“More girls have been killed in the last fifty years, precisely because they were girls, than men were killed in all the wars of the twentieth century.”
This is a quote from Pulitzer Prize winners Nicholas Kristoff and Sheryl Wu Dunn detailing the rampant, as they call it, “gendercide” occurring today in the world, in their non-fiction, book “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity.” It is a ‘must read’ for anyone interested in learning more about the sex trafficking industry, and opened my eyes to the realities of this horrifying and growing industry.
I initially became involved in the issue of sex trafficking through Congregation Hakafa’s Justice for Women’s Group, which I formed about 2 and ½ years ago along with fellow congregant and friend, Beth Gordon, who had just finished reading “Half the Sky”. Kristoff and Wu Dunn authors guide its readers through Africa and Asia to meet several extraordinary women struggling there, including a Cambodian teenager sold into sex slavery and an Ethiopian woman who suffered terrible injuries in childbirth. Although difficult to read at times, it is an inspiring book, and the authors make a great case for investing in the health and autonomy of women worldwide.
Although I consider myself fairly knowledgeable in the world of women’s rights advocacy, (I am an attorney and a long time advocate for survivors of domestic violence, employment discrimination and reproductive rights) I have discovered that my knowledge about sex trafficking was somewhat lacking and I would like to share with you a little bit about what I have learned:
- The sex trafficking industry produces an estimated $7 billion dollars in revenue annually.
- It is the third largest criminal enterprise in the world, only surpassed by drugs and weapons, and is the fastest growing.
- Once girls enter the sex industry their average life expectancy is 7 years (with homicide and Aids being the top killers).
- The majority of sex trafficked victims identified in this country are US citizens.
So although it is often seen as a problem that occurs in other countries, and not here in the US, more than 100,000 children are estimated to be trafficked every year here in the US – with 16,000 to 25,000 being from the Chicago area alone.
Most victims of sex trafficking are women and children, most of whom are under the age of 18.
I also think it is very important to acknowledge that the overwhelming majority of prostituted women do not choose this profession. A 2008 Chicago study of 100 women under the age of 26 found their average age of entry into prostitution was 16. Many of these girls had run away from dysfunctional homes and were in foster care. They were forced into prostitution, and exchanged sex for clothes, shelter, or food—in order to survive. They were frequently forced to turn over their money to a pimp, and would face violence if they did not. Pimps and traffickers look for people to recruit who have few, if any, meaningful choices in life.
Although these statistics are incredibly alarming, and when we hear them we are rightfully repulsed, I unfortunately think the reality is that the plight of women being trafficked and assaulted has been conveniently ignored by our communities, and perhaps on some level supported and reinforced by them.
For starters, let’s look at media headlines. When Patrick Kane was accused of sexual assault (and I am not making any judgment as to his guilt or innocence), but when he was accused, the Los Angeles Daily News headline stated, and I quote:
“Patrick Kane just another athlete who’s partying may have led to worse.”
And, this headline was not an isolated incident – much of the reporting by radio shows, blogs, and social media have attributed his alleged behavior to drinking too much – suggesting that the alleged assault wasn’t really his fault – but was do to his excessive partying.
Equally troubling was the social media response blaming the victim of sexual assault – suggesting that she was asking for the assault by engaging in this excessive partying. But, isn’t this a double standard? Why is it that when a woman drinks too much, that’s the reason for the assault? But, when a man drinks too much, it’s an excuse for misconduct.
I believe this double standard has trickled down into our communities. Last year when a teenage girl from the North Shore sent an inappropriate selfie in private to her 16 year old boyfriend, which he then forwarded on to several of his good friends, the chatter about this issue focused solely on the girls inappropriate behavior. The reaction was “what is wrong with that girl? She must have a lot of issues sending a picture like that.” This response came from both the high schoolers (the girls) and their parents. What I did not hear, not even once, was “what is wrong with that boy.” Why would he violate his girlfriend’s trust. Why would he have passed that picture along?” And, when I engaged my friends in discussion about this, the initial response I received was “well, he’s a 16 year old boy” Almost like that’s expected. Yet again, another double standard.
This ‘double standard’ has also been prevalent in the public sector. Although both buying and selling sex is illegal, statistics show that prostituted women are arrested at a much higher rate than those who are purchasers.
Unfortunately, when we “buy in” to this double standard, we are reinforcing the ability of the ‘real’ wrongdoers, the pimps, the johns, the purchasers to continue in their behavior, and, even more devastating, we are deterring victims of sexual assault from coming forward to seek justice and retribution. Fortunately, in recent years there has been more and more attention to the sex trafficking industry, and, I am hopeful a change in attitude is on the horizon and making its way to our communities and mainstream culture. The best way to address sexual exploitation is to prevent it from happening in the first place. Young men are exposed to a culture that stigmatizes women in prostitution, yet glamorizes pimping and patronizing the sex trade.
In June of 2006, Rachel Durchslag founded the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation (CAASE). CAASE spearheaded the End Demand Illinois campaign, working to end the demand of purchased sex using a demand-supply theory. As part of this program, CAASE has created and implemented the first curriculum in the country specifically designed to educate high school men about the harms of prostitution and to enlist them as allies in the movement to end violence against women and girls.
What I find incredibly inspiring is that pre- and post- tests conducted by CAASE consistently demonstrate meaningful changes in student attitudes. As an example, the executive director of CAASE, Kaethe Hoffer recently stated that “while a majority of boys initially report that they would “absolutely” go to a strip club if given the chance, a majority report at the end that they would “never” go to a strip club, and furthermore, they intend to discourage their peers from doing so as well. This is critical, because strip clubs are a major venue for sex trafficking throughout the Chicagoland area and they are often the entry-point for men who later become buyers.
By helping more boys become men who refuse to “buy in” to the sex industry, CAASE is helping reduce the demand for purchased sex, which leads to fewer girls and women being forced into prostitution. To date, CAASE has reached more than 2,300 students.
CAASE has also been instrumental in passing several laws aimed solely at the protection of survivors of sexual exploitation, including the Illinois Safe Children Act , which is the first law in the nation to make minors under the age 18 immune from prosecution for prostitution.
There are many other organizations that have been formed to combat the issue of sex trafficking. And, I do believe the push for reform is growing in momentum. The Jewish Coalition Against Sex Trafficking (JCAST) Chicago is an organization of which I am particularly proud to be a founding member along with a dedicated group of passionate women hailing from NCJW, JWF, JCFS, JUF and AJWS.
In January 2014, the National Council of Jewish Women Chicago North Shore Section spearheaded this coalition to establish a Jewish voice against sex trafficking in Chicago and this human rights issue has been rapidly embraced by the local Jewish community and several congregations, not to mention the fact that JCAST Chicago is supported by a generous grant from the Jewish Women’s Foundation. Several JCAST Chicago founders also happen to be members of Congregation Hakafa and our Rabbi Bruce Elder from has played an important supporting role as we have consulted with him for educational content. He also gave a powerful call to action on our behalf last Purim at a community-wide interfaith forum on human trafficking in Chicago.
At this point we are looking to increase membership. If you have any interest to learn more and help eradicate this growing industry, we would love for you, both men and women, to join as members and support the important work that JCAST Chicago seeks to accomplish. You can find us at www.jcastchicago.org.
On a more immediate note, we are currently collecting items for survivors of sexual trafficking for the Dreamcatcher Foundation. They are in desperate need for travel-sized toiletries, power bars and gift cards to distribute during outreach to youth who are trafficked and prostituted in the Chicago area. Items can be dropped off at several locations. Click here to learn how you can help.
On a final note, I urge you again to read, “Half the Sky”, and encourage you to get involved – to educate yourself and talk to your teenagers about these issues, to write letters to the editor or comment on social media blogs, twitter, facebook about the double standard so often articulated with respect to victims of sexual assault.
Thank you so much and LaShana Tova.
Heather Ross, JCAST Chicago; Congregation Hakafa