Let's Call 'Sex Tourism' What It Really Is: Slavery

Editor's note: The following is an excerpt from Rumors of Our Progress Have Been Greatly Exaggerated: Why Women's Lives Aren't Getting Any Easier and How We Can Make Real Progress for Ourselves and Our Daughters by Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney. Published with permission of Rodale Inc.

I began to learn about the truly evil world of sexual slavery in 1999, when the human rights organization Equality Now contacted me about Big Apple Oriental Tours, a travel company based in my district. The name sounds innocuous enough, but this was not your typical tour company. Its clients didn't turn to it for its expertise on restaurants or cultural landmarks. Big Apple's clients were interested in just one attraction: women. And they all could have gone by the same euphemistic name: John.

Big Apple was a "sex tourism" business. It arranged tours of seedy nightclubs in Thailand and the Philippines. These nightclubs were thinly veiled brothels, of course. Big Apple even advertised access to virgins. An Associated Press reporter who viewed one of Big Apple's "promotional videos" reported that it contained a clip of a Filipina woman identifying herself as "17 years young."

From the moment I learned about Big Apple, I wanted to put them out of business.

But in 2000, a gap in the law prompted the Queens District Attorney and U.S. Attorney General to decide against pursuing an indictment against the men who ran Big Apple -- Norman Barabash and Douglas Allen. Based on the laws at that time, there was insufficient evidence to prove that Big Apple's customers traveled "with intent" to have sex with minors -- the threshold for criminal conduct.2

Barabash was so bold that he sent me a letter and brazenly posted it on his Web site. Here's an excerpt.
... have you now exposed your true political affiliation to be the champion of lesbian extremists ... that believe that marriage is sexual servitude and bondage? A school of thought that says all men are rapists, wife beaters and child molesters? A school of thought that has nothing more positive to say about men than that they are the source of all evil in the world? A school of thought that believes it is more important for women to be domineering rulers of society than to be conscientious mothers and wives? A school of thought that is actively working to change the world to a matriarchal dictatorship run by a few rich nags?
I guess he didn't appreciate my interest in his work.

Despite Barabash's swagger, we -- myself, Equality Now, Gloria Steinem, and other committed elected officials -- continued to pursue Barabash and Allen. In 2003, New York's then-attorney general Eliot Spitzer won a temporary restraining order, effectively crippling Big Apple's ability to do business. In early 2004, Barabash and Allen were indicted under New York State law -- the first criminal action of its kind against a sex tourism company. Though the case was dismissed on technical grounds in 2004, Barabash and Allen were reindicted in 2005.

Charges were dismissed in 2006, underscoring the need for stronger laws. But the process sent a strong message to sex tourism companies across the nation that their actions will be scrutinized and that it might be best to close up shop.

Learning about sex tourism gave me a window onto a broader world that extends into the darkest reaches of the human soul and takes its victims to the outer limits of human suffering -- sex trafficking, a legal term that is really just a euphemism for sexual slavery.

More people in the world may be enslaved today than there were in the 19th century (some estimates run as high as 27 million). The largest categories of extant slavery, sex slavery and domestic servitude slavery, overwhelmingly affect women and girls. Sex tourism is a significant driver of sex slavery, the third-largest and fastest-growing source of revenue for organized crime -- a vicious criminal industry that President Bush rightly calls "a special evil."

Nuch was working as a maid in Bangkok when a trafficker promising her a lucrative job in a Thai restaurant lured her to Tokyo. The young woman, who had only a fourth-grade education, was told that she would merely have to pay off a small debt for expenses when she got to Tokyo. But once in Japan, she was robbed of her passport, fed birth control pills, and coerced into working as a prostitute at two late-night snack bars. She had to sexually service several often drunk and dirty customers a night. And she was stuck: The more money she made, the more her captors increased her "debt."

Nuch was warned to hide the fact that she came from Thailand, because Japanese men feared Thai women had AIDS. One night, Nuch slipped and told a client where she came from. When her client left, her captors beat her. "If you tell another person you are Thai again, you will have a name, but no body," they threatened. After many months, the police swept in and arrested everyone, including Nuch. She served several months in solitary confinement before Japanese authorities sent her home to Thailand.

Then the worst news came: She tested positive for HIV. It might have surprised her Japanese johns to discover that it was they, not she, who were the real risks.

Since 2000, when I was dismayed to learn how hard it would be to shut down Big Apple Oriental Tours, some improvements have been made on behalf of women like Nuch. Congress passed and President Bush signed laws that help prevent human trafficking overseas by holding countries accountable for making progress in fighting it, support trafficking victims in the United States, and impose severe penalties on traffickers both here and abroad. Today, sex traffickers who exploit children under the age of 14 by using force, fraud, or coercion can be imprisoned for life in the United States. Thanks to a provision in the PROTECT (Prosecutorial Remedies and Other Tools to End the Exploitation of Children Today) Act, a bill I supported when it passed Congress in 2003, any American who has sex with a minor in a foreign country can go to jail in the United States for 30 years -- billboards greeting visitors in Phnom Penh and Bangkok read "Abuse a child in this country, go to jail in yours."

Provisions of a comprehensive human trafficking bill signed into law in 2005 expanded victim assistance, broadened U.S. courts' jurisdiction to cover additional trafficking offenses committed by Americans abroad, authorized prosecutors to go after traffickers on money laundering and racketeering charges, and began to address the demand side of the equation in the United States, as we had so aggressively done overseas.

When we were working to pass it, Representative Deborah Pryce (R-OH), the highest-ranking woman in the House at the time, recruited me to be the lead Democrat on the demand-side provisions. The End Demand for Sex Trafficking Act, which contained those provisions, was folded into a broader antitrafficking bill that became law. As Deborah said on the House floor, "There is no politics in the sex trade. And when this body is constantly portrayed as bitterly partisan, it is a joy to provide one more example that this is not the case."

The best definition of evil I've ever heard is that it is simply the absence of empathy. The trafficking of girls and women -- robbing them of every shred of dignity, which is every human's birthright, strictly to make a profit -- is evil in the extreme.

Of the estimated 27 million people held in slavery around the world today:

  • 80 percent are female
  • As many as 50 percent are minors
  • 800,000 people are trafficked across international borders each year
  • 14,500 to 17,500 are trafficked into the United States

Excerpted from Rumors of Our Progress Have Been Greatly Exaggerated: Why Women's Lives Aren't Getting Any Easier and How We Can Make Real Progress for Ourselves and Our Daughters.

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