The ‘Racialization’ of Sex Trafficking in America

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Anti trafficking rally, Texas, 2019. Photo by Jenan Taha via Flickr

Human trafficking crimes are covered extensively in the news, featured in movies, and legislated on―almost always―with unanimous bipartisan support to combat the scourge.

However, most Americans don’t realize this topic has been secondarily exploited by various actors for over a century.

The concept of sex trafficking was first introduced to the world in July 1885. The Pall Mall Gazette published a four-part exposé written by W.T. Stead entitled “The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon,” which detailed the trafficking of children in the commercial sex industry in London.

The article gained international media attention and resulted in legislative change around the world. For example, the United States began by legislating change to laws regarding age of consent, followed by passing the Mann Act, also known as the White-Slave Traffic Act of 1910.

At that time, sex trafficking was referred to as “White Slavery” and as the term connotes, the legal application was racialized. American efforts to combat trafficking were initially used to support segregation practices and anti-miscegenation laws.

For example, one of the earliest notable sex trafficking prosecutions was of heavyweight champion African-American boxer Jack Johnson. The charges against Johnson were levied because he married a white woman and allegedly distributed pro-miscegenation material such as “Love Knows No Race” and “My Affair with a Golden Brown Man.”

While Johnson was granted a posthumous pardon by President Trump in 2018, he died with the stigma of being a convicted “sex trafficker.” And there were many more men erroneously criminalized for the color of their skin just like him, under the guise of combating sex trafficking.

For example, stories of “Japanese White-Slavers” were used to support internment camps during World War II and articles of “White Slaves in Black Harlem” were distributed to promote segregation. “Anti-trafficking advocates” also argued against the civil rights movement, the women’s liberation movement, and even dance halls.

Historically, sex trafficking has been “secondarily exploited” or reframed and repackaged for consumption by opportunistic actors.

That continues to this day.

While many Americans view anti-trafficking reform as an altruistic endeavor to combat modern slavery, the reality is most interventions aren’t effective and some are secondarily exploitative―which arguably further stigmatizes and marginalizes already vulnerable victims and survivors.

Stories of white human trafficking targets or victims continue to be given more credibility than women and children-of-color who are at risk. Victims of trafficking are often compelled to publicly share intimate details of their trauma before receiving adequate services or therapy in order to facilitate lawsuits against unwitting third parties, for training videos, and to solicit donations.

After which, these survivors can still find themselves denied services, erroneously criminalized, homeless, revictimized, and/or deported, and struggling to thrive post-rescue.

Due to the clandestine nature of the crime, victims of trafficking are misidentified by the U.S. criminal justice at such a high rate that many states have passed vacatur statutes to provide post-conviction relief for erroneously identified victims.

Red flags of trafficking are often subtle and can easily lead to false positives (rate of specificity) and false negatives (rate of sensitivity). For example, the “red flag” of a child traveling with an adult who doesn’t look related has resulted in a disproportionate number of mixed-race families being questioned under suspicion of trafficking.

Some of these families ended up suing, alleging discrimination.

Other businesses in the travel industry are trained that human trafficking “red flags” include not speaking English well, having sex toys, condoms and lube, asking for extra towels and sheets and not wanting housekeeping in your room.

All of these “red flags” are legal and not necessarily indicative of any illicit activity, much less trafficking. Not only is there no empirical evidence to support their efficacy in identifying trafficking, but the ability to even look for these “red flags” is further inhibited by restricted contact during the pandemic and potentially thereafter.

In response to the issues with “red flag” based identification, some industries are shifting to more situational-based training, but even that may present some issues with misidentification.


Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco

The reality is that human trafficking is notoriously difficult to identify and has historically been riddled with ineffective and secondarily exploitive efforts to combat it. Moreover, evidence-based anti-trafficking interventions are still in the process of being developed.

As such, it is important for anti-trafficking advocates to use discretion in what interventions to support, because some may be causing more harm than good.

Those truly committed to combating modern slavery should support continued research, education, and collaboration across industries, while rebuking all forms of secondary exploitation.

Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco, Ph.D., serves as a human trafficking expert witness in criminal and civil court. Her first book Hidden in Plain Sight: America’s Slaves of the New Millennium is used to train law enforcement on human trafficking investigations. 

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