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Student Blog Series: Commercial Sexual Exploitation-Does Calling It Modern Slavery Help or Hurt?

Posted: May 24, 2017

Words are important. As a former aspiring journalist, I believe that how we talk about issues often dictates how we address them. It is easier to drum up support for reentering citizens than convicted felons, for at-risk youth than juvenile delinquents, for undocumented workers than illegal aliens. It’s no secret that we feel more empathy toward the survivor of sexual exploitation than the former prostitute. In these examples the distinction is clear: the former define in more neutral terms what the latter define as negative and blameworthy. But what about commercial sexual exploitation and modern slavery–is it possible that the latter, while clearly meant to convey the gravity of an important issue, could in fact be harmful in the fight to end commercial sexual exploitation?  It’s a difficult question and one I struggle with as I continue to learn more about commercial sexual exploitation.

A Google search of modern slavery brings up the websites of several reputable organizations, including the World Economic Forum and the Polaris Project.  The United States Department of State writes, “‘Modern slavery,’ ‘trafficking in persons,’ and ‘human trafficking’ have been used as umbrella terms for the act of recruiting, enticing, soliciting, harboring, transporting, providing, obtaining, advertising, maintaining, or patronizing a person for compelled labor or commercial sex acts through the use of force, fraud, or coercion.” I worry, however, that the weighty term of modern slavery was too thoughtlessly included amongst more descriptive ones. It makes intuitive sense to call commercial sexual exploitation and forced labor human trafficking. Both involve the trafficking, or sale, of human commodities. However, the connection of these egregious acts to a term like modern slavery seems, to me, far more tenuous.

Perhaps an oversimplification, but in my mind the word slavery evokes images of violent kidnapping and chains. Such images are far from reality for the majority of those lured into commercial sexual exploitation and forced labor. Nobody was ever charmed into slavery. Yet every day girls and boys, women and men, are duped by people they trust. Potential boyfriends become violent pimps. Those promising salvation across the border become owners who can never be repaid. It’s a vicious cycle, but one conspicuously lacking in physical force – at least initially.  By calling commercial sexual exploitation in particular modern slavery we risk sensationalizing its more mundane, everyday realities. We deem certain victims – those who fit our more radical notions – more worthy of support, while those who may have initially “chosen” to engage with their abuser seem less so.

Commercial sexual exploitation is an egregious human rights abuse, one that has become even more so with the advent of new technologies. In my view, we do not need to call it modern slavery to convey its gravity. Doing so may inadvertently dull the edges of what makes the commercial sexual exploitation of today so horrendous: that usually no chains are required. Young people are duped by those they love and trust into being sold as commodities day in and day out. Little could be worse than that, no sensationalizing required.




Paige Pihl Buckley is currently a first-year law student at Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law.  Paige is from Framingham, Massachusetts and received a Bachelor of Science in Print Journalism and African Studies from Boston University.  After graduation, Paige hopes to become an advocate for juvenile justice or police reform. 




All views expressed herein are personal to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law or of Villanova University.

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