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Oversexed

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During the 1990s feminists from the abolitionist and the sex-work camps engaged in spirited debate about prostitution and the definition of trafficking, at gatherings such as the UN Fourth World Conference on Women, in Beijing in 1995. But soon the discussion was pre-empted by another, monolithic voice: that of the evangelicals.

About the Author

Debbie Nathan
Debbie Nathan, a New York City-based writer, is the author of Women and Other Aliens: Essays From the U.S.-Mexican...

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In 1998, under the tutelage of Michael Horowitz, of the neocon think tank the Hudson Institute, leaders like Watergate felon Colson--who found Jesus while in prison--and Richard Land, head of the ethics and religious liberty commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, lobbied successfully for the Religious Freedom Act, which makes "promoting religious freedom" a "core objective of U.S. foreign policy," according to the State Department. The act earned evangelicals a State Department office and an at-large ambassadorship. It justified funding for "faith-based" groups to monitor religious persecution abroad. It gave evangelicals clout in decisions to sanction nations deemed out of compliance. And it established the US Christian right as a player in the international human-rights field.

While pushing the Religious Freedom Act, Colson, Land and their allies gained a certain ecumenical cachet by working with other constituencies, such as Jewish rabbis and politicians who were troubled by persecution. With their newfound respectability, the evangelicals proceeded to the trafficking issue and linked up with abolitionist feminists. The two groups garnered support from conservative New Jersey Congressman Christopher Smith. An evangelical and arch-foe of Roe v. Wade, Smith is co-chair of the House's "Pro-Life Caucus" and has written a spate of legislation banning US financial backing for family-planning clinics in the Third World that offer abortions. But just as feminists joined moral conservatives on the Meese Commission to get porn outlawed in the 1980s, they were willing to wheel and deal with people like Smith around the trafficking issue.

By the late 1990s the media were full of stories about the globalizing push to move people around the world for forced and child labor. Little boys toiling on cocoa bean plantations in Cameroon, Mexican deaf mutes made to sell tchotchkes on the streets of New York--clearly, many trafficking victims were not employed in brothels. But Representative Smith drafted a bill that limited the definition of trafficking to work involving sex--whether coerced or not--and eliminated from consideration all victims except women and children.

Labor-rights-oriented groups objected, and the late Senator Paul Wellstone wrote most of the TVPA's final wording. It outlaws all forced work--not just prostitution, and not just labor done by women and children. For the TVPA coercion is required in order to prosecute perpetrators and help victims. But abolitionist feminists and evangelicals retained language that labels as "trafficking" all smuggling of immigrants into prostitution--even if they knew what line of work they'd be getting into and are doing it voluntarily, and even though immigrants working voluntarily as prostitutes probably far outnumber those who are coerced, both internationally and in this country, according to researchers such as University of West Indies sociologist Kemala Kempadoo, who studies migration and sex work. In a slick rhetorical maneuver, the TVPA offers no assistance to individuals who've been voluntarily smuggled to work as prostitutes, yet it counts them as "trafficking" victims, along with brothel prisoners. The conflation inflates the severity of the "sex slave" problem in the public mind.

The TVPA is now almost five years old. It created a "Trafficking in Persons" office in the State Department and employs yet another at-large ambassador--currently John Miller, a former Republican congressman from Washington State. The Bush Administration has earmarked about $150 million to enforce the law and help victims. Much of the money has gone to NGOs with long experience in assisting immigrants suffering from problems such as domestic violence and labor exploitation. But funding is also being snapped up by "faith-based" groups who've never before done this kind of work. Many, like Beverly LaHaye's Concerned Women for America, are obsessed with rescuing prostitutes from moral turpitude. For them, commercial sex is far worse than other exploitative work poor people do--forced or not.

The government encourages the fixation. The TVPA's preamble, written in 2000, estimated that each year the United States was receiving 50,000 trafficked people. All were assumed to be women and children--by far the likeliest groups to be pressed into prostitution. Not until 2003, when the TVPA was amended (and the 50,000 annual victim figure slashed to at most 20,000), did the State Department include men in its estimate.

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