If you talk to people who are passionate about combating human trafficking, they will likely tell you they are “abolitionists,” and that this movement is working towards eradicating modern-day slavery. If “abolition” is our ultimate goal then I think it is important for us to define what we mean. What will it take to get us there?
Human traffickers are a diverse lot, yet they commonly share certain tactics such as the use of false promises, lies, deception, threats, coercion, debt bondage, document confiscation, and physical and sexual violence to control victims. Victims of modern-day slavery have been found in homes as domestic servants, on the streets in peddling and begging rings, in small businesses such as nail salons or hair-braiding shops, on farms, in large factories, in strip clubs and go-go bars, in residential brothels, in commercial-front “massage parlors,” and in street prostitution and escort services. In order to achieve abolition, it is important to segment the trafficking “market” and to develop tailored strategies for market suppression that apply to each specific “type” of trafficking.
Take commercially-fronted “massage parlor” brothels, for example. These cagey entities often attempt to disguise the reality that they are fully operating brothels by registering as legitimate health spas in the city where they are based. They give themselves a pleasant-sounding name like Jasmine Therapy and innocently claim to just provide massage. They rely on the common assumption that if they have a business license, they can’t be breaking the law. Victims of severe forms of trafficking in persons have been found within these massage parlors where women are coerced into having sex with “johns.” The women are often not allowed outdoors for weeks at a time.
With an understanding of the massage parlor “industry” it is possible to “abolish” the illegitimate parlors from a given community.
For any given parlor, there’s a whole cast of characters involved: (1) the property owner who owns the land and building, (2) the business owner who usually rents the space from a landlord, (3) the builders and architects who construct the internal up-front design, (4) the transporters who drive the women from parlor to parlor, (5) the person who handles the cash and credit card profits, (6) an attorney who represents the business when criminal charges occur, (7) a “mamasan” who manages the day-to-day functioning of the brothel, (8) a kitchen lady who cooks, cleans, and washes the bed sheets, (9) the johns who provide the customer base and pay for “services,” and (10) the women being bought for commercial sex who may be victims of human trafficking.
Enforcement action against this parlor could be targeted at all ten levels. To “abolish” the parlor, we should talk about how to bring pressure on property owners and landlords, how to identify and target the owners and builders, and how to cripple the network by targeting the transporters or attorneys.
Let’s get smart about abolition and think through each move we make. Let’s work network by network to identify the heart and brain of each type of trafficking, and target those vital organs. Abolition in the form of market-based suppression is something we can achieve.