Trigger warning: Many readers may find the accounts in this article to be graphic and/or disturbing.
In a worldview of slavery, society generally agrees that it is inhumane and degrading, and most people are astonished that there have been times in history where slavery was accepted as normal and acceptable. Somehow, still, many people are accepting of a form of modern-day slavery: human sex trafficking. And while many people claim to be opposed to human sex trafficking, what many don’t know is that the demand for human sex trafficking is fueled by pornography and the porn industry.

Though no one knows its true origins, The Willie Lynch Letter declares itself over three-hundred years old. [1] According to the story, Virginia colonists in 1712, unable to control their slaves, reached out to a slave owner named Willie Lynch for help. “Your invitation reached me on my modest plantation in the West Indies,” he responds, “where I have experimented with some of the newest, and still the oldest, methods for control of slaves.” The letter is essentially a slavery instruction manual—how to “break” slaves, how to organize, brainwash, and set them against one another to make them easier to subject.

Despite questions about its authenticity, [2] the letter has found its way into everything from Hollywood scripts to political speeches, and from college reading lists to Hip-Hop albums. It’s as if the letter takes all of the objectification, dehumanization, and inhumanity in the worldview of slavery and encapsulates them in just a few short pages. “We will use the same basic principle that we use in breaking a horse,” the letter explains. “What we do with horses is that we break them from one form of life to another; that is, we reduce them from their natural state in nature.”

Whether or not the letter is real, it seems noteworthy that when Corey Davis, a New York pimp, was arrested by federal investigators in December of 2006, a copy of The Willie Lynch Letter was sitting in his Mercedes. Other titles on Mr. Davis’ reading list included The 48 Laws of Power and Whoever Said Whoring Wasn’t Easy?

The books weren’t the only things seized. Investigators also took his $91,000 watch, the Timberland boots he used to stomp girls when they didn’t obey (pimps call it “timming”), and of course, the tee shirt Davis was wearing when he was arrested. It said, “The Beatings Will Continue.” [3]

Why would a modern New York pimp be reading a 300-year-old set of instructions for how to break a slave? Considering the degree of intimidation, coercion, brainwashing, and violence that that accompanies sex trafficking today, it makes a lot of sense.

How bad is the problem of modern-day sex trafficking?

Sex trafficking activists occasionally have to defend their use of the word “slavery.” [4] Some people don’t believe the sex trafficking problems we have today rise to a level that would merit such an emotionally charged word. Others feel the word somehow romanticizes the problem. In fact, believe it or not, arguing about the word “slave” is just one small part of the larger debate about sex trafficking, especially in the United States. Some people question whether the problem is really as bad, or as big, or as widespread, as the reports make it sound. [5] Others question the motives of the abolitionists and human rights activists on the front lines of the fight. [6]

Here at Fight the New Drug, we know sex trafficking is a huge global problem and that this modern form of slavery is inherently, inseparably linked to the problem of pornography. Because this is an underground issue numbers are harder to come by, but if anything, the numbers reflecting what is actually happening around the globe are bigger than what has been reported. And isn’t even just one person being trafficked, one too many?

Our goal is to give you the facts, so consider this your one-stop read to learn all the basics about sex trafficking and its relationship to porn. Then you’ll and have the information you need to draw conclusions and join the conversation about how porn fuels sex trafficking.

What is sex trafficking?

The legal definitions get technical, but sex trafficking is a type of human trafficking, and human trafficking is exactly what it sounds like: trafficking in humans. If “trafficking” means buying and selling things, or moving things so they can be used for profit, then “human trafficking” means buying or selling humans, or moving humans so they can be used for profit. It’s the purest form of objectification—the literal commoditization of a person.

Whether you knew it or not, chances are very good that, at some point in your life, you have eaten fruit that was picked by a slave, worn a shirt that was made by a slave, used a device that was partially produced by a slave, or stood in a building that was built by a slave. Estimates of the number of slaves worldwide are between 21 and 32 million. [7] The vast majority of them come from vulnerable populations like immigrants, refugees, the impoverished, and children. They may be forcibly taken or lured away with promises of good jobs, only to find themselves powerless, in a foreign place, with nowhere to turn. Often they owe money to the people—the traffickers—who brought them. Traffickers will hold the debt over their heads, confiscate their immigration papers, threaten them with legal action or deportation, threaten them or their families with violence, and even inflict violence if the victims do not place themselves in servitude. The traffickers are often the only ones around who speak the victims’ language, and the victims find themselves in a foreign land, cut off from home or help. Working in these circumstances, they earn an estimated $150 billion every year for their abusers in all kinds of industries and settings, from factories and farms to hotels and brothels—even in the United States. [8]

Of those millions of global human trafficking victims, a little less than a quarter—about 22 percent—are trafficked for sex acts. (Those 22 percent earn a whopping 66 percent of the global trafficking profits! [9]) That’s what sex trafficking is: the roughly 22 percent of human trafficking wherein the victims are exploited for sexual purposes.

Now, before we go any further, we know what you’re thinking. This is the part where most people start visualizing the Hollywood version of sex trafficking: young boys and girls kidnapped or tricked in some Third World or Eastern European country, kept in chains and forced to perform in black market pornography, or to work as prostitutes in some massage parlor, seedy motel, or other makeshift brothel—or boys and girls from the same backgrounds, smuggled into the United States and abused in similar ways.

And yes, those stories do exist. They’re not just real; they’re closer to home than you imagine. Just read the way one police raid of a quiet little house in a middle-class New Jersey suburb was described in the New York Times:

On a tip, the Plainfield police raided the house in February 2002, expecting to find illegal aliens working an underground brothel. What the police found were four girls between the ages of 14 and 17. They were all Mexican nationals without documentation. But they weren’t prostitutes; they were sex slaves. The distinction is important: these girls weren’t working for profit or a paycheck. They were captives to the traffickers and keepers who controlled their every move. … The police found a squalid, land-based equivalent of a 19th-century slave ship, with rancid, doorless bathrooms; bare, putrid mattresses; and a stash of penicillin, ”morning after” pills and misoprostol, an antiulcer medication that can induce abortion. The girls were pale, exhausted and malnourished. [10]

Those are the types of situations most people envision when they hear the phrase, “human sex trafficking.” And you can see why filmmakers would gravitate to that version. It’s viscerally disturbing. Most people would be shocked just to learn that a scene like that was possible right in the heart of a modern American suburb.

But here’s the thing: if that “Hollywood” version is all you know about sex trafficking, then you’re only seeing one part of a much more complex picture. Many Hollywood depictions, and even many of the examples of sex trafficking in this article, represent situations where women and girls were victims, but it’s important to note that men and boys are also victims of human sex trafficking and part of this bigger, more complex picture. And to understand that picture, you have to understand the TVPA.

What is the TVPA and why is it important?

In the year 2000, in response to reports of international human trafficking, one of the broadest bipartisan coalitions in history came together to pass the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, or TVPA. [11] The landmark legislation identified “severe forms” of human trafficking, imposed harsh criminal penalties for offenders, and provided support systems for the victims. [12]

The TVPA defines sex trafficking as a situation in which “a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age.” [13] It was designed in response to international sex trafficking like the New Jersey example we just described, but it had an interesting result. It ended up shining a light on every form of sex trafficking in the United States. Here’s how one article described the effect:

One positive blowback of the T.V.P.A. was that it brought attention to domestic sex trafficking—pimping—which follows the same models and patterns as its international counterparts. “The logic was: if you get weepy-eyed about a young girl in Cambodia, why not feel the same way about the girl trafficked from Iowa?” [14]

Remember Corey Davis? The pimp with the slavery manual in his Mercedes? His victims weren’t smuggled from other countries. They weren’t held in servitude by complicated immigration situations or kept constantly imprisoned by armed guards. They were Americans. At various times in their ordeals, they were physically free to come and go. Davis kept them in servitude through a combination of fraud, physical violence, and psychological intimidation to the point that they felt they had no choice but to obey. [15] Another pimp who was prosecuted under the TVPA had victims ranging from a twelve-year-old runaway to a university coed on a track scholarship. [16] By identifying the practices that constitute human trafficking, the TVPA brought attention to all instances of trafficking, regardless of where the victims were from.

But there’s more. Look again at the TVPA’s definition of sex trafficking: “a commercial sex act induced by force, fraud, or coercion.” That last word, coercion, is important. It means that a commercial sex act can be sex trafficking, even if no one was physically assaulted, even if no one was tricked or defrauded. All it takes is coercion. The moment a victim is coerced or intimidated into a commercial sex act against his or her will, sex trafficking has occurred.

Once again, this aspect of the TVPA cast new light on all the little forms of pimping and exploitation that might otherwise fly under the radar. An individual bullies their spouse into prostituting themselves. Trafficking. A boyfriend or girlfriend pressures their partner into stripping on a live webcam show and then threatens to show the partner’s family and friends if they don’t do it again. Trafficking. A porn performer shows up on set to discover that the scene is much more degrading than they’d been told, and their agent gets them to go through with it by threatening to cancel their other bookings. Again: trafficking.

And this is where the connections to pornography begin.

How is sex trafficking connected to pornography?

I was in California and I had a blowjob scene. […] I go there and he’s like, “Oh yeah, it’s a forced blowjob,” And I’m like, “What?” Just one guy, one little camera on a tripod. […] I was scared. I was terrified. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know if I could tell him no. Or the fact that we already recorded 15 minutes of it, if I could just f—ing leave. Then what? That’s when I understood that’s how rape victims feel. Like, they feel bad about themselves. [17]

There are all kinds of connections, big and small, between pornography and sex trafficking. There are incidental connections, like the fact that exposure to pornography has been shown to make viewers less compassionate toward victims of sexual violence and exploitation.[18] (See How Consuming Porn Can Lead To Violence.)  There are “supply-and-demand” connections: the simple fact that pornography—especially when viewing habits and fantasies involve violence or other fetishes—increases the demand for sex trafficking, as more and more viewers want to act out what they see. There is the “training manual” connection: the well-documented fact that porn directly informs what goes on in trafficking. Traffickers and sex buyers get ideas from porn, and then make their victims watch as a way of showing them what they’ll be expected to do, so that the violent fantasy concocted by some porn director and his or her actors becomes the reality for some trafficking victim. [19] And then there is the risk factor connection: the fact that, along with poverty and substance abuse, a child growing up in a home where pornography is regularly consumed is far more likely to be trafficked at some point in his or her life. [20]

But what’s the biggest, most surprising connection between pornography and trafficking? It’s this: they’re often the same thing. We can spend hours and hours pointing out these cause-and-effect, symbiotic relationships between trafficking and porn. Those connections are real, and that’s an important conversation to have. But let’s not allow that to entrench the idea that porn and sex trafficking are always separate. Far more often than people realize, they’re not.

How are sex trafficking and porn the same thing?

To begin with, nearly half of sex trafficking victims report that pornography was made of them while they were in bondage. [21] The victim is not going to turn to the camera and announce they are being trafficked, and these images and videos make their way onto mainstream porn sites, where they are indistinguishable. In fact, even if the victim does register their distress, it’s still impossible to know, because rape and abuse-themed porn have now become mainstream. One female survivor, whose captor slept on top of her at night so she wouldn’t escape, watched her through a hole when she went to the bathroom, and listened to her phone calls with a gun pointed at her head, was forced to appear in a video that made the Sinclair Intimacy Institute’s list of “sex positive productions”! [22] “Every time someone watches that film,” she said, “they are watching me being raped.” (See The Porn Industry’s Dark Secrets.)

Two more examples: The July 2007 issue of Taboo, a publication owned by Hustler, featured a multi-page feature of a young woman being held prisoner and severely sexually abused by her captors. They took photos and videos of her and sold them as porn. [23] In another case, a Miami jury convicted two men of luring women to Florida to audition for modeling jobs, drugging them, filming them being raped, and selling the footage as porn online and to stores across the U.S. This went on for five years. [24] How many of those videos, in five years, were viewed by individuals who would never dream of contributing to human trafficking, who assumed they were watching the work of consenting performers?

But “consent” is a slippery word in the world of porn. And of all the ways pornography and sex trafficking overlap, the darkest, most surprising secret of all might be this: even in the production of mainstream porn, sex trafficking is a regular occurrence. Remember, it doesn’t require kidnapping or threats of violence. All it requires is coercion:

“I was threatened that if I did not do the scene I was going to get sued for lots of money.”

“[I] told them to stop but they wouldn’t stop until I started to cry and ruined the scene.”

“He told me that I had to do it and if I can’t, he would charge me and I would lose any other bookings I had because I would make his agency look bad.” [25]

None of those quotes is from someone who was chained in a room. None of them are from victims who were beaten into submission or held at gunpoint in some dingy brothel. Each of those actors drove home at the end of the shoot and collected a paycheck. But does it sound like consent? Or does it sound like coercion? (See The Porn Industry’s Dark Secrets.)

This aspect of the porn world is so common, you don’t even have to go to anti-pornography websites, or talk to ex-porn performers, to hear about it. Current porn performers tell the same stories. It speaks volumes about the culture and expectations of the porn industry that often, when you hear these same complaints from people still inside the business, they frame them in terms of an “unprofessional” agent, director, or actor. As a legal matter, under the TVPA, these aren’t just people being bad at their jobs; these are potential sex trafficking crimes, punishable by up to twenty years in prison. In fact, according to the United Nations definition of human trafficking, it doesn’t even matter whether the victim said no: “the consent of the trafficked person becomes irrelevant whenever any of the ‘means’ of trafficking [coercion, fraud, threat of force, etc.] are used.” [26]

Conclusion

Is sex trafficking modern-day slavery?

We’ve seen that the term “sex trafficking,” as a legal matter, can apply to all kinds of situations, from the dungeon-like conditions of a black market brothel to the simple coercion and intimidation that can take place on the set of a modern porn shoot. With such a broad range of offenses, it’s understandable if it seems heavy-handed stamping the word “slavery” across the whole thing. Even in the ugliest examples, the abusers don’t “own” their victims. Governments don’t sanction the behavior. One could reasonably ask: Why even make the comparison?

But then again, why does a modern-day pimp have a slavery manual sitting on the back seat of his car?

Survivor’s advocate, Minh Dang, makes an interesting point. Sometimes we have a tendency to define human trafficking only in the legal terms of what the perpetrator does, instead of what the victim experiences: “If we compare slavery and human trafficking, we need to be clear about whether we are talking about slavery as an institution, slavery as an economic activity, or slavery as the condition of the person being enslaved.”

She continues, “Not everything is slavery, and that’s okay. […] This doesn’t mean that the activities just outside of slavery aren’t as horrendous.” [27]

So what is slavery and what is merely horrendous? How long does a person have to exploit the body of another human being before it qualifies as slavery? A decade? A year? An hour? How awful do the victims’ experiences have to be?

In the old days of the unimaginable Atlantic Slave Trade, slave traders used to scatter trinkets and bright red scraps of fabric along the beaches of West Africa and right up the ramps of their ships. Their victims walked up the ramps and into slavery, lured by luxuries and shiny charms beyond anything they had ever seen. [28]

What are the lures today?

“Come to Florida to start your modeling career!”

“Come to America for a better life!”

“I’ll make you a star!”

Sex trafficking is the experience of being lured away from safety and into a situation where a person can be dominated and exploited by another human being. The victimization may last years, it may last minutes, but that common thread remains the same.

Long before the American Civil War, millions of Americans had come to the realization that slavery was evil. They condemned it. They preached sermons about it. They published abolitionist books, pamphlets, and tracts. They rescued slaves. They went to Congress. So why did the problem persist for decades?

Because all while they were condemning, preaching, and publishing about the evils of slavery, they were also wearing the cotton shirts it produced.

Modern sex trafficking shares a variety of symbiotic connections to pornography. Often they’re one and the same. You can hate a thing. You can be outraged by it. But if you continue to sustain and engage with the industry that helps give it life, what is your outrage worth? Make it count, be a voice against modern-day slavery. Be a voice against sexual exploitation and stop the demand for sex trafficking through pornography.

Citations
[1] Willie Lynch letter: The Making of a Slave. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.finalcall.com/artman/publish/Perspectives_1/Willie_Lynch_letter_The_Making_of_a_Slave.shtml
[2] Ampim, M. (2014, May 1. ) Death Of The Willie Lynch Speech. Retrieved from http://www.lb7.uscourts.gov/documents/13-28441.pdf;
Willie Lynch is Dead (1712?-2003). (n.d.). Retrieved from http://web.archive.org/web/20031003153215/http://www.africana.com/articles/daily/ht20030929lynch.asp
[3] Cowan, A. L. (1216397989). What a Pimp Reads. Retrieved from https://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/07/18/what-a-pimp-reads/
[4] Talking about Trafficking: Should we use the words slave and slavery? | Human Trafficking Center (n.d.). Retrieved from http://humantraffickingcenter.org/talking-trafficking-using-words-slave-slavery/
[5] Human Trafficking Evokes Outrage, Little Evidence. (2007, September 23). Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/09/22/AR2007092201401.html
[6] Graham, R. (2015, March 5). How Sex Trafficking Became a Christian Cause Célèbre. Slate. Retrieved from http://www.slate.com/articles/double_x/faithbased/2015/03/christians_and_sex_trafficking_how_evangelicals_made_it_a_cause_celebre.html
[7] Facts About Modern-Day Slavery | Anka Rising. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.ankarising.org/slavery/facts-about-modern-day-slavery/
[8] The Facts. (2015, October 12). Retrieved from https://polarisproject.org/facts
[9] International Labour Organization. (2014). Profits And Poverty: The Economics of Forced Labour. Retrieved from http://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—ed_norm/—declaration/documents/publication/wcms_243391.pdf
[10] The Girls Next Door – The New York Times. (2004, Jan 25). Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2004/01/25/magazine/the-girls-next-door.html
[11] Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) of 2000, Pub. L. No. 106–386, Section 102(a), 114 Stat. 1464.
[12] Trafficking Victims Protection Act. (2009, November 29). Retrieved from https://fightslaverynow.org/why-fight-there-are-27-million-reasons/the-law-and-trafficking/trafficking-victims-protection-act/trafficking-victims-protection-act/
[13] Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) of 2000, Pub. L. No. 106–386, Section 102(a), 114 Stat. 1464.
[14] Collins, Amy. (2011). Sex Trafficking of Americans: The Girls Next Door. Vanity Fair. Retrieved from http://www.vanityfair.com/news/2011/05/sex-trafficking-201105
[15] United States Department of Justice. (2008, May 14). Leader of New York-Connecticut Sex-Trafficking Ring Pleads Guilty. Retrieved from https://www.justice.gov/archive/opa/pr/2008/March/08_crt_208.html
[16] Collins, Amy. (2011). Sex Trafficking of Americans: The Girls Next Door. Vanity Fair. Retrieved from http://www.vanityfair.com/news/2011/05/sex-trafficking-201105
[17] Hot Girls Wanted. Netflix
[18] Zillmann and Bryant, “Effects of Massive Exposure to Pornography” in Pornography and Sexual Aggression, Eds. Neil M. Malamuth and Edward Donerstein (New York: Academic Press, 1984 and J. V. P. Check and T. H. Guloien, “The Effects of Repeated Exposure to Sexually Violent Pornography, Nonviolent Dehumanizing Pornography, and Erotica,” in Pornography: Recent Research, Interpretations, and Policy Considerations, Eds. D. Zillmann and J. Bryant (Hillsdale, N.J.: Erlbaum, 1989)
[19] Dr. Karen Countryman-Roswurm, LMSW, Ph.D. Interview || Truth About Porn [Video file]. (2016, December 28). Retrieved from https://vimeo.com/190317258
[20] Countryman-Roswurm, Karen (2017). Primed for Perpetration: Porn And The Perpetuation Of Sex Trafficking. Guest blog for FTND, retrieved from http://fightthenewdrug.org/fighting-sex-trafficking-absolutely-includes-fighting-pornography/
[21] Thorn, “A Report on the Use of Technology to Recruit, Groom, And Sell Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking Victim (2015). Retrieved from https://www.wearethorn.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/Survivor_Survey_r5.pdf
[22] Catharine A. MacKinnon, Are Women Human? (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007
[23] U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Missouri, “Victim Tortured as Slave, Forced into Sex Trafficking and Forced Labor,” press release, March 30, 2011.
[24] U.S. Department of Justice, “Two Men Sentenced to Multiple Life Sentences for Enticing Women to South Florida to Engage in Commercial Sex Acts and Distributing Date Rape Pills,” press release, February 17, 2012.
[25] Hughes, D. (2010). “Sex Trafficking of Women for the Production of Pornography,” Citizens Against Trafficking.
[26] FAQs. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/human-trafficking/faqs.html#What_if_a_trafficked_person_consents
[27] Language Matters: Defining Human Trafficking and Slavery – End Slavery Now. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://endslaverynow.org/blog/articles/language-matters-defining-human-trafficking-and-slavery/
[28] National Humanities Center. (n.d.) Capture in West Africa, Accounts From the Narratives of Former Slaves, WPA Narratives, 1936-1938. Retrieved from http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/pds/maai/freedom/text6/capturenarratives.pdf

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