Thursday, September 24, 2009

Seeking Moral Clarity in the Fight Against Sex Trafficking -- Sightings

Today's edition of Sightings raises the issue of pragmatism and moral discernment in dealing with issues where there is the possibility of common cause, but differences on approach. The question here is ending sex trafficking, that is the enslavement of people, both female and male, and often children, for the purposes of the sex trade. The question is whether opposition to prostitution is a requirement for partnership. The US position is that no moneys be given to groups that don't oppose prostitution, but many European nations have considered regulating/legalizing prostitution. So, what should we do? What approach is the moral one?

Barbara Barnett addresses these questions. I invite you to read and respond to her offering. You may have to decide which is the greater issue for you -- slavery and exploitation or prostitution.


Sightings 9/24/09

Seeking Moral Clarity in the Fight Against Sex Trafficking

-- Barbra Barnett

Last week Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave a speech to kick off a conference on the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe, in which she addressed the urgent need to combat sexual slavery, forced labor, and other forms of exploitation by cracking down on human traffickers. Combating human trafficking is an integral facet of Clinton’s overall foreign policy agenda. She has expressed that human trafficking represents a profound moral crisis that must not be sidelined or ignored.

While persons are trafficked and coerced into diverse forms of forced labor, the largest segment involves individuals, mostly women and young girls, who are trafficked for purposes of sexual exploitation. A broad array of interest groups, from liberal secular feminists to conservative evangelical Christians, worked together to enact the 2000 Victims of Violence and Trafficking Protection Act, which established the State Department Office on Human Trafficking. The ability of such a motley crew to collaborate may inspire optimism. Reverend Jim Wallis views the urgent need to stop human trafficking as an issue on which both liberal and conservative Christians can potentially agree: “When I talk and write about finding common ground and shaking off the old categories of left and right, liberal and conservative, this is what I am talking about. Conservative Christians have sounded the alarm about our culture's sexual depravity tearing at the fabric of our society. This is one of those issues. Liberal Christians have decried male dominated public policy that results in oppressive and abusive structures for women and just plain bad policy. This is one of those issues.” However, while all parties may agree on the evil of forced sexual exploitation, the relationship between human trafficking and the commercial sex industry has made such a moral consensus unstable.

Cracks in the coalition include contention over the provision of the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2003 that restricts anti-trafficking funds only to those groups that express opposition to prostitution. While there are secular and religious organizations that see eradicating prostitution as a necessary component of combating human trafficking, some secular anti-trafficking activists argue that defunding humanitarian organizations that do not explicitly call for the abolition of prostitution hampers both efforts to help trafficking victims, and HIV/AIDS prevention activities. In February 2007, a District of Columbia appellate court upheld the provision as applied to an organization seeking USAID funding for its efforts to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS. The government had decided that the effective means for countering the spread of HIV/AIDS include speaking out against legalizing prostitution and fostering behavioral change. The court ruled therefore that the funding restriction is not a violation of the First Amendment rights of groups requesting funds. The government is entitled to take steps to ensure that its message is not distorted, especially on matters with foreign policy implications. In the court’s view, the government was not compelling the organization to share the government's position; it only required that if the organization wanted to receive grant funds, it had to communicate the message the government chose to fund.

The endeavor to combat human trafficking (like efforts to combat HIV/AIDS) is tied up in moral debates about human sexuality and the sinful nature of prostitution, and pragmatic debates about the most effective solution. These pragmatic debates may invoke questions about whether the best approach to combating sex trafficking involves cracking down on the commercial sex trade, legalizing and regulating sex work, or decriminalizing prostitution by enforcing anti-prostitution laws against traffickers and purchasers of commercial sex rather than the purveyors of sex themselves. Pragmatic considerations also involve questions about which types of organizations ought to receive federal funding for their efforts. For example, who is best situated to address the conditions of trafficking victims: the labor-rights-focused International Union of Sex Workers or the faith-based International Justice Mission?

The State Department position is that the demand for commercial sex is a leading cause of human trafficking and that prostitution should not be legalized or regarded as a legitimate choice of work for any human being. However, it is unclear at this point how Secretary Clinton’s recent remarks will be received by those European nations that favor legal or government-regulated prostitution as a more effective model for building international consensus and combating exploitation and abuse. In Europe today, countries such as Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, France, and Italy are experimenting with legal regulation of prostitution. Any attempted rapprochement with these nations on this issue may either raise the ire of states and groups who seek to address exploitation, abuse, and the spread of AIDS without condemning sex workers, or invite moralistic outrage from those who are fearful that working with nations in which prostitution is legal not only amounts to a foreign policy that effectively promotes prostitution abroad, but is at cross-purposes with the aim, often religiously framed, of combating sexual depravity.


Jim Wallis’ comments, from January 27, 2009, can be found at

Jennifer Block, “Sex Trafficking: Why the Faith Trade is Interested in the Sex Trade,” Conscience, Summer/Autumn 2004.

Dkt Int’l, Inc. v. USAID, 477 F.3d 758 (D.C. Cir., February 27, 2007).

“Trafficking in Persons: U.S. Policy and Issues for Congress,” Congressional Research Service, July 2, 2009: citing U.S. Department of State 2008 TIP Report.

Barbra Barnett has a PhD in Ethics from the University of Chicago Divinity School and teaches at Elmhurst College.


This month in the Marty Center's Religion and Culture Web Forum, Marlene Tromp examines the ways in which narratives of communion and "the flesh," which she engages through feminist food studies and traces especially through a discussion of nineteenth-century Spiritualist mediumship, contribute to a better understanding of gender roles (and their disruption) in Victorian Spirtualism. Formal responses by Gail Turley Houston (University of New Mexico) and Daniel Sack (University of Chicago) are forthcoming.

Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.


Anonymous said...

Hmm, how did Jesus treat prostitutes?

I haven't dealt personally with this, ever, but I fear we'll end up hiring Backwater (er, Xe? they're called now?) to bust the poor ladies’, and guys’ chops. They’d be often worse than the pimps.

I say; if we're a pluralistic society, stop trying to legalize victimless crime. The very fact that it's illegal has made the "servicers" victims. This is age old, and legal in olden times. It’s similar to the immoral drug laws and attitudes. I’m tired of all the self-righteous judging and looking down on persons. We should realize most are in their position due to horrendous circumstances. A helping hand, an offer of refuge, medical care and disease prevention and a true effort at understanding if they desire? Yes, I’d agree those are worthwhile. We do not need another freaking WAR! David Mc

Anonymous said...

"I haven't dealt personally with this, ever,"

Oh, boy. Do I have to retract that statement. I actually did have pretty extensive experience.
It’s funny how it didn’t come back to me till a bit ago. I was a bartender at a Hilton for 8 years ending about 25 years ago. I usually didn’t harass the prostitutes if they were discrete. I did kick a couple out who were called in by some residents once because they were discussing “acts and prices” right in front of me. I did get offered a $50 tip or ½ hr in a room one New Year’s night. She liked me I think. I took the cash.

The scariest time was the night this big gruff older man, who had been drinking heavily and partying with an obvious pair of “working ladies” were sitting at my bar one busy night (in the disco era). I saw the butt of a gun sticking out of his pants and asked him about it. He was extremely bold and loud and showed me a permit and that I should mind my business. Later, he was dancing with his young ladies when his gun..fell out on the crowded dance floor! I had frightened customers demanding that I act. I called the Troy police and within 5 minutes at least 6 of them popped in and surrounded the man with pointed pistols of their own. I turns out the man was a Detroit vice cop. I knew he was a crook. They all ended up laughing and trading war stories. The guy stuck around a couple more hours after the police left, acting bolder than ever. I was sure glad he didn’t know it was I who called the cops. Besides that, and seeing them on the street and TV, nothing much. David Mc

Anonymous said...

Oh, I just saw this story. I do think they should clean up the biblically inspired foot-washing events. That's just odd-