Sex trafficking and modern-day slavery

An estimated 4.8 million people are forced into sexual exploitation

Slavery is as old as history, culture, mankind, and civilization. Many nations, empires and very well-known monumental wonders were built by the bodies of slaves. Slavery was codified in the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi — as early as around 1750 BC — and accepted in both the Old and New Testaments. Until the European Enlightenment, slavery was almost universally accepted, and even to some extent afterwards; abolitionism is a relatively recent phenomenon in history. It was practiced in certain Mesopotamian, Indian, and Egyptian civilizations ancient even in Aristotle’s time. Aristotle, believed to be the author of Economics, held slavery to be just and natural, if properly carried out. On the report of George Macmunn (1938, p. 20), Aristotle gave a practical rule for conduct towards a slave: ‘No outrage, no familiarity’. The latter was apparently meant to include sexual relations. As Thomas Foster pointed out (2011), rape itself has served as a metaphor for enslavement, thus applying to both men and women who were enslaved. The Oxford English Dictionary’s early definitions for rape are people who were taken in battle; so rape and slavery and inextricably connected. Scholars still today consider the question of whether slavery is natural and therefore morally right.

Europeans did not begin slaving people in Africa, even if it should not be denied that the European transatlantic slave trade between the 1500s and 1800s was particularly brutal and added a new dimension of scale and savagery. Slavery has existed in Africa as a native institution since the days of patriarchs, long before Joseph was sold to Egypt (Africa and the Africans, 1875, p. 164). As a matter of fact, it has long been argued that the term slave has its origins in the word slav. The Slavs, who inhabited a large part of Eastern Europe, were enslaved during the Ancient and Middle ages. It was the Slavic nations of Europe that provided the vast majority of slaves throughout history. Still today, there are many hundreds of thousand of slaves, real undisguised slaves, called from time to time by various camouflaged names and terms and sold as chattels at their owner’s will.

According to Siddharth Kara (2017, p. 8), as much as up to 5 percent of the world’s cocoa beans are picked by slave hands in the Ivory Coast. Likewise, approximately 1.2 million of these 28.4 million slaves are young women and children, who have been deceived, abducted, seduced, or sold by families to be prostituted across the globe. Sex trafficking is a more profitable illegal enterprise than drug trafficking. On the authority of Human Rights First (2017), an estimated 24.9 million victims are trapped in modern-day slavery. Of these, 16 million (64%) were exploited for labor, 4.8 million (19%) were sexually exploited. Human trafficking earns profits of roughly $150 billion a year for traffickers — $99 billion from commercial sexual exploitation — , according to the ILO report from 2014. While only 19% of victims are trafficked for sex, sexual exploitation earns 66% of the global profits of human trafficking.

According to Kamala Kempadoo (2007), the Caribbean has been drawn into a global crisis over human trafficking which has actually been encouraged by the United States of America, leading to greater policing and surveillance of migrant women and the sex trade. Drawing on colonial precedents, the moral outrage about women trafficked into prostitution, embodied in legislation such as the U.S. Trafficking Victims Protection Act, obscures the deeper causes of exploitation and oppression and leads to the stigmatization of those in undocumented, hyper-exploited labor forces, such as agriculture, restaurant, and domestic workers.

Slavery was systematically reinvented almost immediately after its legal abolition in the Caribbean and the Americas. In the opinion of Antonio Moore (2017), the institution was revitalized in the United States — former British United Colonies — in new forms by its profiteers who refused to relinquish the economic advantage of free labor well after the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. Moreover, even though it is historically claimed that slavery ended in Britain in 1834, and in the United States in 1864, the truth is that slave trade continued until the British indenture system officially ended on the 31 of December of 1919, and this was a gradual process that started in the 1780s-1790s. It is worth noting that the sharecropping system in the United States lasted well into the twentieth century. It is also hard to overlook that slaves were at least fed because of its commercial potential as assets. The upsetting of the traditional world slave system brought problems in the initial stages. In 1803, Denmark-Norway became the first country in Europe to effectively ban the African slave trade.

The abolition of slavery has historically occurred, under certain conditions, at different times in different places. Slavery was first abolished in France in 1315, after Louis X published a decree proclaiming that “France signifies freedom”. Nevertheless, this rule only applied to subjects living in continental France. The institution of slavery was still widely practiced overseas by the Frenchmen until 1794, when the so-called revolutionary France abolished it in the entirety of the French Empire. It was soon restored in 1802 by Napoleon Bonaparte as part of a program to ensure sovereignty over its colonies. In fact, France abolished slavery three times, in 1315, in 1794, and later in 1848. The timeline of abolition of slavery across the world is the evidence that slavery has been abolished and reintroduced several times throughout history. Some of the variable factors to be taken into account are: religion, ethnocentrism, market power, economic profitability and productivity growth, morality and criminal law, historic conceptions of racial hierarchy, and effects of war.

As of 2020, slavery is still not a crime in almost half the countries of the world, as indicated by Anderson (2020). In in some circumstances slavery and rape have been intertwined when enslavers sought to terrorize at the same time they increased their property. What’s love got to do with slavery? It is a fact that sexual contact between slave masters and their bonded female (and sometimes male) property was a common experience in the Atlantic World, as evidenced by Brenda Stevenson (2013). These relations have historically run the gamut from rape and sodomy to romance from chance encounters to obsession, concubinage, and marriage, and they were found to be heterosexual, homosexual, and inter-sexual in nature. They have included voyeurism, sadomasochism, incest, and pederasty. One need only run one’s eye over the travel literature, personal diaries, church records, letters, and colonial/provincial newspapers produced throughout the Spanish, British, French, Dutch, Portuguese and Russian colonies and provinces in the Americas to find ample and detailed evidence. Sexual slavery relations were more or less public, but they were still prevalent and accountable across the Americas.

Just as slavery has manifest itself in almost every major civilization in recorded history, so did some form of sexual relations between owners and those owned in these societies. And yet, some people still believe that there can be love relations within slavery so they blithe question can be asked, what’s love got to do with slavery? in fact, love seems to have nothing to do with slavery as it is very unlikely that love exists under forced conditions when people are not able to make choices.

Most recently, Jeffrey Epstein’s case is just the tip of the iceberg. Sex slavery is present in every country of the world, as slavery itself is as old as culture and mankind. We should not be distracted by the spectacle of sex slavery on such a great scale as. The lucrative business of sexual slavery considered a crime against humanity and hence is prohibited by international law (Oosterveld, 2004). Sexual slavery is not a thing of the past, and therefore it is a misconception to think that human sex trafficking is rare. The fundamental reasons that sexual slavery is very profitable are because of reduced transportation costs arising from internet-based communication and globalization, the lengthy duration of enslavement, and the lack of slavery restricting national legislations across the world. In India, for example, Kara (2009, p. 40) observed that the only financial penalty for sexual slavery is a $44 fine for owning a brothel.

The absence of political will to enforce the law, as well as endemic corruption, allows trafficking and slavery to transpire in broad daylight, but also national cultures that embrace slavery as part of their identities. Faced with a minimal likelihood of being caught and a high-returning opportunity to generate hundreds of thousands of dollars in profits through exploiting sexual slaves, it is not surprising at all that an increasing number of criminals are willing to take the risk, and therefore, decide to engage in sexual human trafficking activities. The greater the cost of being caught, the lower the profitability of conducting a sex-slave business. Even if slavery if as old as mankind, that does not mean it is morally acceptable. It is not enough to visualize the issue. As it minimizes costs, sexual slavery is a maximizing profit business. Sex trafficking could be construed as the version of prostitution that maximizes pleasure, violence, and debauchery. What are we going to do to overcome this situation? That is the question. Rather than focusing on periodic outrages, that is the question that needs to be addressed.


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