Sex Sells: Sex Trafficking and Its Relation to Freak Shows

By Lauren Cross

Human trafficking has become a prevalent aspect of our society, and an awareness of its impact can be seen everywhere, from college organizations to Facebook timelines and even to Hollywood movies (which raise awareness–sometimes inadvertently–by casting top actors in the roles of heroes rescuing victims from this horrendous business). While human trafficking is a large concern for the worldwide population, sex trafficking is particularly worrying for many women and children. The victims of sex trafficking are malnourished, drugged, and, at times, abused for the purpose of earning money for traffickers at the expense of the victim’s physical and emotional health.

So how does this relate to freak shows?

In the 1840s, P.T. Barnum, one of the most well known figures in show business, took over the American Museum in New York (Bogdan 23). Barnum was able to convince those who possessed physical disabilities to act as curiosities in order to gain not only fame but also fortune. By submitting their bodies to public scrutiny, he made a profit at the expense of his employees. Many of his acts were literally slaves sold to the freak show. Both freakshow owners like Barnum and sex traffickers own and exploit the bodies of others.

The widely-known human curiosity, Saartjie Baartman (also known as Hottentot Venus), shows the link between freak shows and modern human trafficking, especially sex trafficking. According to a New York Times article by Caroline Elkins in 2007, when Baartman was a young woman, a man persuaded her to join him in London. While she did voluntarily leave her country, as someone who was not aware of her rights, how much consent did she really give to her involvement in this human exhibit? Here, she began her journey as a physical marvel–her shapely figure became subject to public scrutiny. People stared at her and poked her as though she was not a woman with bodily rights. These issues of consent, rights over one’s own body, and economic exploitation link her to today’s sex trafficking.
1Each year, a report discussing the worldwide concern of human trafficking is published by the Department of State. Within this report, readers can find information regarding the different instances of human trafficking, and, more specifically, sex trafficking. The report shows readers the different levels of sex trafficking called “tiers.” By placing each country throughout the world in its respective tier, viewers can observe how countries relate to one another. In the image to the left, one can get a glimpse at one page from the aforementioned report, and we can see how different countries rank. Tier 1 indicates these countries comply with the Trafficking Victims Protection Act’s minimum standards, and Tier 3 indicates countries that do not currently or ever intend to follow these standards.

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While the Tier 3 category does seem rather small, when observing a map, opinions may change. We can see the map to the right and observe the great impact this tier has on the rest of the world. Because the great majority of Tier 3 consists of only one country, Russia, a popular tourist site, it instills fear in tourists and travelers.

According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in 2015, the largest form of human trafficking does, in fact, involve sexual exploitation: 79% of it. Even though the victims are predominantly women and children, there is a large number of women who traffic women, which, in this case, means both men and women are now earning from this traipse around legalities.

Even though most individuals see sex trafficking as an abysmal human rights violation, those involved in the transportation and migration of sex workers may see it as a smart financial move–similar to the way those involved in freak shows thought of their own actions over one hundred years ago. Many are familiar with the way P.T. Barnum often “bought” individuals in order to present them in his circuses. According to his Biography profile, he would buy individuals who could perform acts in order to draw in enough viewers to make a profit off his purchase in a little over one week. Human trafficking organizers buy individuals–primarily for the sexual benefit of customers–and then sell them to other hosts.

According to Soroptomist, a global volunteer organization dedicated to improving the lives of women and children by leading them toward social and economic empowerment, most instances of sex trafficking occur in areas with low education and employment opportunities, as well as areas with great economic instability. By partaking in this awful trade, these individuals are advancing themselves financially.

In one horrific story, a girl named Jill was a homeless teenager desperate for any food, money, or work. Once, when a man approached her in a mall, he offered her a chance to work for him, and he said he could provide her with food, shelter, and clothing. She ended up being suspended from the ceiling in his cellar without any clothes on. For three years, she endured his cruel business–one in which his “clients” would pay him to fulfill their sexual desires with her.

Throughout the years in the freak show business, many human exhibits similar to Saartjie Baartman’s case endured taunts, emotional distress, and isolated treatment forced upon them by their owners. It seems as though these owners have now reincarnated into business owners who choose to make their victims perform in more physical ways.

If you or anyone you know have any questions concerning sex trafficking, please do not hesitate to call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center: 1 (888) 373-7888.

 

Works Cited

Bogdan, Robert. “The Social Construction of Freaks.” Freakery. Ed. Rosemarie Garland Thomson. New York City: New York University Press, 1996. 23-37. Print.

Elkins, Caroline. “A Life Exposed.” The New York Times, 14 January 2007. Web. 14 December 2015.

“Jill’s Story.” Human Trafficking. Human Trafficking, n.d. Web. 16 November 2015.

“P.T. Barnum Biography.” Biography.com. A&E Television Networks. n.d. Web. 16 December 2015.

“Sex Trafficking FAQ.” Soroptomist. Soroptomist, n.d. Web. 16 November 2015.

“Trafficking in Persons Report.” Department of State. U.S. Department of State Publication: July 2015. Web.

“UNODC report on human trafficking exposes modern form of slavery.” United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. UNODC, n.d. Web. 16 November 2015.

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