The New Abolitionists

by Jennifer Cody Epstein

Last April I received a somewhat stunning email from the Brooklyn Museum. In December, Gloria Steinem—the Gloria Steinem; the original Ms., G.L.O.R.I.A.—would be moderating a panel at Elizabeth Sackler’s Center for Feminist Art. The topic was global sex trafficking. Dr. Sackler had read my novel based on the life of prostitute-turned-post-Impressionist Pan Yuliang. She wanted to include me, in some capacity, in the discussion.

GLORIA My first reaction was euphoria. For for me, as for millions of women worldwide, Steinem is a hero of uber-rockstar proportions. The idea of speaking with—or even speaking near—her was like being asked to back up the Beatles. Or perhaps a more sober Janice Joplin.

My second reaction was panic: for while it’s true that The Painter from Shanghai spends time in an early 20th-century Chinese brothel, it’s actually a relatively small portion of the storyline–a fact with which I’ve tried (though almost invariably in vain) to combat endless Memoirs of a Geisha comparisons. I’d read up on the sex trade, of course, in books like Gail Hershatter’s Dangerous Pleasures (about Shanghai prostitutes of the last century) and Alexa Albert’s Brothel (about the women of Nevada’s famed Mustang Ranch). I’d followed with rapt horror Nicholas Kristof’s New York Times columns on the global sex trade and its victims—some younger than my own 5-year-old daughter. I even did a story on this subject myself once, on girls in Chiang Rai, Thailand who were desperately fighting prostitution’s pull.

But I’m the first to admit I’m no sex-trade expert. I’m a novelist. And for all the thrill of the invitation, I didn’t really feel qualified for Gloria’s gig. Happily, Dr. Sackler had already come to this conclusion; in her next email she clarified that I would be speaking and reading, not with the panelists, but in a separate event the following day. But, she added, if I attended Saturday’s panel there was a good chance that I could meet my icon in person. “Yesyesyes!” I wrote back; and tattooed it into my calendar: “Sex Trafficking and the New Abolitionists. December 13th.

Eight months later there I was, lined up enthusiastically with scores of other Steinem fans, outside the Brooklyn Museum’s auditorium. The doors opened to a small stampede for good seats. I’m sure that, like me, all of these attendees were very interested in learning about sex trafficking. But I’m equally sure that many (if not most) were primarily there to see Gloria. About five minutes into Steinem’s articulate and self-effacing introduction, however, something interesting happened: I found myself paying less attention the woman than to her words. Quite simply, some of the things she and her fellow panelists Tania Ben-aime, of Equality Now and Rachel Lloyd of Girls Educational and Mentoring Services were relating were, to me, utterly astounding:

FACT: The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime describes the trafficking of sex as the world’s fastest-growing criminal enterprise, and it now rivals the drug and the arms trades.

-FACT: There are today more slaves worldwide than there were in the 1800s.

-FACT: The average age of entry into the sex trade in the U.S. is between 11 and 12 years old.

FACT: You can actually buy such a child’s sexual “services” online, and collect them in a house in New Jersey.

FACT: Until the passage of New York’s passage of the Safe Harbour for Exploited Children Act this past June, minors who could not legally even consent to sex were regularly sentenced to years in Juvenile Detention centers for prostitution.

FACT: One of the legislators who helped finally push through this and other anti-trafficking laws was none other than (wait for it) disgraced ex-governor Elliot Spitzer. The latter, as every New Yorker will cringingly remember, resigned from office last March, after the New York Times linked him to a high-end prostitution ring, the Emperor’s Club. I remember that name well because, after running the Spitzer story, the Times (in a presumably ironic gesture) titled its book review of Painter by that same phrase.

Even more stunning was the documentary excerpt with which Dr. Sackler launched the discussion. Very Young Girls, which debuted last summer at the IFC and this winter on the Showtime network (watch the trailer here) follows teens and pre-teens as they are lured, tricked and drugged into New York City’s thriving sex market. Executive-produced by and starring Lloyd–a former prostitute who speaks with a fiercely quiet authority–the film delivers its message like a one-two punch, offering startling glimpses not only of the girls (who are indeed very young; one was actually still sucking her thumb) but of their traffickers as well. The segment I saw began with some truly chilling footage, shot by Brooklyn brothers Chris and Anthony Griffith. The two middle-aged men had hoped to star in some sort of Pimp My ‘Ho reality series, and so filmed themselves cruising girls in their car, pausing predatorily to sweet-talk ones that looked like likely prospects (“I want to talk to you more,” purrs one brother. “You’ve got a nice little thing going on.”)

The girls themselves relate how these men and other “Ho Daddies” coolly reel in their underage victims: a few dates. Expensive clothes. Oaths of love and loyalty and a future, often to children who most sorely need such securities. Once the girls are thoroughly enmeshed, though, the ultimatum comes: If they want the “love,” they have to sell themselves. “He’s like, ‘I would love you a lot more if you brought in more money,’” relates Shaneiqua, who was 12 when her 30-something pimp seduced her. When that tender request failed, he later raped her anally, beat her up and exiled her to the streets until she came around. Just as powerful is the Griffeth footage which, having shown girls giggling and flirting through the brother’s car window, then shows them disheveled and weeping in the back seat while the men curse and threaten them for not bringing in enough money.

That these recordings led the Griffith brothers not to stardom but to prison does little to soften their brutality. For me, a fellow Brooklynite, they drove home (quite literally) what Steinem called “a reality hidden in plain sight:” the fact that today, sex-trafficking reaches well beyond the distant borders of India, Thailand, the Sudan. It is thriving on our very own sidewalks. It is disguising itself as love and loyalty while stalking the same girls who line up with us at McDonald’s or Tasty Delite. According to GEMS approximately 325,000 American children are subjected to sexual exploitation each year. In New York alone (a 2007 City report estimates) over 2,200 children are being victimized.

As one might expect of a Gloria Steinem-moderated event, however, the discussion (which you can see here) did not simply comprise hand-wringing. It offered legislative remedies, along with examples of what the panelists felt has and has not worked against this epidemic. Incremental progress was seen in the passage of the aforementioned “Safe Harbour” provision, and in last month’s passage of the (deep breath) William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008, which allocates funds for combating “trafficking in persons.” It is also to be found in the strengthening of survivors networks like G.E.M.S., which Lloyd launched in her own apartment, with a mere $30 in her pocket. The organization is now a full-blown nonprofit service offering counseling, rehab and educational resources to New York’s sexually exploited youth.

The panel also looked to anti-trafficking models adopted by nations like Sweden, which in 1999 passed laws to prosecute the demand side of the sex trade (e.g. johns, pimps and traffickers) rather than the traditionally-penalized supply side (e.g., the women). While no official studies yet exist, anecdotal evidence suggests that these measures have reduced Sweden’s prostitution rate by as much as 25%. Ben-Aime noted a corresponding increase in trafficking in the countries surrounding Sweden, indicating that traffickers are indeed now taking their business elsewhere.

In stark contrast to the Swedish model is the “legalize it” approach found in Germany, the Netherlands and certain states in New Zealand and Australia (not to mention, of course, our very own Nevada). The idea behind legalizing prostitution, as Ben-Aim noted, is that “[in theory] you can regulate it; that the state has a stake in making the sex trade safer.” But in reality, she argues, “the sex trade is inherently violent and demeaning and degrading,” something legalization does little to change. Surreally, there is also the danger that legalization might actually pressure women who would otherwise never consider prostituting themselves to do so. Steinem read us part of a 2006 article about a 25 year-old German waitress and unemployed information-technologist. Upon turning down a job providing sexual services at a brothel which had accessed her application through the government records, she faced cuts in her unemployment benefits (!).

Whether such cases would be typical in a world of legalized sex-trade remains, of course, open to debate. In fact, as a brief surf on the Internet turned up (in addition to countless ads for “very young girls,” in both the flesh and in image) there is heated debate on practically every aspect of the sex-trade. There are arguments against the Safe Harbour law by prosecutors who claimed that unless these already-violated girls face legal punishment, they’ll be too scared to testify against their pimps. There are arguments that, far from exploitative, sex is a viable product that most prostitutes peddle willingly–even empoweringly. There was even one comment I saw, by someone named “Jimmy,” who argued against the very existence of sexual slavery (“There’s no evidence,” he claimed).

Even before last month’s panel, such assertions would have depressed me. And even after it, I had myriad questions: is all pornography really violence? Are all prostitutes coerced? Does sexual abuse—which studies show the vast majority of prostitutes have experienced—always constitute “coercion”–even if it happened in the distant past? Does the definition of prostitution encompass pornography, or (say) the “sensual tantric massage” that I see advertised in classifieds, by supposedly certified yogis?

The issue’s complexity was daunting; as was the dark warning that that the plummeting world economy will only aggravate the problem by expanding the ranks of impoverished, vulnerable children and women.

Still, in the end the afternoon left me energized. Not just because I did meet G.L.O.R.I.A. (see picture!). Or because she asked for a signed copy of my book. Or because I saw Judy Chicago’s “Dinner Party”—in permanent installment at the Sackler Center—up close for the very first time. But because I saw for myself exactly why activists like Steinem, Sackler, Lloyd, and Ben-Aime are so worthy of star-struck admiration to begin with. The debate about sex trafficking and its viable remedies will surely roil on in the months ahead, just as more children will surely stumble into the sex-trade trap. But the fact that we are talking and listening and writing about it is surely a kind of progress. As Steinem noted in closing: “Consciousness is always the first step to revolution. And action always follow consciousness”

To which I say: rock on.

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