September 30, 2011
Sex Trafficking at the 7-Eleven
A couple of years ago, a friend of mine wrote a novel about sex trafficking that was set in the southern United States. I remember reading the rough draft and struggling to digest the idea of sexual slavery in America. In fact, I thought it might be a bit of a stretch.
Global sex trafficking . . . now that's a more likely story. Villages with dirt roads, one-room shanties with tin roofs, girls who have been orphaned by HIV/AIDS, corrupted government officials with black-stained teeth who slip foreign money between the robes of their donkeys--seemingly more compatible images with terms as atrocious as "human trafficking" and "modern-day slavery."
It's funny how comfortably we think of America as a "global super power" yet how troublesome it is to think of it as a "participant in global sex trafficking." But there's no getting around it.
Between 2001 and 2005 there were an estimated 100,000 to 150,000 sex slaves in the United States (according to the Department of Justice)--a significant percentage of the nearly two million children exploited in the global commercial sex trade each year (UNICEF).
Sadly, the global sex trade, a 32 billion dollar a year industry, is thriving in the same country that officially ended slavery almost 150 years ago. In a Huffington Post article, Dan Rather diagnosed this pervasive inability to imagine sexual slavery in the United States with one word: denial.
It's a hard concept to get our minds wrapped around.
Last week I was at the Religious Newswriters' Association conference--a gathering of journalists who were some of the most culturally aware folks I'd ever been around--when a gentleman from a national research firm asked me what I was working on. I gave him my elevator pitch for our recently released book God in a Brothel by Daniel Walker: "It's the story of an undercover investigator who spent four years rescuing victims of sex trafficking all over the world," I said. Then I added, "including within the United States."
"Huh. In the United States?" he said, nodding. Then, after a slightly awkward pause. "Really? The U.S.? Is that right? Huh."
And so I told him about the image I can't get out of my head, the one from the book where Daniel poses as an interested customer, gets picked up by a Lexus-driving pimp at a 7-Eleven and is escorted only a few blocks to a modern single-story home where he purchases a young Asian girl. I told him I think about it every time I pass my local 7-Eleven, the one that sits just a few blocks from my house, where hundreds of meaningless and impulsive transactions take place every day.
Then I told him about the recent Chicago Sun Times article following an eighteen-month investigation that led to a major bust right here in Chicago. The girls who were rescued weren't from Central America or Southeast Asia; they were from Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana, in some cases trafficked from the city bus stop or their local grocery store.
Even with organizations like International Justice Mission and The Polaris Project increasing their platforms, with campaigns like End Slavery Now and Stop Human Trafficking gaining momentum, with stories of arrests and rescues in major cities splashed across the news, and, yes, even with celebrities like Demi and Ashton getting involved, conversations like the one above and the ones inside my own head, remind me that we still have a long way to go. Fortunately, one of the privileges of working in publishing is that we get to nudge people just a little further down the road.
This fall (October 20-November 10) Daniel Walker will be traveling to the United States from New Zealand where he serves on the local police force. He'll be speaking at churches and college campuses from San Francisco to Washington, D.C., in partnership with Compassion International and Hagar International to raise awareness about the global sex trade.
If you're close, stop by. If not, share this post. Or pick up a copy of the book and continue to learn. And when you tell your friend or your colleague or your pastor or your aunt what you're reading and they say, "Sex trafficking? In this country? Really?" Tell them that America is as global as they come.