International Issues

Human Trafficking And Sex Slavery

An International Issue that Transcends History

By Erick Rodriguez

If you’ve ever been to the ruins of Pompeii in Italy, a historical site on the United Nations World Heritage list, you would find the remains of Lupanar, a brothel with erotic depictions of the services that were provided in a way that is unusually reminiscent of the menu at your local fast-food restaurant.

During the relevant time period, which would be in the earliest decades of the first millennia, sailors and soldiers would often frequent the brothels of the ports they arrived in after long sea voyages. These premises were typically staffed by slaves of Oriental or Greek origin with no real alternatives for work. Due to a common language barrier, visitors of such brothels were usually unable to speak the local language and express their desires, leading to the creation of what are now historical remains of an ancient practice.

The Pervasiveness
Can we really call sex slavery an ancient practice? Perhaps in the United States the idea of a brothel is one that seems foreign to many because of the outright illegality of prostitution in America. However, Pompeii’s historical example illustrates that the pervasiveness of human trafficking is enabled by an underlying cultural acceptance for a practice that has persisted to this day. Shamere McKenzie, CEO of the non-profit Sun Gate Foundation and human trafficking survivor, sheds light on how modern popular culture subliminally contributes to the glorification of human trafficking. In her work, she partakes in speaking engagements to share her experience and fulfill the Foundation’s mission of providing aid to survivors of human trafficking through scholarships and financial aid for educational purposes.

During one of her speaking engagements, McKenzie described how music, legislation, and cultural norms can facilitate acceptance of the harsh reality that human trafficking is a problem that continues to exist despite efforts to stop it. For example, McKenzie highlights the prominence of references glorifying “pimps” and “bitches” in certain musical genres that make it easy and even desirable for individuals to accept trafficking when phrased in ways that conceal the true nature of the horrid practice. As a survivor of sexual enslavement, McKenzie further asserts that businesses like strip clubs serve as havens for forced prostitution. She claims the problem is exacerbated by the way in which U.S. laws punish prostitution and make it difficult for victims of sex slavery to seek help from law enforcement for fear of being incarcerated.

Finally, one of the most common issues with eradicating the issue of the human slave trade is the social psychological phenomenon known as the bystander effect, or the apathy expressed by individuals who are aware of the plight of a victim but do not offer any means of assistance. In McKenzie’s case, it took the help of one concerned individual to shelter her from the brutal onslaught of a greedy pimp who had uprooted her from the success of her academic career and forced her into the world of sex slavery for 18 months.

In Broad Daylight
Human trafficking is not always so concealed from public life in other countries. In his book Blood and Earth: Modern Slavery, Ecocide, and the Secret to Saving the World, human rights activist Kevin Bales provides a more holistic perspective on the issue through his narration of firsthand experiences with victims of human trafficking and child slavery. Describing his treacherous visit to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Bales explains how men and women are enslaved by militias and the Congolese army to perform forced labor. He elaborates on the issue, proclaiming that women and girls are targeted during attacks on villages due to the cultural objectification of women that has become the heinous norm in the Congo.

However, Africa is not the only continent known for the infamous slave trade. Among some of the most notorious epicenters throughout the world for human trafficking are Southeast Asia, China, Russia, Eastern Europe, Brazil, Venezuela, Mexico, and India.

Human trafficking is defined by the U.N. as, “recruiting, harboring, transporting, providing, or obtaining a person for compelled labor or commercial sex acts through the use of force, fraud, or coercion.” Trafficking, particularly sex trafficking, has been a pervasive issue throughout the history of mankind that has eluded a reliable panacea due to government inability to wholly enforce the law. In countries without reliable law enforcement, those who engage in sex trafficking are enabled by the chaotic environment that makes lawlessness so common. Even so, the problem continues to exist in developed countries due to halfhearted efforts by governments and citizens to put a stop to human trafficking.

Need For Meaningful Leglization
To put the relevance of the issue into perspective, Ashton Kutcher, co-founder of a company that builds software to fight human trafficking called Thorn, testified in front of Congress on February 15, 2017, urging officials to pass meaningful legislation on the issue. As humankind continues to progress into an era where the protection of fundamental rights becomes a more widespread norm, the plight of those who still face the deprivation of their basic liberties should not merely be relegated as a relic of the past like the historic ruins of Pompeii.


Erick Rodriguez has a B.A. in Political Science and International Studies from the University of Central Florida where he was the human trafficking research fellow. He is currently a 2L at the University of Miami School of Law.

International Issues