A young Kenyan woman named Alice B. is classified by the US government as a victim of human trafficking, but you’ve probably never heard of her case, because the work she was forced to do didn’t involve turning tricks. Alice, who did not want to use her last name for fear of retaliation, took a childcare job a few years ago that required her to move from Africa to the Bay Area. She agreed to work regular hours for about $200 a week. But when she got to California, her boss–a prominent Kenyan woman journalist–confiscated Alice’s visa and made her baby-sit day and night for as little as $50 a month. Alice fled after several months and notified authorities. Eventually she got legal residency under a federal law known as the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA). The law, she says, has helped her put her life back together.
First passed in late 2000, the TVPA slaps penalties onto those who move people across borders and force them to work against their will. It also offers assistance, including permission to settle in the United States, to immigrant victims like Alice.
On paper the law looks good. But in practice it hasn’t helped many people so far, and it’s hurt others, while placing undue emphasis on commercial sex work and downplaying the plight of victims in other jobs, like Alice. Probably because she was “just” an imprisoned nanny and not a brothel captive, the Feds declined to criminally prosecute her boss, and they hardly publicized her case. That’s often what happens with people forced to work in factories, fields, restaurants and homes–and there are plenty of them in the United States. Meanwhile, government press releases and the news are rife with accounts of “sex slaves”–even though the limited evidence that exists suggests sex work is not the most common type of forced labor, and even though most immigrants who work as prostitutes do so voluntarily.
Officially, TVPA enforcers count “voluntary” prostitutes as victims of trafficking and go out looking for them. But once found, these so-called victims are often deported. According to Dawn Passar, a Thai immigrant who has worked for years doing AIDS prevention with San Francisco-area prostitutes, “I’ve never met a Thai woman smuggled in for sex work who didn’t know that’s what she’d be coming here to do.” But the women often get snared in massage parlor raids and are slated for removal from the country. “It costs $40,000 to get legal help,” says Passar. “To pay, they have to do even more sex work.”
The TVPA is also policing the speech of labor- and women’s-rights groups, and sanctioning countries–like Cuba and Venezuela–whose politics the US government doesn’t like. The law’s split personality derives from the fact that a split group created it. On one side were evangelical Christians, with their typical fears of foreigners, leftists and sex–and their morbid fascination with forced prostitution, even though more people may be forced to pick broccoli than to rent out their genitals. Then there were feminists whose concern about the exploitation of women–like the evangelicals’–also fixated on commercial sex. The evangelicals and feminists seized the lobbying reins by making common cause around what both call “sex slavery.” For evangelicals the deal was a bargain. For feminists it’s turned Faustian. Meanwhile, the pact between these two groups remains under most progressives’ radar. It seems too weird to imagine.