My name is Jacqueline Homan. Known for writing extensively on women’s issues and class justice, I am now speaking out as a sex trafficking survivor from the poverty class. I was trafficked at age 13 when I was poor, orphaned and homeless back in 1980 and escaped at age 17. Neither the Christian Right nor the Left really cares about poor trafficked women. American victims of sex trafficking are unable to qualify for any benefits available to foreign-born sex trafficked women because American sex trafficking victims are not covered under the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA). Nobody is helping us.
Combatting the scourge of human trafficking has become the sexy, trendy newest cause for privileged opportunists in need of their newest feel-good activism fix as they seek to profit by wrapping themselves in the cloak of social justice. Of course, those whom are the very core of this cause—the sex trafficking victims (or exited women) themselves—are without real, adequate and appropriate help in terms of income support, medical care, education, job training and job placement to regain control of their destiny to rebuild their lives and live with dignity while trying to do so.
Restoring trafficked women to “normalized” status in society is an important goal, but there is an enormous resistance to that on the part of society, including many “allies” that will not stop their privilege-clinging and power-overing to actually facilitate restoration. Sadly, even most such “allies” look down on adult prostituted women who started out as trafficked under-aged girls.
The very women and girls whom this movement is supposed to be about are exploited for their stories and then discarded and thrown under the bus by most “allies”, including many well-heeled academics who’ve been enriched with chair endowments and many other social prizes and rewards after prostituted/exited women’s stories of tremendous suffering have helped pave the career paths of those who enjoy all the status, prestige and prosperity in the name of “speaking for” downtrodden, marginalized women.
After decades of throwing the poorest, most marginalized women away with misogynistic laws and policies of “benign neglect” tantamount to social Darwinism, everybody suddenly wants to cash in on the big business of helping trafficked women and girls. How odd, considering that it was this very same male supremacist society that threw away poor marginalized women and girls into the prostitute caste in the first place—first by ripping away what meager, inadequate threadbare safety net that did exist for destitute women in the name of “personal responsibility”, and second by continuing to discriminate against women for good-paying blue-collar “men’s jobs” that don’t require an expensive college education, and third by reaffirming male entitlement to women’s bodies as disposable reproductive goods and sex goods.
There is a serious problem when the public is listening to very people—these “faith-based initiatives” that are the new “pimps”—which are exploiting the most impoverished, marginalized and already exploited population.
The Obama administration has unveiled a plan inviting public participation for helping to fight human trafficking, and part of the plan is to open funding for battered women’s shelters whose funding was recently cut by the 2010 Congress. More troubling is that most of these domestic violence shelters refuse to take prostituted women who want to exit but who are also destitute and have nowhere to go. Funding for emergency shelters that turn away trafficked women and under-aged girls is funding that is not given to shelters run by anti-trafficking groups that actually help the trafficked.
Cash-strapped survivor-run networks like Sex Work Recovery Anonymous (SWA) and Trafficking and Prostitution Survivor Services (TAPS) that are geared towards providing real material help to survivors get no funding from the US Department of Health & Human Services through its Refugee Resettlement Office. Non-profit groups that get the lion’s share of the annual grants from the Office of Refugee Resettlement are nearly all anti-abortion Christian organizations that are huge, deeply entrenched corporations with Catholic Charities and Polaris Project getting the most funds.
This is problematic because faith-based charities refuse to provide abortion care to trafficked women and leave them no choice except to be further physically and psychologically violated by their rapists-johns by forcing them to endure a full term of incapacitating pregnancy and a traumatic, grueling childbirth—thus, continuing the rape and torture. Forcing women to get/remain pregnant against their will when they don’t want to go through it has been the time-honored way that men have oppressed and continue to oppress women, using our vulnerability to pregnancy to keep us from having an equal opportunity to have the same good jobs that are automatically handed to men, denying us full citizenship and equal civil and human rights—which is what fuels the sex trade in the first place because it limits women’s opportunities and rights.
If it’s wrong for women and girls to be sexually exploited, how is it NOT also wrong for them to be reproductively exploited by their “rescuers” for the benefit of Christian adoption agencies and rich, white childless couples who are buying the “right” to further exploit those victims with forced factory-farm reproduction to provide them with babies—free grata?
How does this make them any different than the johns who bought the “right” to first use these girls’ bodies for forced sex to provide him with his precious orgasm?
There is something radically wrong with the system when the non-profit mega corporations (aka “faith-based” charities) that enjoy the backing of well-heeled patriarchal, misogynistic religious powerhouses get all the federal grant money from the US Department of Health & Human Services while cash-strapped secular and survivor-run non-profits started by impoverished exited women who are the real human trafficking experts can’t get funding to help destitute survivors and women who want to exit prostitution but can’t due to nearly insurmountable barriers.
A trafficked teen girl who has no choice becomes that 22 year old drug-addicted woman found in a dumpster with her throat cut from ear to ear because of being thrown away by a bootstrap-happy society that pushed her into the arms of traffickers in the name of “personal responsibility” while refusing to give her real equal opportunities and provide a social floor through which no one can fall.
The Exploitation Continues After Exiting
Now not all men are bad, and neither are all Christians. But the fact remains that the majority are comfortable with the status quo because it privileges them at women’s expense, or else there would NOT be a right-wing War on Women where it is women (especially POOR women) who are punished with gratuitous cruelty for men’s sense of sexual entitlement and greed. And there would not be a pandemic of sex trafficking fueled by male demand secured by female poverty and disenfranchisement due to discrimination backed by 6,000 years of institutionalized patriarchy.
People with privilege really don’t want to upset the status quo—it may mean having to relinquish some of their own privileges that come at the expense of the disprivileged. Even within the abolition movement, there is a LOT of privilege-clinging and power-overing.
Exploiting women as sex goods and as reproductive chattel are inseparable. It’s the same end game: objectification, reproductive enslavement, sexual terrorism and cruelty towards women to support male supremacy and male privilege to benefit men at women’s expense, suffering and misery.
Forced pregnancy/childbirth was the main linchpin that upheld the plantation slavery system in the antebellum South. African slave women were forced to breed. All for men’s sexual AND economic benefit at women’s expense and suffering. And even though not all men are porn-consuming, prostitute-abusing pigs, the fact remains that ALL men benefit from this sadistic, exploitative hierarchical system of unearned privileges in which women are kept economically, sexually, and socially oppressed in the ‘one-down’ position. And poor white women (“poor white trash”) have also been convenient throw-aways into the sex class so that men could have a free license to be sexually sadistic predators.
It’s no secret that most who are thrown away into the sex caste are those who not only lack gender privilege, but also class privilege and/or race privilege. Poor men get offered helping hand up and job opportunities that are denied to women; poor women get told to take our clothes off—that being “only a whore” is the ONLY place in society for us, the only “option” if we don’t want to starve or be homeless. Or end up disabled or dead for lack of health care from abject poverty caused by jobless due to discrimination. This is also how you get so many rescued trafficked women who, out of utter despair, reluctantly return to prostitution when even the few living wage jobs available to women are denied to women who have been stigmatized for their “past”—a past in which they had little choice in making.
Traffickers tell their victims that there is no other place for them, that society won’t accept them and treat them nicely. Unfortunately, the lack of support, help, social acceptance, and a leg up for poor, marginalized exited women faced with no alternative except to return to prostitution gives this credence: Everybody (including many “allies” and “rescuers”) in society proves the traffickers right.
Almost all of the faith-based organizations that get the lion’s share of federal grant money only help a select few kids that make good photo opportunities for their charity’s fundraising PR. What kind of message does this send to trafficked teens and adult women who desperately want to exit prostitution that they were trafficked into before reaching that magical age of 18?
Meanwhile, poor adult women who either have already exited (or who want to exit but feel trapped because they’re physically and/or financially unable to exit) never get anything because there’s this idea that grown women cannot suffer and therefore don’t matter. Adult women are just discarded and written off as having made their “choice.” Almost all anti-trafficking groups focus only on children and ignore the women.
The Cost to Society of Ignoring Poor Prostituted Adult Women
Conservative estimates based on limited data collection place the percentage of sex trafficking victims with HIV at about 25%, but actual numbers may be much higher. According to the Office of the Secretariat of the Joint UN Programme on HIV/AIDS, 63% of HIV-positive sufferers aged 15-24 are women.
A 2007 study published in JAMA showed that 38% of a study group of 287 sex trafficked Nepalese women and girls tested positive for HIV. The study also showed that the younger the trafficked girl, the higher the likelihood of being exposed to HIV since johns specifically request younger girls (under age 15) at brothels and johns often refuse to wear condoms and the prostituted women and girls realistically cannot compel them to.
Many other regions have much higher rates than that, such as Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside where 75% of prostituted women and girls are HIV-positive. Women and children who are trafficked for commercial sex experience a tenfold risk of contracting HIV compared to any other subgroup of the population. The average age of entry into the sex trade for females is 12-14 years of age. The US is one of the top three source and destination hubs for sex trafficking.
According to the US State Department, 95% of sex trafficking victims are women and girls and 80% of human trafficking victims within the US are American women and girls, and according to the Harvard School of Public Health study authored by Dr. Jay Silverman, the HIV infection rate exceeded 60% among girls forced into prostitution prior to age 15 from the 2007 sample of 287 Nepalese women and girls. The public health consequence, and ultimately, the devastation to society caused by male demand for commercial sex is astronomical.
“Addressing the widely accepted male demand for commercial sex is critical to ending this modern day form of female slavery,” Silverman said.
As sex trafficking survivor Lisa Bouvet, said: “Saying someone chose to become a prostitute is like saying someone chose to jump off the roof but no one mentioned that the building was on fire.”
Those who manage to exit the sex trade also face a substantial risk of being re-trafficked if they are from a country that lacks adequate social and economic support systems because of the contempt, scorn, derision, neglect and social rejection suffered by the prostituted. Many exited women and girls, out of sheer desperation, re-enter the sex trade when they’re left with nowhere else to go and no real social and economic support because of the criminalization and stigma that comes with being a prostituted woman. And when that happens, chances of being able to re-escape and survive are almost zero.
Many exited women are unable to afford proper medical care and due to total social exclusion and marginalization, they have almost zero employment opportunities and no hope of economically fending for themselves. Almost no one will hire exited women due to the social stigma alone, and finding some middle class Prince Charming to rescue her from utter destitution by marrying her and supporting her so she has a home, food, and medical care is definitely off the table.
As an aside, a study of johns showed that upwards of 60% are married men with families—they bought prostituted women so they could get away with doing to a woman what they would never be able to do to their own wives. If you torture and kill one of the “madonnas”, you will likely get prison; if you torture and kill one of the “whores”, you will likely get a free pass and a pat on the back.
Convicted Child Molesters Get More Social Acceptance and Better Economic Support For Re-entering Society Than Sex Trafficking Survivors
According to Dr. Brian Conway of the University of British Columbia, people who contract HIV—the virus that causes AIDS—can live very, very long and high quality lives without ever developing full blown AIDS as long as their CD4 (white blood cell) count remains well above 200 on medical therapy. But the vast majority of exited women struggle in abject poverty, and in countries like the US and the impoverished regions of Eastern Europe and the Balkans, destitute human trafficking survivors don’t have access to adequate medical treatment or any social income support to be able to live with dignity. Consequently, the sex trafficking survivors who contracted HIV from johns and traffickers are slapped with a cruel, torturous death sentence: slow, painful death from AIDS related complications.
Two major factors that negatively impact CD4 cell count are fatigue and stress. The stress from having to suffer in utter poverty and complete social exclusion due to stigma, compounded by the trauma levels of anyone who survived the amount of violence and torture as prostituted women have, only serves to intensify the agonizing progression of untreated HIV, which is hallmarked by ravaging and unrelenting opportunistic infections such as pneumocystis pneumonia (PCP) which causes fatal treatment-resistant pneumonia for which medical intervention does not come cheap.
Untreated HIV is a certain death sentence, but it is a very slow and torturous one that surpasses the level of torture that would be permissible at Guantanamo. Treatment of HIV requires a series of antiretroviral drug therapies, of which there are several classes—each one inhibiting the mutation and multiplication of the HIV virus at different stages of cell invasion in the HIV virus’s life cycle. Often, several classes must be combined to effectively treat this devastating retrovirus which targets CD4 cells, injects healthy CD4 cells with its genetic code (RNA) which is then used by the reverse transcriptase enzyme to build HIV DNA.
The HIV DNA is injected into the CD4 cell’s DNA by the integrase enzyme, establishing HIV infection in the CD4 cell. When the HIV-infected CD4 cell reproduces, the HIV DNA is activated. This is how a retrovirus like HIV destroys the immune system and causes full blown AIDS—by attacking the body’s white blood cells. And this is why multi-faceted therapy drug schedules are needed to treat and subdue or limit the HIV virus’s activity within the body.
None of the current medical technologies for treating HIV can protect an HIV-positive person’s sexual partner from contracting HIV no matter how well the infected person responds to the antiretroviral therapy. So an HIV-positive john with access to good medical care and who is able to improve his healthy CD4 cell count and limit the devastation of HIV in his body, who then turns around and buys rape-on-demand sex from poor prostituted women (and likely refuses to wear a condom) then infects the trafficking victim who is unable to compel him to wear a condom—never mind dictate any other terms and conditions of the sex-for-money transaction. In fact, it is usually in attempting to refuse a particular sexual act that gets prostituted women murdered—if not by the john who wanted to hurt her as part of the “services” he paid for, then by the traffickers in whose eyes a “troublesome” woman’s life isn’t even worth eight cents.
Unlike the traffickers and the johns on sex tourism “vacations” at home and abroad who paid for the “right” to get “you-do-what-I-say” sex from prostituted women and children, poor trafficked and/or exited women that contracted HIV from these self-entitled sexually sadistic men that refused to wear condoms have little to no hope at all of living a long, high quality life if they cannot get proper care due to being from a country in which women do not enjoy equal rights with men, and a country that either does not have the medical technology of antiretroviral therapy available, or that does not provide good medical care to those unable to pay for it because of that country not having universal health care.
To be sentenced to death from full blown AIDS as a direct result of first being forcibly infected with it by cruel, sexually sadistic men that are carriers of HIV and secondly by lack of access to the same quality of medical care to adequately treat HIV that their class-privileged HIV-positive rapists enjoy, meets the definition of torture and crimes against humanity.
In the US, convicted serial killers sentenced to death row get more sympathy and avenues for legal redress and concern for their rights than an adult sex trafficking victim who struggled to exit “the life” against all odds. Regardless of where one stands on the death penalty issue, the fact is that the way the state is permitted to execute a convicted serial killer is restricted by Constitutional laws against cruel and unusual punishment and torture—which is why no one is executed by being drawn and quartered or burned alive at the stake like they were in medieval Europe.
It is also why the state cannot (in theory, anyway) execute someone with biological terrorism, and neither can an individual resort to that under Stand Your Ground Laws. Bioterrorism is precisely what traffickers and johns are doing by deliberately infecting prostituted women with a fatal, incurable STD. Women and children did not enter prostitution with HIV—traffickers and johns infected them with it.
It is a crime against humanity for any other identifiable group to be targeted for death by sexual torture, destitution and bioterrorism—except women. Do the math: 95% of the prostituted are women and girls, 94% of those living below poverty suffering without basic human needs are women and girls. Women comprise 52% of the population yet women have less than 2% of all good-paying blue-collar skilled trades jobs and science careers due to institutionalized sexism and discrimination. Men comprise 88% of the government leadership and lawmaking bodies, and men comprise 98% of the top 1% of the financial elite. Although 5% of the prostituted are boys and men, nearly 100% of the sex buyers are men. Money, privilege and power are gendered. And so is the institution of prostitution.
There are upwards of about 10 million trafficked women and girls trapped in prostitution in the US and only 200 shelter beds nationwide for women and girls who desperately want to exit but cannot. So the final question remains: will destitute exited women get helped with income support to live with a little bit of human dignity while they struggle to heal and rebuild their lives, or will this new anti-trafficking plan by the Obama administration merely serve as a boon for large “faith-based” charity executives? If this country is serious about the sex trafficking problem, then funds for destitute trafficking victims payable to the destitute exited women whether they exited 20 minutes ago or 20 years ago must come first before anyone else’s enrichment.
What is needed is:
- income for destitute exiting/exited women to live with dignity as they try to get on their feet and rebuild their lives
- medical care, dental care, and therapy
- opportunities for advanced educations and/or vocational training
- REAL job placement—guaranteed job slots for poor marginalized and disadvantaged exited women.
Jacqueline S. Homan
Author, Research Director at Trafficking and Prostitution Survivor Services (TAPS), and sex trafficking survivor from the poverty class