The Face of Modern Day Slavery

You may remember Feminists for Life speaker Joyce McCauley-Benner’s powerful speech, “Victory Over Violence.” Today, this survivor of sexual assault assists victims of sex trafficking.

Please be aware that information contained within the following op-ed may be disturbing to some adults. And although children are sadly experiencing the abuse she writes about, parents are the best judge of whether their child is prepared to read Joyce’s revealing article.

If you are interested in hosting Joyce as a speaker, please contact FFL’s College Outreach Program Coordinator at


The Face of Modern Day Slavery

While browsing the Internet one day, I came across an unsettling advertisement for a t-shirt which read, “I went to Thailand and all I got was this kidnapped prostitute.”

It sold for $16.99 and, The Onion‘s website noted, the “prostitute [was] not included.”

I would imagine the creators of the shirt found the statement amusing. They are, after all, working for a website that satirizes politics and the media. Some readers may gloss over it completely. Some may not understand the reference. And then there are those of us that are outraged.

“Kidnapped prostitutes” are victims of sex trafficking, a form of modern day slavery. The Trafficking Victims Protection Act, championed by Rep. Christopher Smith, defines severe forms of trafficking in persons as ”sex trafficking in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age.”

Sex trafficking is more common than you think. While it certainly occurs internationally, in places like Thailand (driven largely by men “vacationing” or “on business” from America), it is also perhaps America’s dirtiest little secret.

I have been working as an advocate for domestic (American) sex trafficking victims since 2007. What have I learned?

• Slavery has been reinvented in America. Today, children (both boys and girls) and adults are used for the purposes of commercial sex and forced labor — and most of America is completely unaware of their plight.
• Trafficking victims are vulnerable. They are most often victims of abuse, assault, and neglect before being trafficked.
• Trafficking victims are made vulnerable by other social injustices: poverty, racism, and the oversexualization and objectification of women in our culture.
• Trafficking victims do not engage in “sex work.” They are manipulated into a life of prostitution, drugs, torture, and disempowerment.
• Trafficking victims do not have free choices; their actions are compelled by circumstances or by force, fraud, or coercion. Abortion, adoption, or parenting is a decision made and forced by another person, an abuser.

Victims of sex trafficking can come, when there is no intervention, from a generational or familial life of prostitution. It is not uncommon to see daughters of traffickers groomed to become future prostitutes and sons become future traffickers. In international trafficking, forced adoption or child abduction is also very common as children and women are considered products of a business, rather than free human beings. Forced abortion is often performed with methods unsafe to women. A trafficked woman’s body is never her own.

As a survivor of sexual assault myself, I know the pain and turmoil having your sexuality hijacked. I also know how common sexual assault is in our society. But I found that the victimization I experienced was nothing in comparison to what these women experience as slaves, what these children experience as chattel.

Sex trafficking occurs in truck stops, hotels, suburban homes, rural fields, and cities across the U.S. Ever drive by a strip club assuming it employs adults? Would you be surprised to find children? I have met several young teens (14-16) who were coerced or manipulated into stripping and then prostituting after hours. Often, the girls have fake papers given to them to protect the owner of the club. MySpace and other social websites are prime recruiting ground to lure teens into these types of situations.

Shared Hope International’s “National Report on Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking: America’s Prostituted Children” reveals that 13 is the average age children in the United States are forced into prostitution, and at least 100,000 American children are used in domestic prostitution every year.

Minor victims of domestic sex trafficking fill our detention facilities. We pay for that, but they pay much more. “Tonya,” a survivor of domestic sex trafficking put it this way: “I always felt like a criminal. I never felt like a victim at all. Victims don’t do time in jail; they work on the healing process. I was a criminal because I spent time in jail. I definitely felt like nothing more than a criminal.” But these children really are victims, not criminals. While they suffer, true criminals who buy sex from minors remain free, and the traffickers, watchers, recruiters, and groomers (many of whom were abused or exposed to trafficking by family members when they were young) who traffic children frequently escape detection.

Pornography contributes to this global injustice against women and children. Trafficking flourishes where pornography objectifies women and children and stimulates economic demand for even more pornography and prostitution. Ignorance or willful disbelief on the part of customers allows traffickers to fill that demand with their victims, who appear in seemingly legal porn.

Ideas to combat trafficking in the U.S. have included the formation of Rescue and Restore coalitions throughout the country. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services sponsors an awareness and educational campaign in addition to developing the coalitions and building awareness about the national human trafficking hotline. In June 2003, the FBI in conjunction with the Department of Justice Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children launched the Innocence Lost National Initiative. Their combined efforts were aimed at addressing the growing problem of domestic sex trafficking of children in the United States. As of September 2009, 818 children have been recovered, over $3 million has been seized, there have been 510 convictions, and 34 task force and working groups in targeted areas have been formed. Passage of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act is also integral to the fight to end human trafficking.

These strides are a good beginning. Yet, we must continue to dig deeper to fight the root causes of this issue. Trafficking victims are often missed because you have to look under the surface to find the truth of their circumstances. You may see them on the side of your milk carton while you enjoy your morning cereal. They are our missing children and the adults we missed as children. We have to ask more questions and assume less. We have to know that this is America’s shameful secret, too.

These crimes against women and children are a new wave of slavery. It deserves our full attention — and should not be callously displayed on a t-shirt.

Joyce Ann McCauley-Benner was raped at 20 while working her way through college and chose not to abort, not knowing if her unborn son was the result of rape or of her relationship. She says, “I know what it’s like to want to run as far away as possible from a problem, how it feels to hang on to, ‘If I wasn’t pregnant anymore, it would all be OK again.'” Ms. McCauley-Benner, who graduated from college while raising her son, worked on a racial justice task force and currently works with victims of sex trafficking. Today, she presents her speech, “Victory Over Violence” on college campuses and at Capitol Hill briefings. In addition to her lecture, she moderates FFL Pregnancy Resource Forums. A mother of two sons, Ms. McCauley-Benner lives in the Midwest.

Feminists for Life was a charter member of the Initiative Against Sexual Trafficking and was the only pro-life organization who actively worked towards the successful passage of the Violence Against Women Act. More information may be found on FFL’s website, as in The American Feminist issues “Victory Over Violence” and “Crimes Against Women Around the World.”

©2009, Feminists for Life of America. Permission to reprint this article in its entirety with attribution to Joyce McCauley-Benner and Feminists for Life is granted. Please send a copy of or link to any reprints to Feminists for Life at