Slavery has a long, intricate history within the United States, and sex slavery is inexorably linked to that phenomenon. While sex trafficking and sex slavery have received much attention in recent years, the problem of forcing women to perform sexual acts against their will is not a newly developed issue. Forced sex work has a well-documented history going back to Progressive-era feminism circa 1913 and, in all likelihood, much earlier. The problem of sex slavery, however, is only getting worse at home. 2016 alone saw a 35% increase in the instances of reported human trafficking ('Human Trafficking Hotline Cases Jump By 35% In 2016', 2017). Women have discovered that by taking control of the sex industry, they can remove a vast majority of dangers facing them in the industry and can build respectable lives for themselves. Legal prostitution is an effective way to combat sex slavery and should be embraced by society as a whole. Our cultural perceptions around prostitution have consistently been less than favorable, but recent decades have helped to remove some of the stigma surrounding women and sex.
Illegal prostitution is one form of sex work that has been documented for hundreds of years, well before the founding of the United States. Indeed the concepts of sex, desire, and profit are nearly as old as civilization itself ('Sacred Marriage And Sacred Prostitution In Ancient Mesopotamia', 2016). In ancient Sumeria, as women paid tribute to Ishtar, the goddess of (among other things) sex, fertility, and desire, it has been reported that they were expected to sleep with any man who asked. Afterward, the man would give the woman money to donate to the temple. This has since come to be known as “Sacred Prostitution.” Whether or not Sacred Prostitution actually occurred is a topic of debate, as many of these reports came from Herodotus, who is renowned for his unreliability. Nonetheless, that Herodotus even mentioned such a concept is proof that the notion of prostitution is far older than the United States.
Early opinions were sculpted by works such as “A New Conscience and an Ancient Evil” by Jane Addams, which deemed all sex workers to be victims of slavery, with or without consent (“Sex Slavery and Sex Trafficking of Women in the United States: Historical and Contemporary Parallels, Policies, and Perspectives in Social Work,” 2016). In the hundred years since, our perceptions around the morality of consensual sex have become less strict. Thriving pornography industries have made sex acceptable, attainable, and even profitable. But consent and empowerment are central to that industry, and those elements are entirely lacking in sex trafficking networks. Sex slaves are often runaway youths left with lasting emotional and physical damage. These illicit sex trafficking networks have lasting negative impacts on families and society as a whole. I will look at historical understandings of sex slavery and how legislators and society addressed this problem in the past. Comparing those historical methods to today, we can see how our perceptions of sex slavery have changed over time, paving the way for a new industry of legal prostitution.
With the passage of the White Slave Traffic Act of 1910, sex slavery as an issue to our legislators began to take form. Perceptions about sex undoubtedly affected the language of the bill, and it was ambiguous in its definitions of sex slavery – often conflating consensual sex and voluntary prostitution with forced sex work under the banner of “immorality” (“Sex Slavery and Sex Trafficking of Women in the United States: Historical and Contemporary Parallels, Policies, and Perspectives in Social Work,” 2016). This parallels the prevalent ideas about women and sex in that time, as the bill was used to prosecute more than 1,000 people between 1910 and 1918, very few of whom would be found guilty of sex slavery by today’s standards. Part of this bill included language pertaining to the transportation of women across state lines for immoral purposes. When Jack Johnson, a famous boxer who also happened to be African American, brought his Caucasian girlfriend with him across state lines in 1912, he was found guilty and prosecuted under the White Slave Traffic Act.
This racial lens offered a distorted perspective of the problem of sex slavery, and it is only in recent decades that we have been able to unravel cultural bias and look at sex trafficking with impartiality, better understanding what victims of sex trafficking endure both during and after the fact. This has also begun to shift our ideas surrounding prostitution, and has paved the way for legal brothels, some of which can even be found in the United States ('Prostitution In Nevada Has Its Advantages, Experts Say', 2016). Let’s explore some of the experiences victims of sex slavery endure, and we can begin to understand how legal prostitution can have a positive effect on society.
How Does This Affect These Women when They Get Out of Slavery?
Sex slavery is a traumatic experience, and while we all deal with trauma in different ways, there are certain lasting effects that seem to be universal. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is one of the most common diagnoses for those who have endured traumatic experiences. PTSD is an umbrella term used to describe a variety of effects, but many common lasting effects include feelings of extreme anger or fear, sever anxiety or a prevailing sense of guilt. Unfortunately, for many individuals these effects to not fade over time, and the feelings can be so strong that they interfere with daily activities – severely reducing one’s quality of life. Suicidal ideations are also frequently reported. The problems don’t stop there, however. Sex trafficking also affects others beyond the victims themselves. By removing women and girls from their families, sex trafficking has a lasting impact on local societies. More callously: Sex trafficking negatively impacts a variety of industries by removing vital human resources. The sex trafficking industry, and the PTSD it causes, further burden an already overburdened healthcare system (“The Effects of PTSD Symptoms on Health Care Resource Utilization in a Low-Income, Urban Primary Care Setting,” 2013).
Despite all this, our cultural perceptions of sex and sex work continue to evolve, taking an increasingly accepting approach. According to 'Prostitution In Nevada Has Its Advantages, Experts Say' (2016), sex workers “claim their experiences are consensual, positive, and pleasurable.” Without a doubt, sex work can be quite lucrative. One woman who was interviewed claimed to make $10,000 each week. Working in a brothel has helped her buy a home and pay her law school tuition while keeping her safe from the dangers of sex slavery or illegal prostitution. By giving the power and control to the service providers themselves, we are allowing sex work to be treated as a proper industry with all the requisite protections in place.
In one study, 5 out of 50 women interviewed at one particular brothel had experienced violence, compared to the 100% of sex slaves who experience violence. In the instances where violence does occur at a legal brothel, they are structured in such a way as to maximize protection for the worker. The doors do not lock from the inside so the women can escape if necessary, and the support from the whole staff ensures any unruly customer will be unable to conduct themselves poorly for long, and that they won’t return to do it again. The brothels also offer support and stimulation for local economies. In Nye County, Nevada, revenue from brothel licenses has paid for emergency services, including a health clinic. The notion that brothels are seedy, dirty places for lewd behavior are largely unfounded. According to one worker: “They’re places for politicians, actors, couples and “anyone who needs love.” Those with mental and physical disabilities are welcomed as well.” These women can buy homes and cars, and even build savings for their families.
Because legal brothels are treated as legitimate businesses, they are protected by the same regulations that protect more traditional businesses, and they are subject to the same health authorities. Protection is mandatory, as it testing for sexually transmitted diseases under the state board of health. The women who work in these brothels are able to set their own hours and rates, and are free to turn down any potential client. This is simply not the case for sex slaves.
The sex industry can provide valuable revenue for infrastructure and healthcare, or it can fuel organized crime and erode society. The difference is consent and empowerment in favor of the worker. This parallels the sentiment behind the Labor Rights movement of the Industrial Revolution.
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