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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Panel discusses human trafficking, sex work in U.S.

Published: April 23, 2010
Section: News

Trafficking: Mei-Mei Ellerman spoke Wednesday about human trafficking in the United States.
PHOTO BY Nafiz “Fiz” R. Ahmed/The Hoot

Three leading experts and advocates in the field of human slavery and trafficking spoke Wednesday at the panel event “Slavery Today: Sex Labor & Pornography,” which focused on trafficking issues within the United States and the rise of pornography that features many enslaved women.

Human trafficking is the second largest growing criminal industry in the world, behind the sale of drugs and before illegal weaponry. While it is an international business, it is perhaps unexpectedly prevalent in American society.

Mei-Mei Ellerman, a resident scholar at the Brandeis Women’s Studies Research Center and frequent speaker on the issues of modern day trafficking, Katherin Chon, a co-founder of the Polaris Project, an NGO that works with victims of sex trafficking, and Gail Dines, the author of the book “PORNLAND,” spoke about their experiences with these human rights violations at the panel.

“So often we think of trafficking as something ‘out there,’” Ellerman said “There are 200,000 to 300,000 U.S.-born American [minors] who are in high risk of ending up in forced prostitution every year. That is a huge number,” she explained.

In the United States, a victim of human trafficking is defined as a child under the age of 18 who is compelled to perform commercial sex acts, an adult who is coerced into performing commercial sex acts or a person of any age who is mandated to do forced labor.

“Many people are confused when they hear trafficking because they think about it being someone crossing borders,” Ellerman said. “You can be trafficked without leaving your house.”

These victims are often abducted, however, they can also be lured into their situations with the promise of work, pay and a better life. In this kind of situation, especially, many victims are not aware of the extent to which they are being abused.

“Most of us know what freedom feels like, what freedom looks like, and there are so many people in our own neighborhoods and communities who don’t,” Chon said. “Most of those enslaved or trafficked won’t even raise their hands and say, ‘I need to escape from this, this is bad,’” she illustrated.

At the Polaris Project, Chon and her co-founder Derek Ellerman work to free victims of trafficking in the United States and Japan, help those victims overcome their experiences, push for anti-trafficking legislation and gather supporters as well as raise awareness for the cause.

“We find the most success when we’re just there with [the victims] as fellow human beings,” Chon said.

Pornography has become a cultural steppingstone to the extreme of human trafficking. It often features trafficked women and according to the event speakers, spreads a culturally-based dehumanization of and disrespect toward women.

“What pornography does, is it legitimizes the buying and selling of women’s bodies,” explained Dines.

Especially recently, the availability of pornography on the Web has boosted the industry. Thirteen-thousand porn films are released every year, which comes to $93 billion in revenues per year. The use of the Internet has also allowed the pornography to turn to the “gonzo genre,” a movement led by producer Max Hardcore. This genre celebrates dehumanizing, “body-punishing sex,” as Dines described it. In fact, this has gone so far that “There is nothing else to do to a women’s body, outside of killing her,” she said.

“What used to happen is young boys, hormones going crazy, would go and look to their father’s pornography and they would find ‘Playboy’ and they would masturbate to it,” said Dines of this movement. Today, however, those boys can go onto the Internet and, instead, find sexist pornography videos and stories with the main goal of dehumanizing women.

“You know what? We don’t know what the results are going to be,” said Dines, contemplating the possibility of a new generation of men who model their own sexual endeavors off the films they see online. “This is an experiment,” she explained.

To further illustrate her point, Dines presented an analogy: “Pornography is to sex as McDonald’s is to eating,” she said, “because it’s so far removed from what it originally looked like.”

The speakers urged their listeners to get involved. “This will continue and continue and continue until we as a people are outraged,” Dines said. “We have let pornography hijack our culture, hijack our sexualities, and you know what? I think it’s time we take it back.”

“If you’re living and breathing, then there’s something you can do,” agreed Chon.

Gender & International Development Initiatives, which comprises a part of the Women’s Studies Research Center, organized the event, held at the Heller School.

This article has been altered to reflect that human trafficking is the second largest and fastest growing criminal industry in the United States, not third. Also, there are 200,000 to 300,000 minors in the United States at risk of being forced into prostitution. The number of American citizens at risk is far greater.