Today’s Efforts to Combat Human Trafficking Reflect Historical Racism and Sexism


Today is Human Trafficking Awareness Day and RH Reality Check is featuring a series in collaboration with Race Talk to pay respect to those who’ve experienced this severe human rights abuse. The series, edited by Juhu Thukral, includes a look back at the history of anti-trafficking efforts and where they have led us, and thinking about the most effective path forward to prevent others from being trafficked.

As Juhu writes in her introduction to the series: “In order to think proactively about solutions to the problem of human trafficking, it is crucial to answer the most basic question of all: What exactly is trafficking in persons? Experts will weigh in with their answers and their ideas for future efforts, including some of the leading voices, thinkers, and practitioners on the issue of trafficking in persons. They include lawyers who represent trafficked persons on a daily basis, advocates who have pushed forward innovative policies over the last decade and more, and activists who have incorporated anti-trafficking issues into their intersecting fields.”

Current efforts to address trafficking in persons are both reminiscent of and informed by the history of slavery and trafficking in the United States and elsewhere. In fact, trafficking in persons is often referred to as “modern-day slavery.” Historical grounding confirms that the reference to slavery, while not exactly on point, is relevant.

Colonial American indentured servants in bonded labor were sometimes called “white slaves” because they were primarily (but not all) of European descent and contracted to work without wages for a specified duration. The work usually lasted five to seven years, sometimes as part of an agreement or punishment after being convicted of crimes. Chattel slavery was driven by the desire for cheap labor—and this reliance on cheap labor continues in modern economies. Captive, forced labor is now recognized as a human rights violation and outlawed around the world. However, slave-like work conditions exist in the contemporary world, despite the fact that such conditions have largely been criminalized.

Modern-day slavery and chattel slavery both include recognized labor and sexual servitude. Chattel slaves in the United States who were sold for sexual purposes were called “fancy girls” or “fancy maids.” In the 19th century, white slavery was used to refer to wage labor rather than indentured servitude, and, eventually, forced prostitution, particularly of white women. The transformation of the meanings of the term “white slave” reflected diminished numbers of indentured servants, followed by a moral panic about white women forced into prostitution. White women were believed to “grieve” more than Black women forced into concubinage, raped, or enslaved in prostitution. This offensive perceived sexual and moral hierarchy informed anti-prostitution and anti-trafficking campaigns throughout the past century and a half, evident in racially disparate enforcement of such laws.

Slavery was abolished in the United States in 1865, but social and economic hierarchies based on race and wealth persist to this day. After the abolition of chattel slavery, panics about so-called white slavery led to new legislation focusing on sexual behavior. New laws were also driven by racial politics. These moral panics had racist aspects rooted in prejudices against increasing numbers of Jews and immigrants from southern Europe immigrating to the United States. In 1910, the Mann Act, also called the White Slave Traffic Act, was passed, setting the tone for the 20th century. Implementation of the Mann Act reflected racial and gender inequalities in new ways. The Mann act referred to “immoral acts” and travel across state lines. Women’s travel was effectively restricted if they intended to make interstate journeys to meet men they were romantically involved with, but men were also affected if they traveled with women across state lines. This aspect was used for political purposes and was used against Black men, especially Black men who were involved with white women. Jack Johnson was a Black boxer who fought white men and was involved with numerous white women. As I described in Prostitution and Sex Work:

Johnson was first tried for traveling between Minneapolis and Chicago in 1912 with Lucille Cameron, a white woman. She stated that she had been a prostitute before meeting Johnson and did not implicate Johnson in her leaving Minneapolis. He was acquitted, and they later married. Johnson, however, traveled with number of white women, and this led to another Mann Act case. Belle Schreiber was another prostitute involved with Johnson. In 1910, he gave her money to move to Chicago and to set up her own business. Johnson was convicted for transporting Schreiber in 1913. Racism was demonstrated in the verdict, although the trial may have been fair. Upon Johnson’s conviction, the prosecutor stated, “This negro, in the eyes of many, has been persecuted. Perhaps as an individual he was. But it was his misfortune to be the foremost example of the evil in permitting the intermarriage of whites and blacks.” This statement seems still more incredible when you consider that the case in question did not involve either of Johnson’s white wives, so the question of intermarriage did not technically arise.

Racist enforcement of the Mann Act continued through the 20th century, used most notoriously to prosecute musician Chuck Berry. The focus on sexuality as it related to the notion of slavery obscured labor rights violations and offered nothing to improve economic disparities. At the start of the 21st century, Congress passed the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act (TVPA), which emphasizes force, fraud, and coercion in labor and in sex work, using gender neutral language. The law also created programs to assist men and women whose rights have been violated.

But enforcement relies on the criminal justice system, which perpetuates the focus on sex and the focus on particular ethnicities, in this case, often Asians and Latinas. Most law enforcement raids have been focused on brothels or massage parlors (usually those employing Asian or Latina women) rather than workplaces like factories, slaughterhouses, and corporate farms, the kinds of sites where the largest cases of labor violations have been identified. And yet the emphasis on brothels or other related venues is not actually useful for identifying people who have been abused in sex work settings: The Sex Workers Project interviewed immigrant women who had been trafficked, and found that

Sixty percent, or 9 of the 15 women, had been arrested in local police raids. The number of arrests by local police experienced by individual women ranged from one to ten. None had been identified as trafficked by local law enforcement following a raid, despite the fact that 7 of these 9 women self-identified as trafficked. Only 1 had been asked whether she was coerced into sex work following arrest by local law enforcement.

This quote makes clear that even in raids looking for victims of crime, law enforcement officers approach people in the sex industry as criminals first and foremost. In the same report, service providers and advocates who assist trafficked persons described a racial approach by law enforcement in the form of a focus on Korean brothels in particular.

Current criminal justice models have proven to be inadequate for assisting victims of crimes specifically because they replicate the punitive and racially driven models of indentured servitude and chattel slavery and the sexist and racist uses of the Mann Act. These new permutations reflect not the needs of the people who have been hurt in modern-day slavery but the desires of people who claim to want to help others. The problem arises because no one has asked the people they claim to seek to help what would be truly helpful. A rights-based approach to human rights violations would prioritize the needs and desires of people who have been victimized over criminal justice, and could thereby avoid replicating and reifying racial inequities.

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