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August 16, 2005

If you're part of the solution, you might be part of the problem

Daniel Radosh

In some of my remarks about Jack Shafer's articles on Peter Landesman and sex trafficking I've suggested that I can't get quite as worked up as Jack does about the role of right-wing evangelicals in the anti-trafficking movement. I've generally taken the position that people can come to causes from different starting points and that just because you disagree with a group of people about some issues, doesn't mean you should dismiss their work on all issues.

But now Debbie Nathan has a must-read article in The Nation that spells out quite clearly why Jack was right to be concerned — and that along the way demolishes many assumptions of Landesman-style journalism. (In These Times published a similar article in March.)

Nathan explains how the Christian right (and its "abolitionist feminist" allies) have gamed the system to keep media and legal focus on forced sex work at the demonstrable expense of people who are enslaved (literally) in other jobs — even though there's evidence that far more people are forced to work on farms and in factories than in brothels.

What's more, the evangelicals managed to work official condemnation of all prostitution -- even voluntary -- into the laws on forced trafficking. Meaning that it is nearly impossible for groups seeking to help sex-workers by working with them to get funding. And remember that voluntary sex-workers vastly outnumber enslaved ones. But here's the really tricky side-effect of this: "In a slick rhetorical maneuver, the TVPA offers no assistance to individuals who've been voluntarily smuggled to work as prostitutes, yet it counts them as 'trafficking' victims, along with brothel prisoners. The conflation inflates the severity of the 'sex slave' problem in the public mind."

So where does Landesman fit in to this? Glad you asked.

"Still, the media favor sex-trafficking stories over accounts of other forced work. Television and the press are full of titillating reports, often with suggestive visuals (a New York Times Magazine cover piece featured a photo of a teenaged victim posed in a Catholic-style schoolgirl uniform -- sitting on a bed). Despite the likelihood that the coverage is skewed, researchers such as Kevin Bales, of the NGO Free the Slaves, have tallied press clippings to argue that prostitution predominates over other types of labor trafficking. The State Department makes the same claim by citing the Bales study." [emp. added]

Nathan's best estimate of the severity of the sex-slave trade is the only one that a responsible journalist can make: "No one knows." What we do know now -- and I've only scratched the surface of Nathan's excellent article here -- is that the Christian right (and paleofeminist left) have an obsession with sex that is making the work of freeing all enslaved people harder rather than easier.

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