When is a Trafficking Victim Worthy of Rescue and Who Gets to Decide?

According to the Department of Justice (DOJ) a prostitute or a victim of trafficking is entitled to justice but only if she has been “forced, tricked, or coerced” into doing what the DOJ calls “sex work”–and if she can prove it. Today, according to U.S. governmental Trafficking Prosecutors, a rescue-worthy prostitute is someone who has been forcibly “trafficked” or “tricked” into sexual slavery. If she is from a Third World country, she commands more DOJ sympathy that does an American child who has escaped from an incestuous and dangerously abusive family in Iowa or Minnesota and who has ended up in the arms of a violent pimp or brothel-owner in another American state. In addition, the DOJ does not seem to count minor children who are used in “commercial sex acts” as trafficking victims because, by definition, they have not necessarily been “coerced” or “duped.”


In September and October of 2007, The Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW) sent careful letters to the Attorney Generals’ Office, one of which you may read HERE, which noted DOJ failures, asked critical questions, and called upon it to strengthen law enforcement in this area. (Full disclosure: I am one of the signatories of these letters as are The National Organization for Women, Equality Now, and feminists Melissa Farley, Diana Russell, and Gloria Steinem– but so are representatives of the National Association of Evangelicals, The National Congress of Black Women, American Values, the Southern Baptist Convention, the Salvation Army, etc).

In short, there is agreement about this across the political spectrum.

In April of 2007, five members of Congress (the Honorable Carolyn S. Maloney, Frank Wolf, John Lewis, Thelma Drake, and Hank Johnson), sent a letter to the DOJ which also criticized the DOJ’s failures in the “war against trafficking” and asked the DOJ to respond in a timely fashion to each of the issues detailed by CATW, a group which is led by two amazing lawyers Dorchen Leithold and Norma Ramos.

Why is the DOJ failing its historic task? Why is the public not pressing it on this matter? How does an improper emphasis on proving that “force” was involved lead to prosecutorial failure and to the continued abandonment of trafficking victims and sexual slaves?


Those who once argued for the legalization of “sex work” claimed that it was a “victimless” crime. Today, in an era in which the sale and kidnapping of children into sexual slavery has been better documented, these legalizers oppose abolitionists in a new way: They claim that only those who can testify to and prove that force was involved may claim victim-status. All others, including those who are too afraid or unable to testify, are on their own.

Once, “whores” and “sex-workers” were called prostitutes. They were viewed as evil and mentally ill man-haters who took revenge against men by “hooking” or addicting men (!) to sex for money. Prostitutes were not viewed as victims but as profiteering gold-diggers who knew what they were doing and deserved whatever they got. People also thought that women “turned tricks” in order to feed pre-existing drug and alcohol habits of their own; that prostitutes became wealthy and either retired at thirty for life–or attended medical school with their ill-gotten gains.

Alright, for the sake of argument I will admit, (but unwillingly), that 1%-5% of all prostitutes may prosper both economically and psychologically. I don’t really believe this but I will concede it. Perhaps there are literally a handful of real-life “Pretty Women” in every generation (Five? Twenty five? One hundred? Out of millions) who marry millionaire Johns who have fallen in love with them. However, these are the exceptions to the rule.


This pretty picture is not true for 95%-99% of all prostitutes. Today, most prostituted girls and women and the victims of trafficking are, at best, blue-collar workers whose average age is fifteen and who suffer and die too soon from the diseases that AIDS-infected Johns inflict upon them and from the drugs and alcohol which dull the consequences of their toxic, so-called “work.” Parents sell their five year-old daughters into sexual slavery; pimps seduce impoverished young adult women with promises of legitimate work, hide their passports, then break them with beatings and rape–or they kidnap them right off the street. Prostituted women are also hunted as “prey” by serial killers. Their mutilated corpses are rarely reclaimed by family or friends.

Studies document that prostitutes and the victims of trafficking are routinely raped, gang-raped, beaten, tortured, and “stiffed,” and are, therefore, more gravely afflicted with the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress (anxiety, insomnia, flashbacks, paranoia, depression, suicidal ideation) than are combat veterans. Prostitutes are “disposable” people whom society still shuns and blames.

Human sexual slavery is a multi-billion dollar a year business. It is right up there with guns and narcotics. Radical feminists and Christian conservatives have spent years drafting legislation with “teeth.” Some survivors of prostitution who have miraculously managed to escape the clutches of pimps and kidnappers have become abolitionist-rescuers of others who also wish to escape. Their work is sometimes federally funded and often has a religious bent. For example, Wellspring, in Omaha, Nebraska, is a Salvation Army ministry; Dignity is a Catholic Charities ministry, based in Arizona. Survivors also direct Breaking Free, SAGE, Veronica’s Voice, and GEMS. (Press HERE to read more about these heroes).


According to trafficking legislation expert, University of Rhode Island Professor, Dr. Donna Hughes, DOJ officials fail to credit or utilize such survivor-rescuers. Worse. They also continue to distinguish between “voluntary” and “involuntary” prostitution or they propagate the myths that I have outlined above. This means that they find many ways to justify not doing their work.

Some law enforcement personnel have been effective in prosecuting both domestic and international traffickers. They have been maligned and sometimes punished. Stay tuned for more about this.

I would like to acknowledge the extraordinary work of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, the ongoing work of Professor Donna Hughes, and the rescue work of survivors in this area which bears more than a slight resemblance to the African slave trade.


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