The Magazine

Humanitarian Sexploitation

The world's sex slaves need liberation, not condoms.

Feb 24, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 23 • By DONNA M. HUGHES
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

EACH YEAR, hundreds of thousands of women and children are trafficked into prostitution around the world, and join the millions of women and children already entrapped in prostitution by pimps and organized crime groups. Thankfully, this humanitarian catastrophe is finally attracting high-level attention in Washington.

At the end of 2002, former congressman John Miller--who is determined to defeat the traffickers--was appointed as director of the State Department's Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons. Later this month, the State Department, in partnership with the nongovernmental War Against Trafficking Alliance, will host an international conference, "Pathbreaking Strategies in the Global Fight Against Sex Trafficking." It will be an opportunity for hundreds of activists, service providers, law enforcement personnel, and governmental officials to meet and share their experiences fighting trafficking.

U.S. leadership in this fight is needed because many of the world's humanitarian organizations have been willing to overlook and excuse the trade in women and children. The reason is as simple as it is tragic: The sex slaves are a high-risk group for HIV infection. Unfortunately, efforts to curb the global HIV/AIDS crisis have led to "nonjudgmental" condom distribution campaigns that ignore some of the world's worst crimes and human rights violations. Indeed, the HIV/AIDS prevention educators often make deals with perpetrators.

For instance, in Kerala State in India, where organized crime groups and corrupt political officials control the red light districts, a former police commissioner tells me that social workers must get permission from the pimps to give condoms to the women. In return, the social workers agree to ignore the presence of children and never to tell the women how to get out of prostitution. It should be obvious that if health educators can't gain access to women and children in brothels without making deals with pimps, the women and children are not free to leave, and are, in the truest sense of the word, enslaved.

Imagine what it's like: You're in a hellhole. You've been tricked, lied to, threatened. You're being raped multiple times a day--you can't say "no," and you can't get out. Then, one day, someone from the outside comes; she says she's there to help. She hands you some condoms, tells you to use them, and leaves--smiling and thanking the pimp as she goes.

Such dealings with some of the world's most despicable criminals now increasingly take place as a matter of policy, both by governmental and nongovernmental aid workers. An astonishingly named "practical guide," Hustling for Health, a pamphlet produced by the European Network for HIV/STD Prevention in Prostitution and funded by the European Commission, offers the following advice to health educators: "Contact with a prostitute may only be possible through her pimp, and so [it] is advisable to establish (friendly) relations."

The attitude that condoms are more important than girls' freedom and safety can be found in the pages of the New York Times. In a recent editorial on funding international reproductive health services, the writer acknowledged that "teenage girls get AIDS largely because they are pressured into sex by older men," but insisted that girls need "condoms and counseling about how to negotiate sex." Being pressured into sex by an older man is rape. Girls should be taught to negotiate with rapists?

In January, the Mexican paper El Universal published a three-part series on the trafficking of Mexican girls to brothels--rape camps, really--near San Diego. Over a 10-year period, hundreds of girls, 12 to 18 years old, from southern Mexico were either kidnapped or tricked by three brothers into coming to the United States. The girls were sold to farm workers--between 100 and 300 at a time--in small "caves" made of reeds in the fields. Many of the girls had babies, who were used as hostages with death threats against them, so their mothers would not try to escape.

An anonymous American doctor who worked for a community health clinic that provided health care to migrant workers said, "The first time I went to the camps I didn't vomit only because I had nothing in my stomach. It was truly grotesque and unimaginable." Over time, the girls got younger; a number were 9 and 10 years old. One time, the doctor counted 35 men using a girl in one hour. When the police raided the brothels, they found dozens of empty boxes of condoms, each box having held a thousand condoms. Calculate how many rapes that represents.