Slavery Then and Now

January 1, 2010 - 12:18pm

After winning a Pulitzer Prize for their reporting on the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, husband and wife journalists Nicholas Kristof (a Yamhill native) and Sheryl WuDunn turned their attention to what they see as one of the great humanitarian issues of the day, the oppression of women. Their book, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide (Alfred A. Knopf, 2009), received a great deal of critical attention, in part due to the parallels it drew between today's sex industry and the slave trade of old. In May, WuDunn will be on campus to deliver the Lorwin Lecture, one of many events scheduled as part of this year's inaugural Lorwin Lectureship on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties series presented by the UO Center for the Study of Women in Society.

Our own estimate is that there are 3 million women and girls (and a very small number of boys) worldwide who can be fairly termed enslaved in the sex trade. That is a conservative estimate that does not include many others who are manipulated and intimidated into prostitution. Nor does it include millions more who are under eighteen and cannot meaningfully consent to work in brothels. We are talking about 3 million people who in effect are the property of another person and in many cases could be killed by their owner with impunity.

Technically, trafficking is often defined as taking someone (by force or deception) across an international border. The U.S. State Department has estimated that between 600,000 and 800,000 people are trafficked across international borders each year, 80 percent of them women and girls, mostly for sexual exploitation. Since Meena [a woman profiled earlier in the book] didn’t cross a border, she wasn’t trafficked in the traditional sense. That’s also true of most people who are enslaved in brothels. As the U.S. State Department notes, its estimate doesn’t include “millions of victims around the world who are trafficked within their own national borders.”

In contrast, in the peak decade of the transatlantic slave trade, the 1780s, an average of just under eighty thousand slaves were shipped annually across the Atlantic from Africa to the New World. The average then dropped to a bit more than fifty thousand between 1811 and 1850. In other words, far more women and girls are shipped into brothels each year in the early twenty-first century than African slaves were shipped into slave plantations each year in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries—although the overall population was of course far smaller then. As the journal Foreign Affairs observed: “Whatever the exact number is, it seems almost certain that the modern global slave trade is larger in absolute terms than the Atlantic slave trade in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was.”

As on slave plantations two centuries ago, there are few practical restraints on slave owners. In 1791, North Carolina decreed that killing a slave amounted to “murder,” and Georgia later established that killing or maiming a slave was legally the same as killing or maiming a white person. But these doctrines existed more on paper than on plantations, just as Pakistani laws exist in the statute books but don’t impede brothel owners who choose to eliminate troublesome girls.

While there has been progress in addressing many humanitarian issues in the last few decades, sex slavery has actually worsened. One reason for that is the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe and Indochina. In Romania and other countries, the immediate result was economic distress, and everywhere criminal gangs arose and filled the power vacuum. Capitalism created new markets for rice and potatoes, but also for female flesh.

A second reason for the growth of trafficking is globalization. A generation ago, people stayed at home; now it is easier and cheaper to set out for the city or a distant country. A Nigerian girl whose mother never left her tribal area may now find herself in a brothel in Italy. In rural Moldova, it is possible to drive from village to village and not find a female between the ages of sixteen and thirty.

A third reason for the worsening situation is AIDS. Being sold to a brothel was always a hideous fate, but not usually a death sentence. Now it often is. And because of the fear of AIDS, customers prefer younger girls whom they believe are less likely to be infected. In both Asia and Africa, there is also a legend that AIDS can be cured by sex with a virgin, and that has nurtured demand for young girls kidnapped from their villages.

These factors explain our emphasis on sex slaves as opposed to other kinds of forced labor. Anybody who has spent time in Indian brothels and also, say, at Indian brick kilns knows that it is better to be enslaved working a kiln. Kiln workers most likely live together with their families, and their work does not expose them to the risk of AIDS, so there’s always hope of escape down the road.