For millennia, slavery was a common and widespread institution. People everywhere accepted it as a normal fact of life, as an inevitable result of the inherent hierarchies in society. Then, as the “Enlightenment” movement in the 1700s spread ideas of human rights, freedom, and equality, the idea that some people should be owned by others, to be denied the privilege of making their own living, and to be treated like livestock or worse, began to be seen as a grave betrayal of human dignity. Therefore, slavery was rolled back in the Western and Latino world in the 17 and 1800s and discouraged elsewhere in the 1900s.
Yet slavery persists worldwide. It is generally seen as an abomination and a shame, but it persists nonetheless, usually in the shadows. Sometimes it takes the form of oppressive child labor or criminal begging rackets. Other times it involves conscription into an army. And there’s still the classic model of simply working without pay or surrendering your pay to some kind of overseer. This blog post will focus on what might be the most heinous and depraved form — sex slavery.
Sex slavery exists worldwide, since all that’s needed for it to thrive are horny men and police willing to overlook it. As a result, almost every country is considered to have sex slave-trading networks. Girls, women and sometimes boys are taken hostage by slave traders and sold to the highest bidder in secret markets, where they are evaluated for their physical skills and appearance. They are sometimes transported (“trafficked”) to a large city or thriving economy, where they are kept in horrid conditions in seedy parts of town, well out of the glare of police torches or the gaze of ordinary passersby. Some part-time as waitresses or erotic dancers in trashy bars filled with men; others simply live in rooms (cells?) all their lives, being raped over and over again by clients who barely give them a second thought and who certainly care more about their looks and sex appeal than about their well-being.
Like other slaves, the lives of sex slaves are marked by violence. If their abduction wasn’t violent to begin with, their traders or masters certainly beat them up before long. A 3-week-long desensitization period “breaks them in.” This involves burning in particular areas, savage pummeling, and constant rape to inure them to an experience that may feel like torture at first but gradually evolves into a normal process that characterizes their lives more than anything else. Denied legal protection or public scrutiny, sex slaves are frequently abused, physically, emotionally, and psychologically, so that they come to accept their wretched fate and see their masters as all-powerful, fearsome, and beyond punishment. They may be killed at any time; some masters do it to set an example for potential runaways, others just do it, even to their prettiest slaves, to demonstrate their power. And this doesn’t even cover the abuse and torture their clients might inflict on them if they’re sadistic types.
The paths to sex slavery vary. Many are abducted right off the streets should they stray onto a poorly lit area late at night. But others are lured into it by false promises of legitimate work in the Big City. Thus sex slaves are disproportionately from poor backgrounds in economically struggling countries or areas. Some are even sold into it by their friends or family, often knowingly. In many countries child labor is a normal fact of life, and selling girls into bondage is a lucrative proposition for families without many other job prospects. If their parents really love them, they at least try to arrange for their daughters to be trafficked somewhere nearby so they can come visit once in a while.
The paths out of sex slavery are much murkier. The vast majority of sex slaves remain enslaved. Many die slaves, either from abuse, murder, venereal diseases, or suicide. Despite the efforts of compassionate NGOs, very few are “freed,” full stop. Occasionally police will raid brothels and slave bars, especially if a government or NGO has been pressuring them, but the raids are usually just for show and the slaves are often re-abducted and re-enslaved, sometimes even right back where they were before. The police often get bribes from the slave masters or even enjoy the slaves’ “services.” They have little incentive to crack down hard.
Sex slavery may be a worldwide phenomenon, but some places have nonetheless acquired a certain reputation for it. Eastern Europe is one, and in particular Moldova, a small country between Ukraine and Romania of 5 million people — 10% of whom have been enslaved at some point. Partially this is because white women are in demand around the world, particularly blonde ones, and particularly in Arabia, where monied Gulf men pay top dollar for them. More fundamentally, it’s because Eastern Europe, and Moldova, Ukraine and Romania in particular, never really coped with the collapse of Communism, and unemployment and depopulation is rife there. Coupled with the ease of transport further west (Romania having recently joined the EU) and the lax attitude to sex workers in countries like Germany and the Netherlands, and the organized crime networks of the region have a ripe opportunity to exploit young women — indeed, it’s their main business. The devastation of war in the former Yugoslavia add social collapse and ethnic enmity to the toxic environment this underground trade thrives in.
Southeast Asia is another region notorious for its bunga-bunga. Lax cultural attitudes and the lingering effects of massive foreign armies in the region have fed a thriving sex trade, much of it illegal. Bangkok, and to a lesser extent Singapore, are the hubs. This is both because of their centrality and because Thailand and Singapore are much richer than their neighbors and act as magnets for desperate workers from other countries. Girls as young as 5 are sold off by their families to be raped by foreign pedophiles eager to get away with something that would get them long jail times at home. Some horny sex tourists just opt for a karaoke session with a very flirtatious girl in a skimpy outfit who’ll cost less than the beer and snacks, but the slaves and their masters prod them to buy the full package. Often the earnings are lavish enough that the parents don’t even need to work themselves. Whole villages in Cambodia have developed sex trafficking cultures. While this ubiquity makes the slaves feel that their predicament is normal, they still end up feeling hopeless, depressed and traumatized and are routinely abused and taken advantage of. Slaves in Southeast Asia work in filthy, marginal conditions and are often subjected to great danger — as was dramatically demonstrated in 2008, when 54 Myanma workers destined for Phuket, a resort town in Thailand, suffocated to death in a truck.
There is definitely a gray area between sex slavery and prostitution; some activists claim that prostitution itself is a gray area, or even that there is no meaningful distinction between prostitution and sex slavery. Prostitutes are supposed to be able to quit and use their earnings as they see fit, but many are caught in abusive relationships, are routinely abused by their clients, and are at the mercy of their pimps. The underground, illegal nature of prostitution means that prostitutes can’t trust the police if they are raped or in mortal danger. The growing spread online of prostitution has made the business safer, but even in countries where prostitution is legal, abuse and torture persist. The staunchest abolitionists call for more countries to follow the example of Sweden, a country at the forefront of feminism, which pushed prostitution deep underground by criminalizing buying sex as opposed to selling it. (Kajsa Wahlberg, Sweden’s Detective Superintendent, describes it as “paying to masturbate into someone.”)
So far NGOs have been at the forefront of the battle against sex slavery. (Faith-based NGOs are especially vigorous.) Other international organizations are less helpful. Governments, often male-dominated and with other priorities, pay it scant attention. As previously mentioned, armies can make the problem worse. The UN has a shameful record of servicing and even sponsoring sex slavery in the countries where it has deployed its peacekeepers. In the name of protecting war-weary peoples and promoting human rights, it rapes and oppresses society’s most vulnerable members. When Kathryn Bolkovac, an American policewoman hired by DynCorp, a private military contractor, uncovered a deeply embedded sex slavery ring in Bosnia & Herzegovina in 1999, patronized by both DynCorp and the UN, the UN fired her to protect its reputation and its old boys’ network.
Sex slavery may thrive in places like India, or Bosnia, or Cambodia, where society is broken, children are put to work and women are hated. But it is a global problem. As long as men are lustful and police are corrupt, prostitution will thrive — meaning, forever. But sex slavery warps the world’s oldest profession into an institution of sadism, control, abuse and despair. Up to 2.5 million* slaves labor in the sex trade worldwide. Governments and international organizations need to fight any sexist hesitance and put more emphasis on wiping out a trade that thrives on lust, greed, power hunger and sadism.
Statistics related to sex slavery are notoriously hazy and vary widely. This figure is quoted in the end of the film The Whistleblower.