It begins because you are born a girl. Or born into a poor family. Or because you are born into a country struggling with new democracy and no economy. Or into a culture where it’s normal to sell your child to put food on the table.
You didn’t know your parents were supposed to love and protect you. You thought it was your duty to help them pay the bills, even at the cost of your virginity, your vagina, your mouth, your sex.
It begins when you are visiting Nigeria, and a state legislator tells you that no Nigerian children can be adopted out of their own state, let alone the country. And it makes you mad, because why should Nigeria withhold the opportunity for international people to help out orphans from Nigeria? And the legislator patiently explains that there are too many little Nigerian children who are “adopted” and forced into slavery as a house “servant,” – or worse, little Nigerian girls taken up north by their new “parents,” transported across the Mediteranian, and sold into the sex market.
And you didn’t even know there was such a thing.
One way you can think about modern day slavery or global sex slavery is as an invisibility curtain. You think you know what’s going on already – those are prostitues, or that’s a sweatshop, or those are street kids. See, you’re socially aware and all.
But what do we assume about prostitues? That they choose it – that they can walk away whenever they want to. What do we think about sweatshops? That they are jobs, and although it’s poor people being paid indecently and working in terrible conditions, they need the job so it’s sad but they need whatever money they can get. And what do we think about street kids? That they are probably orphans, or runaways, or delinquents, and that they are out there because their home life was bad or they don’t have a home, and they don’t have anyone telling them to go to school, so they’re out trying to get you to give them your money. And maybe you do because you feel bad and maybe you don’t because you don’t want to encourage them.
But the invisible curtain – and there is an invisible curtain wrapped around all of these issues – reveals something very different. It shows us most “prostitutes” were sold to pimps and brothels and madames, coerced, lied to, sometimes abducted, always beaten, always raped, raped up to twelve times every day, forced into compliance and silence and forced to pretend they want to have sex, that they love the sex – for fear of being tortured, for fear of their lives, and the lives of the people they love.
Behind the curtain, we see that “sweatshops” (or other places of employment that would never be tolerated by the laws in Western countries) are places where people work in terrible, harsh, life threatening conditions for upwards of 15 hours each day, but also a jail cell or a broom closet or a large room filled with as many prisoners as can be crammed. There is no paycheck. There is no leaving for lunch break, there is no leaving for sick leave, there is no leaving at closing time, there is no leaving to go back home to family, there is no leaving ever.
We see also that “street kids” aren’t really runaways or orphans, but children sweet-talked out of their homes, out of their parent’s watchful eyes, by crafty, slick men and women promising their children a better future in the big city. Then they are dropped off at the Big City Park, ordered not to return to headquarters until they have begged or stolen enough money to get back inside. And whether they are in or out, by night fall, they will be raped – inside by paying customers, outside by non-paying customers. Street kids don’t want to be on the street – they want to be back home, but how in the world would one ever get back home when it’s a police officer who raped you last night?
A better word for all of these is slaves. Slaves! Right here, right now.
We’ve got a problem in this world today. It’s one that used to be state sanctioned, and when the world made it illegal, we thought it was over. But it’s not over – in fact it’s far worse than it was back then. If our high estimate of the Atlantic Slave Trade is 12 million people, then be prepared for surprise when I tell you about today’s estimated human capital: Today, there are almost 30 million humans being held as slaves world wide. 80% are women, 50% are children. And women and children are almost always raped during their enslavement – even those few that somehow escape the sexual slavery. And 1,000,000 of those sexual slaves are children.
We have another problem, Americans. We think this isn’t our problem – at least, we aren’t the ones perpetuating it. But that’s wrong. There are around 200,000 slaves in the United States right now. They are out in your fields, picking your fruits and vegetables. They are young girls from around the world, enslaved in massage parlors or nail salons or bars. They are kids being forced to work in restaurants, construction sites, and hotels. They are American girls who were abducted or seduced by a pimp, forcibly hooked on drugs, and now forced to turn tricks every day. There are African children working as house slaves in the homes of wealthy East Coast families – really. As you can see from this map, it’s been documented in almost every state in the country – and those are only the documented cases. You wouldn’t believe how often the police don’t act because they don’t know what to do.