The Time is Ripe, Let's End Contemporary Slavery

10/05/2010 04:17 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Upon her passing earlier this year, I was reminded of this statement by Dorothy Height, former President of the National Council of Negro Women. "If the time is not ripe, we must ripen the times." Less well-known than many of her contemporaries, Height's contributions to the American civil rights and women's rights movements of the 20th century helped to shape the policies and progress of the era. It occurred to me that Height's timeless statement correlates well with today's fight against global gender inequality and human trafficking. More than just a "women's issue," gender inequality is a human rights violation that contributes to the trafficking of women and girls around the globe. Coerced prostitution is one of the primary forms of exploitation that trafficked women and girls are subject to in the United States and the European Union.

Forced prostitution or sex trafficking is a consequence of the interconnectivity of globalization. We cannot allow the process of globalization to negatively impact the human rights of women. As Dorothy Height pointed out, timeliness is important when confronting a monumental challenge like sex trafficking. However, stakeholders cannot sit and wait for the right time; social change occurs as a result of an ongoing struggle.

The abolition of sex trafficking is a hot button issue. Several factors have contributed to the increasing notoriety of sex trafficking and other gender inequality issues in American culture. Last year's release of Half the Sky by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn informed many of the realities of being female in the developing world, inspiring grass roots action. In 2009, President Obama appointed Melanne Verveer as Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues. Verveer's appointment marks the first time that the state department has had an ambassador dedicated to the role of women in international affairs and U.S foreign policy. Celebrities like Ashton Kutcher, Demi Moore and Real Housewife of New Jersey Caroline Manzo are using their influence to raise awareness and funds. Far from trivializing the issue, these factors have facilitated sex trafficking's place on the national agenda.

This fall, I will earn my master's at NYU's Center for Global Affairs with a thesis project on human trafficking. A portion of my thesis will include a series of blogs and news stories which I will share with the Huffington Post community. I am aware of the numerous forms of forced illicit migration, but in the interest of time and thoroughness I will focus my project on the forced prostitution of women and girls. Domestic trafficking has been exposed as a problem in the United States, but my concentration is international relations, so my work will largely reflect the United State's role as a destination country.

Sex trafficking is both the cause and consequence of numerous human rights violations; it is essentially modern day slavery. In the United States, its survival is dependent upon the commercial sex industry. At the behest of a very public campaign, Craigslist recently took down the adult services section from its website. It has been reported that many ads soliciting business for traffickers have simply moved else where, to other sections of Craigslist and to their competitor's websites. It should be pointed out that new media is not the only marketing arm for sex traffickers. The back pages of many local publications display ads for escort services and unlicensed massage parlors are likely fronts for sex trafficking. Some publications have argued that these ads are a matter of free speech and that "censorship will not create public safety nor will it rid the world of exploitation." Some may say that the Constitution should not be suspended in an effort to rid the United States of contemporary slavery. But is it too much to ask a media outlet to inquire about a so-called massage parlor's license before running an ad that could result in a 13-year-old girl being trafficked into prostitution?

Like it or not, the conversation on sex trafficking leads back to the debate over legalizing the world's allegedly oldest profession. The relationship between legal and condoned prostitution and sex trafficking is complex. In 2002, the United States officially adopted a foreign policy position opposed to prostitution and other related activities on the basis that prostitution directly contributes to human trafficking. In contrast, Sweden has decriminalized prostitution while criminalizing the purchase of sex and pimping. In essence everything is illegal about prostitution in Sweden except for the prostitutes themselves. Advocates of this model say that Sweden has become a less attractive destination country for traffickers and that trafficking victims and prostitutes can access social services with greater ease.

So what do you think? Will legalizing prostitution help to end sex trafficking or will it exacerbate the problem? I am looking forward to engaging in a dialogue with you over the next several months.

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