The Trafficking Debate: Between Moralism and Reality

-By Cassandra Gonzalez, student volunteer

There has been a heavy amount of media and feminist-oriented outlets criticizing the GOP on their fight against full women’s health and reproductive care coverage that is now a part of the Affordable Care Act and provisions for the recently signed into law Violence Against Women Act. However, there has been another hurdle that is GOP and Republican led that focuses on complete health and reproductive care for women—since 2011 there has been an internal struggle on Capitol Hill about renewing the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) since the Obama administration proposed: 1) limiting funding to anti-trafficking organizations that do not provide “inclusive health care needs for women,” and priority funding for organizations that do provide a full range of accessible care 2) equally allocating funding for organizations that do not focus exclusively on trafficking for sexual exploitation. Salon has published a more in-depth analysis of this injustice, which can be found here.

Read: Conservatives are being stubborn about renewing a useful and needed bill because they do not want to include provisions that may provide birth control, abortion and STI testing for survivors of sexual abuse and exploitation. At the heart are two formidable figures/groups: the first is the Catholic Bishops (who are always opposed to any sort of access to reproductive care even if the means of conception was sexual assault, rape, or incest) and the second if conservative republican Chris Smith, the primary drafter of the TVPA bill for the United States. Smith, your typical religious conservative Republican has denounced the Obama’s administration proposal on the basis of his own moralism. During a meeting to discuss renewal in Congress, Smith decried the decreased funding for Catholic Organizations that do not provide total healthcare coverage (again because they do not approve of reproductive health) and has been the most vocal of opponents challenging the Obama administration allocation of funding.

Catholic Bishops have consistently received high amounts of funding from the United States government, particularly during the Bush administration. Several Catholic Bishops in the northeast, including New York and Boston, have received funding ranging from $450,000 to $500,000. Considering the large number of organizations that serve anti-trafficking efforts (there are governmental law agencies, shelter providers, awareness-raising coalitions and numerous other bodies that receive funding to work on anti-trafficking work) amounts in this range are not by any means shabby. Moreover, the Catholic Church itself is quite wealthy. Why should their concerns, voiced through Smith and his ilk, stall the reauthorization of an essential bill?

Of course, for this to be answered a short history of how the TVPA came to be drafted and implemented. The TVPA is sometimes considered to be the first law against trafficking in persons. This is false. There is an earlier federal law called the Mann Act of 1910 and has been dubbed the “White Slave Traffic Act” and focused on the forced movement of White women and girls for sexual exploitation. Its implementation was meant to be racist because the concern was for young White women and girls being sexually used and profited from by Black men. The first Black heavyweight champion Jack Johnson was charged under the Mann Act for transporting a woman across state lines for illicit sexual purposes. The woman in question was his girlfriend who later became his wife.  A pivotal figure in the re-emergence of the trafficking debate in the late 1980s, Kathleen Barry, resurrected these racist fears with her book, Female Sexual Slavery, which held anecdotal evidence and narratives of White European girls being deceived or kidnapped into sexual slavery into Middle Eastern harems and brothels. While her book did contain some testimonials from Middle Eastern and African women and girls being transported to Europe and across the Middle East, the focus was on the European girls.

What does this racism and xenophobia have to do with the Catholic Bishops, Smith and the refusal to reauthorize the TVPA? Moral purity. The Mann Act and abolitionists Smith and Barry are concerned with virtuousness that is fundamentally rooted in the belief that women’s sexuality needs to be controlled. In its early years, the Mann Act was targeted at interracial couples, such as Johnson and his girlfriend. Barry’s book detailed young naïve women who had to audacity to go off on vacation and meet new people (men) and paid the price by being forced into sexual slavery. These victim blaming sentiments can still be found in narratives ad media coverage of sex trafficking.

That moral concern over women’s sexuality is what is hindering efforts to effectively combat trafficking, and this is not limited to the failure to reauthorize the TVPA. This morality has caused a focus on trafficking for sexual exploitation with minimal attention to other non-sexual forms of exploitation. For example, there is a large and pervasive issue with trafficking and exploitation of migrant workers, a large percent of who are male, in the U.S. The laws for labor exploitation and abuse are not as clear-cut for sex trafficking and there is substantially less work to address labor trafficking. The Department of Labor was set to implement a strict review of its temporary visa program. Visa programs are a habitually used by traffickers to exploit free or cheap labor from migrant workers and usually do so with impunity.

This is because of how the visa program is structured. A migrant worker can only legally enter and leave the States with a visa, but to have a visa the migrant needs to be employed. A common tactic for traffickers is to steal or withhold documentation and hold the threat of deportations and violence to keep workers in compliance. This has been effective for traffickers because these programs are not heavily monitored or reviewed. The Department of Labor was set to implement a more strict review of temporary visa programs but new case ruling in Florida will suspend this stricter review. The reasons why are not quite so clear as the case has a gag order on it. You can read a more in-depth review of this court ruling and case here.

As I am writing this, the TVPA is still awaiting authorization and the internal debate continues. The reauthorization of this bill would not stop trafficking or stall funding. But the federal TVPA is still needed, its mechanisms and monitoring are needed to address needs and discover trafficking trends. While it is still a very moralistic and paternalistic law, it has been adaptable to change. For instance in 2008, there was the introduction of stricter laws and definitions of labor trafficking, the first time since 2001 that statutes on sex trafficking was not exclusively in focus. At the very least, the TVPA is a call to action for lawmakers, and trafficking victims are at risk of being forgotten if lawmakers and governmental bodies are not made to be concerned.

I favor grassroots mobilizations and activist efforts when combatting trafficking, but governmental intervention is also needed. Addressing and ending trafficking is a community and global effort, one that needs multiple agencies and bodies to successfully end it. Grassroots and activist efforts are needed to fight the causes of trafficking while the government is need for criminal punishment and funding. The problem is we are weakened by the constant focus and debate on sex, sexuality, and equality. How can we effectively end trafficking if a mere debate on equal access to health care stalls governmental efforts for two years? The answer is, we cannot. We are too divided and the ones caught in the middle, the victims of trafficking, are always the ones who suffer, not lawmakers or religious institutions.


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