During a diplomatic visit to Calcutta, India, in May, US
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton stopped at a shelter for
young women and girls. It was not an ordinary shelter, but one with
a specific mission a mission Ms. Clinton wanted reporters to
broadcast to Americans back home. It was a shelter established to
help victims of human trafficking, an international crime that
Clinton and other international players have called one of the
world's largest and most pressing human rights concerns. It was
also, primarily, helping girls who'd been trafficked for sex.
This is a key cause for Clinton. In recent years, she and other
international figures from United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-
moon to British Prime Minister David Cameron have raised the alarm
about human trafficking, a practice involving forced labor, from
mining to domestic work to prostitution.
"These victims of modern slavery ... their stories remind us of
what kind of inhumane treatment we are still capable of as human
Clinton said in June upon the release of the annual State
Department report on global human trafficking. "Traffickers prey on
the hopes and dreams of those seeking a better life, and our goal
should be to put those hopes and dreams back within reach."
Moreover, Clinton and others have said regularly, human
trafficking is also an American problem. It doesn't just take place
in the sweatshops of impoverished Indian villages or in Thai
brothels, but on US streets from San Francisco to New York. The
federal government has estimated the number of domestic trafficking
victims to be in the tens of thousands annually. Victims range from
Southeast Asian indentured nail salon manicurists to Mexican
agricultural workers to underage American prostitutes.
Many advocates say this last group, made up of American girls
and a relatively small number of boys victimized in America, is the
primary trafficking problem in the United States. "Sex trafficking,"
as this particular strain of human trafficking is called, has become
a national human rights crisis, they say, and deserves a huge public
Indeed, domestic sex trafficking has become a high-profile cause.
Celebrities from Jada Pinkett Smith and Salma Hayek to former couple
Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore have picked up the bullhorn of the
anti-trafficking movement, with a focus on sex trafficking.
New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof's crusade last spring
against domestic sex trafficking and the online marketer
Backpage.com, which he accused of helping sell underage girls into
sex slavery, prompted a widespread movement against the website and
its owner, Village Voice Media. Many advertisers in Village Voice
Media including Starbucks, AT&T, and Best Buy cut ties with the
There have been local benefit concerts against sex trafficking
and, recently, even a Tennessee church rodeo to raise awareness
about the issue.
Federal prosecutors have also increased their efforts against
human trafficking with a primary focus on sex trafficking. The
Department of Justice prosecuted only two human trafficking cases in
1998; in 2011 it charged 120 defendants with human-trafficking
crimes. The bulk of cases were related to sex trafficking.
"For years, whenever we talked about sex trafficking in America
the reaction was surprise," says Andrea Powell, executive director
and cofounder of FAIR Girls, an anti-trafficking organization based
in Washington, D.C. "The perception was that it happened to girls in
foreign countries.... We've seen the beginning of a shift in the
attitudes in the US, and that has to do with public awareness."
On one level, the new and growing focus on domestic human
trafficking seems straightforward. Clearly, enslavement of
individuals, and sexual exploitation of children, is cause for
concern. But when the international issue becomes a domestic one,
and when forced labor starts to involve sex, there also comes an
emotional debate about where the real problem ends and where hype
and sensationalism begin. …