Human Trafficking and Gender

By David Michael Newstead.

Bob Spires researches human trafficking in the U.S. and across Southeast Asia. He is a professor at Valdosta State University in Georgia and I was recently able to ask him a few questions. Below we discuss the complex issues surrounding a human rights crisis at home and abroad.

David Newstead: Who’s being trafficked exactly? Is there a typical profile of trafficking victims? Or common risk factors?

Bob Spires: Great question and very difficult to answer. To me, human trafficking is a symptom of economic, social and political power disparities. Human trafficking is a specific type of exploitation of disadvantaged people, one of many types of exploitation on a spectrum from legally sanctioned forms of exploitation, to forms that, for a variety of reasons, are considered so heinous as to be made illegal either in specific countries or internationally.

People who are trafficked vary by context, but are people who experience significant disadvantage in a political and economic society. In the U.S., one specific group would be undocumented immigrants. The circumstances are so that undocumented people are demonized in the media and the popular imagination. They feel, whether true or not, that they cannot go to the authorities if they are mistreated. They are at a disadvantage in terms of negotiating work terms, pay, and so forth. They are even further marginalized through cultural and linguistic barriers.

Another group in the U.S. is the female runaway teenager. In terms of your interest in gender, teenage girls who runaway from home especially if they are from disadvantaged backgrounds, are exploited, often by older men who through physical intimidation and psychological manipulation traffic them all over the country and prostitute them through Craigslist and Backpage.

Unfortunately, the common risk factors fit a few billion of the world’s population and vary by local dynamics. For instance, in Thailand, there has been a constant flood of undocumented migrants from Burma, Laos and Cambodia for decades. Guess who gets trafficked in droves onto Thai fishing boats and brothels. Cambodians cross into Thailand every day without documentation, often under the help of Cambodian authorities skimming fees from day laborers in exchange for turning an official blind eye. When the workers finish a day’s work on a Thai rice farm, or a construction site, they may or may not be paid the agreed upon amount, if paid at all. Is that trafficking? If there was force, coercion and transport, then its trafficking, and if not, its just plain old fashioned exploitation. It happens every day with day laborers outside the local home improvement stores around the U.S. That type of exploitation doesn’t look like the plot of Taken, it is much more mundane and sad. It’s not a sexy action movie, just a symptom of the extreme power and wealth differential we have in our world.

David Newstead: So, what are some of the larger causes of human trafficking in Southeast Asia?

Bob Spires: In Southeast Asia, you have very deeply entrenched poverty that is a result of slow and uneven development, colonization, war, despotic leaders and many other factors. Thailand is unique because it was never really colonized officially but taken advantage of throughout WWII and the Vietnam War in exchange for not being truly occupied by the Japanese or the U.S. Thailand is relatively wealthy in comparison to its neighbors, never had a real dictator like its neighbors, and friendly to foreigners and foreign investment. These things came at a cost, though and now has an entrenched sex industry built around foreign military men first, and now the world’s sex tourists and pedophiles. Relative wealth near severe poverty is a recipe for exploitation, and particularly human trafficking. Women are not particularly valued in many Southeast Asian cultures and girls are often morally obligated to earn, at any cost, for the parents, while boys can be somewhat obligation free at adulthood.

Notions of beauty are also problematic in Thailand. Sex work represents an exponentially higher income than most other options, especially for poor rural people with limited access to education and diverse social connections. Women and men in the sex industry adapt their image based on western ideals of beauty, and orientalism certainly plays a part in that image as well. Exaggerated numbers of transgendered and transvestite males work in the sex industry for the same reasons, as this work can bring in much more income than possible in the village.

Large numbers of relatively wealthy foreigners looking for sex, large numbers of undocumented or just extremely impoverished people, and negative attitudes toward women and migrants, all converge to make for a situation ripe for human trafficking and other forms of exploitation.

David Newstead: How would you describe the extent of the problem in human terms and in numbers? For instance, are there annual estimates for people being trafficked around the region? And how accurate do you think those estimates are?

Bob Spires: Estimates for the size and scope of human trafficking are problematic at best. Large scale quantitative data on trafficking are unreliable and incomparable across contexts, nation boundaries and international regions. Despite the over use and replication of data from several unfounded sources, estimates are still nothing more than guestimates of a subjective and rapidly moving and transforming target. It is my opinion that too many resources and too much attention has already been directed to estimating the number of trafficking victims and too little has been earmarked for addressing the root causes of economic disadvantage, extreme power differentials and development of marginalized people through education. Numerous NGOs are doing this work and all of them struggle to find the funding to do their work. Yet, millions are diverted to these estimation efforts, largely for political reasons so that mechanisms like the TIP report will be easier for the largely incompetent and ill-informed people responsible for writing that thing up. Meanwhile, countless children sit in real shelters with little to no resources, countless men and women cannot access education and skills training needed to change their situation.

David Newstead: So, are gender issues the critical factor in understanding human trafficking? And if so, how?

Bob Spires: Gender issues are major factors in understanding trafficking, but gender can also be a problematic lens that can also confuse and blur trafficking in many people’s minds. As I mentioned before, trafficking and exploitation are symptoms of bigger issues of power disparities, and certainly gender creates major power disparities around the world. Whether the disparities are created in relation to a religious group or society that somehow places women lower on a social hierarchy, or due to cultural and economic issues women are at a disadvantage, females are restricted and limited in many settings around the world. Women in Southeast Asia, depending on the local culture, are often valued less in the family, and thus in society. Patriarchal societies, even in the developed world, restrict men less than women, particularly in terms of who is responsible for bearing the brunt of the household and child-rearing responsibilities. Thus, in cases of extreme poverty like you see in the hill tribes in Thailand, Burma and Laos, women’s options for social mobility are boxed in by cultural norms, competition with men who are favored for most occupations, yet facing enormous social and familial pressures to provide economically for their families. Unscrupulous people, often very economically desperate themselves, use these social realities to manipulate and exploit women, particularly, but not solely, in the sex industry. Poor and marginalized men are exploited as well for similar but distinctly male oriented labor.

Sex trafficking is certainly a scourge of modern civilization, and I do not belittle the efforts to address this form of exploitation. However, in the popular psyche, sex trafficking has become the sole, or at least the dominant, symbol of extreme exploitation world-wide. There are many reasons for this. Western culture has distinct sexual morays that are associated with, and arise from, Christian conceptions of sexuality. When we find that other cultures, and even people within our societies, have different notions of sexuality, we are confounded with a mix of abhorrence and titillation. This is the case in Southeast Asia. Much like the concept of orientalism posited by Edward Said, where western colonialists developed sort of totemistic and patriarchal notions of what it meant to be ‘oriental’, and how the image of the Asian other was manipulated for the benefit of the colonial power, so has the concept of human trafficking developed over time.

If you have ever been to Southeast Asia, you won’t go too far without running into Western religious groups going on mission trips in matching t-shirts, or religious NGOs saving the souls of prostitutes on Soi 4. You will just as easily find the secular humanist activists swooping into notorious red light districts to rescue victims, or staging sting operations in the fishing industry or sweatshops. While these efforts may be effective in the short term, often the rescued victims of exploitation return to other exploitative situations soon enough. The cameras are off, and the donors aren’t watching, but the exploitation continues because the economic disparities still exist. Gender is one of those issues related to disparity because men and women, boys and girls, are treated disparately the world over. Then, when marginalized women turn to one of their last economic options, having sex for money, they often must choose to either go into these exploitative occupations, where they are even more at risk of mistreatment by bar owners and customers, or, in some cases, superficially adopt foreign morals or religious beliefs just to access avenues out of that work. They are exploited by the system, and then again exploited by the NGOs, some of which exchange minimal education for total cultural conversion.

David Newstead: Say more about the misconceptions surrounding human trafficking…

Bob Spires: Human trafficking is wrought with misconceptions, misinformed people, misdiagnosed social problems, inaccurate or decontextualized data, and perpetuated myths. The term has been used to mean so many things for so many reasons that the definition has become less clear despite international attempts to clarify it in policy.

The TIP Report is a great example of loss of clarity in the study of human trafficking. The State Department hires foreign service officers and puts them in charge of evaluating an entire country’s human trafficking prevention, protection and prosecution efforts, gives them minimal guidelines and oversight, and rotates them through embassies worldwide before they can really become human trafficking experts. The TIP officers use information provided by organizations most closely connected with the U.S. and local government, and then the U.S. government eventually makes a largely political decision when deciding which tier a country is ranked in the report. We have no methodological consistency in the report that is a decade old and still filled with misinformation, so how could we expect that the general public would be any less misinformed.

Here in the state of Georgia, and the South in general, most people assume human trafficking means forced prostitution. They are comfortably uncomfortable with the idea that poor women the world over are kidnapped and forced into prostitution. They are less comfortable with the idea that a disadvantaged woman would go into prostitution willingly unless she was clearly morally corrupt and needed to be saved by the word of Jesus. They are even less comfortable with the idea that Latin American immigrants working in the cotton, tomato, and tobacco fields in their communities may have been trafficked to work in their communities, or for the local lawn service company because the owner of the company doesn’t want to pay workers health benefits or minimum wage. That conversation, which is essential for our society to have if we are to truly solve extreme exploitation of people here and abroad, is too complex and nuanced, and involves too many uncomfortable realities of our contemporary circumstances.

I’ll give an example from Atlanta. About 7 years ago, I met with staff from a Christian NGO that was one of the only organizations in the Atlanta area that took in human trafficking victims identified by law enforcement. The NGO was supported by a church in a very wealthy suburb and the congregation of the church were clearly upper middle class professionals. Most of the victims of human trafficking in the Atlanta area at the time were underage runaway African American girls from the street in Downtown Atlanta. These girls had dropped out of high school, run away from dysfunctional and broken homes full of abuse and poverty, and ended up on the street selling themselves for money. They typically encountered an older male who would pimp them on the street, control and manipulate them through force, coercion and emotional abuse. The NGO provided online credit recovery high school courses for the girls, in exchange for their attendance in religious courses and religious group therapy sessions which focused on convincing the girls that the reasons that they ended up in these terrible circumstances was because they didn’t accept Jesus and the teachings of the Bible. If only they would accept these things, especially the idea that sex before marriage is wrong, all of these issues would disappear and life would be so much better in the future for them. At no point did the organization acknowledge the dire economic situation for African American women in the South, the impact of social marginalization and educational disparity for those in poverty in our state, or the fact that sex was one of the only economic options they had on the streets because homeless people have a tough time getting even the most menial jobs in the formal economy. I don’t tell that story to denigrate the efforts of religious NGOs at-large, only to illustrate an example of how government agencies, NGOs and individuals often interpret the issues through their own cultural lenses, to the detriment of the people most impacted by, and vulnerable to, exploitation.

David Newstead: With that in mind, what are some possible solutions to this crisis?

Bob Spires: As an educator and an education scholar, I feel that education is a key solution to exploitation, particularly human trafficking. Education is a broad concept and means different things to different people. The particular forms of education must be tailored to local economic needs, but also mindful of global realities. Universal education is one step, especially in Southeast Asia. All children and youth need access to free education. That education must extend beyond basic education and offer options for specialized training and high level skills acquisition. Schools should move away from rote learning to encouraging critical thinking, problem solving and community activism. Governments world-wide should be required to improve education in poor and remote areas and do away with school fees such as uniforms and books. Governments should commit to non-formal education and training for adults as well with a focus on improving marginalized people’s occupational skills and credentials, a notion that will improve the overall quality of life, and tax base, of an entire society.

Governments should be required to make significant efforts to support NGOs doing good work in their countries, not only through linking NGOs with local companies and wealthy elites as potential donors, but facilitating formal networks that encourage collaboration among NGOs, and use government resources to improve infrastructure needed by NGOs. Corporations should be encouraged to support human trafficking organizations and other social justice related organizations through CSR programs and fundraising efforts. Government could easily promote the efforts of corporations, whether through social media or mainstream media, who support social improvement through these organizations and efforts.

The key to reducing human trafficking is improving the economic and social situation of marginalized people. Certainly this is not an easy endeavor, but much more effort can be done to address these issues that is currently being done world-wide. We need to communicate more clearly that human trafficking is just one symptom of the wealth gaps world-wide, and unless we approach human trafficking as a part of a bigger issue of massive numbers of marginalized people in every society in the world who are socially, economically, politically and culturally at a disadvantage, the problem of human trafficking will continue, if not increase.


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