would promote gender and socioeconomic equality -- making it easier for sex workers to leave the trade if they wish to.
Prostitutes aren't the only people who have to worry about raids, of course. It's a lot easier for nannies or broccoli-pickers to stand up for themselves when they don't have to keep an eye out for the immigration police.
[Via Daniel Radosh.]