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.


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.” 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.

Western Europe: Key Recommendations

By: Lucy Mahaffey

In the following post, undergraduate student Lucy Mahaffey from University of Oklahoma examines comparative data about the anti-trafficking practices of both Greece and Norway and offers recommendations for other countries looking to improve their anti-slavery policies.

Western Europe is often looked to for ideal infrastructure and government. In instances of human trafficking, it has led the abolitionist movement with the United States. However, there is a gap between what has been theorized and what is being practiced. According to its membership in the United Nations and the European Union, as well as its income level, Norway could be more effective, but it is by far one of the all-around best European counties when it comes to anti-trafficking practices. Greece is sluggish and still appears to be in new territory by comparison. The challenge facing Greece today is to bring its prevention, intervention, and prosecution forward to compare more favorably with its EU neighbors. This could be done by strengthening local and national education programs, seeking swifter ways to intervene when cases occur, and following through with stronger and more effective prosecution and reformative incarceration of traffickers. In short, funding is needed for law enforcement and lawyer training as well as emphasizing incarceration as “an arena of developing responsibility” (James) instead of solely for punishment. Through these actions, with emphasis on mitigating corruption and discrimination, true and unbiased justice in Greece would prevail.


Prosecutions and Convictions – Norway and Greece

Overall, in Greece there was a general lack of prosecution in human trafficking cases and a “new territory” feel to procedure. Although they are making progress, there is a large gap between Greek actions and those of countries from the rest of Western Europe. According to the 2014 Trafficking in Persons (TIP Report), Greek police investigated 37 human trafficking cases in 2013 (46 cases in 2012; 11 investigations were for forced begging or labor.) NGOs reported in four cases, with sentences ranging from 15 to 22 years’ imprisonment and fines the equivalent of approximately $14,000 to $70,000. Concerning Greek actions in 2013, the TIP Report also states that “the government prosecuted 142 defendants on suspicion of committing trafficking-related crimes” (“Greece” TIP Report), but this was less than the 177 from 2012 (as well as the 220 in 2011.) Out of 177 defendants, there were 26 who fell into the labor trafficking category whereas 23 were categorized for labor and sexual exploitation. There was not full data available for the TIP Report from “approximately half of the courts in Greece” (“Greece” TIP Report).

Year 2012 2013
Greek Trafficking CASES/CONVICTIONS 27/177 46/142
Greek Conviction Rate 15% 32%

One aspect that the TIP fails to look at is the conviction rate. It is not difficult to discern from the data and is important to consider for progress of efforts over time. In 2013, for instance, the government convicted 46 traffickers and acquitted 16 (32% conviction rate with 46 of 142 defendants), compared with 27 convictions and 16 acquittals (or a 15% conviction rate) in 2012 (“Greece” TIP Report). This shows a good improvement; however, each judge has a varying degree of knowledge of trafficking and, thus, largely lacked consideration of victims. It also seems that prosecution was not consistent. Also, lawyers for traffickers (or suspects) often portrayed their clients as pimps, rather than traffickers, with the hopes of a less harsh punishment of five years’ imprisonment or to avoid prison by paying fines. For Greece, there was no data available to breakdown defendants into either sex or labor trafficking.

Norway, on the other hand, has a great infrastructure for combating trafficking, but their conviction rate over the last few years shows that there has not been enough allocated to effectively combat trafficking (“Norway” TIP Report).

Norwegian authorities initiated 69 investigations in 2013. Thirty of these were for sex trafficking and thirty-nine were for labor trafficking. The government prosecuted six sex trafficking suspects (20% cr) and three labor trafficking suspects (13% cr) in 2013 (compared with two suspects (8% cr) and six suspects (28%) in 2012.) Authorities convicted three sex trafficking offenders and two labor trafficking offenders in 2013, compared with three sex trafficking offenders and four labor trafficking offenders convicted in 2012. These are interesting findings, indicating that perhaps there is a finite amount of resources, which are simply reallocated to whichever type of cases (sex or labor) that were lacking the previous year. The Norwegian government needs to allocate more time and energy into trafficking cases.

Year 2012 2013
Sex Trafficking CASES/CONVICTIONS 6/30 2/26
Norway ST Conviction Rate 20% 8%
Labor Trafficking CASES/CONVICTIONS 3/39 6/22
Norway LT Conviction Rate 8% 28%

A Final Word

Norway is by no means perfect in its efforts to combat trafficking, and Greece should not be vilified. Europe and global stakeholders may use the lessons these two countries provide to improve standards, enhance understanding, and encourage collective effort in combating trafficking. The topics touched upon, such as funding, education, and swifter intervention, are much needed. They are, however, only a starting point. Slavery today has widely been acknowledged as a global atrocity by governments, religious leaders, and businesses alike. It is crucial, however, to delve deeper into the subject matter to carry the global perspective beyond mere acknowledgement and to truly question the norms of today. Why is there any trafficking in Norway, a country with a GDP exceeding three-fourths of the world’s countries? Is Greece to blame for its sluggish anti-trafficking actions, or is this a result of external pressure from economic policy and internal government turmoil? The world must ask these far-reaching questions, refusing to simply accept a prosecution as the final answer to trafficking and remembering to examine the “best practice” countries and regions without idolizing them. Through this perspective, future studies on trafficking today may build a more thorough picture of serviceable policy and create the lasting change we all desire.


Works Cited

“Greece.” Trafficking in Persons Report 2014. US Department of State, 2014. 188-9. Web.

James, Erwin. “Norwegian Prison Inmates Treated Like People.The Guardian 25 Feb. 2013. Web. 22 Nov. 2014.

“Norway.” Trafficking in Persons Report 2014. US Department of State, 2014. 299-300. Web.

Watching Television with a Critical Eye: An analysis of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit

By: Kathryn Hampshire

Many modern television shows engage in critical conversations without viewers realizing it. One such program is Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (SVU). This crime drama centered on sexually-motivated offences follows “the dedicated detectives who investigate these vicious felonies,” as the opening mantra states (“Merchandise”). “Special victims” include those who have experienced rape, domestic abuse, forced prostitution, kidnapping, trafficking, and slavery.

While telling these stories of trauma, SVU has become the center of a critical debate as to whether or not this show raises awareness about real-world issues like slavery, or if it is simply exploitative. Even though I am unable to answer this question here, I wish to draw attention to the various ways that one episode in particular, “Merchandise,” engages several issues relevant to discussions about contemporary slavery. This episode focuses on child enslavement for labor, reproduction, and prostitution. When an abused young girl named Carly becomes a traffic fatality, an investigation uncovers the dark truth behind a local farm that claims to give jobs to at-risk children.

At several moments throughout the episode, the show draws from relevant issues within the conversation about modern-day slavery, and here I will examine three of the most prevalent: misconceptions regarding who becomes enslaved, victims becoming victimized even further by the state, and traumatic narratives resisting a traditional linear story-telling format.

First, I wish to draw attention to one of the conversations in “Merchandise” that reveals deep-seated stereotypes many Americans hold about the issue of slavery. When Detective Odafin “Fin” Tutuola is talking to a farmer’s market manager, he points out how a farm that hires children can easily become exploitative:

“They’re paid less than minimum wage, charged for rides to the farm, food, even their drinking water. Pretty soon, they’re in debt to the farm,” he says.

To this, the manager replies skeptically, “You’re talking about illegals. Mission Farms hires at-risk American kids!”

“—who are just as vulnerable,” Fin finishes (“Merchandise”).

This conversation reveals a stereotype where members of the majority believe that only minorities can be slaves.

Later in the episode, the theme of victims being further victimized (also known as revictimization*) surfaces. First, I will examine how revictimization by the state is incredibly prevalent in reality. In an article for The Washington Post, special counsel on human rights Malika Saasa Saar recounts the story of Tami, a 15-year-old victim of forced prostitution who, when she finally escaped, was arrested instead of protected. “But should an abused child be incarcerated for the abuses perpetrated against her?” Saar questions, continuing that “[t]he people who rape these girls, the politely termed ‘johns,’ are rarely arrested for statutory rape, child endangerment or sexual assault of a minor.” Often, exploited and enslaved children who are trafficked for forced prostitution get arrested by the state and are treated like criminals, when they are actually victims of a much graver offense. The fact of the matter is that an under-aged prostitute, regardless of whether they are a slave or not, is the victim of statutory rape and should be treated as a victim and not as a criminal.

In “Merchandise,” this theme becomes prevalent through the character of Carly’s brother, Micah. Detectives discover that Micah has also been a victim of enslavement and repeated sexual assault—he has a record for prostitution, despite the fact that he is only 13 years old. Since Micah is paradoxically a victim of sex trafficking being charged with prostitution, here the show points to how the legal system is re-victimizing him by criminalizing actions that he was forced to perform. Instead of arresting the pimps, “johns,” or traffickers, officers have arrested their victim.

Later in the episode when the detectives take Micah in, this theme continues, only in a different light because the characters and the show itself re-victimize him. Fin poses as a john propositioning the boy while Olivia Benson and Elliot Stabler, two other detectives in the show, forcefully capture him and put him against the car. During the struggle, Micah’s shirt tears, revealing a back covered in lacerations—a moment which puts the boy’s injured body on display for the viewers. This moment of cinematography is exploitative on many levels: it exposes the body of a victim, it shocks some viewers into a state of pity (which is problematic in and of itself, but that is a topic for another post) without the probability of productive action to take in response to this experience, and it capitalizes on other viewers’ desire to witness the physically painful results of torture.

When Micah repeatedly hits himself and bashes his head against the patrol car window, Fin then goes to restrain him for his own protection; Stabler protests, “You saw his back—they made him a slave. Are you going to treat him like one now?” To this, Benson states, “Maybe it’s the only thing he’s used to” (“Merchandise”). Here, Benson is making the argument that since Micah has been treated like a slave for so long, he has grown accustomed to it to the point where he cannot process anything else, which may explain his self-destructive behavior. However, regardless of what Micah is “used to,” these officers should not be subjecting a victim to further victimization. By putting him in handcuffs, they are doing exactly what the show accused other officers of earlier: they are creating a situation where the victim is being treated like the criminal. Benson’s comment may have been true, but that does not justify further victimization of a child who has already been forced into labor and prostitution, repeatedly raped and sodomized, and arrested and charged with crimes out of his control.

Conversely, the show continues in its efforts to engage in critical dialogue about slavery when Micah’s character later reveals the inherent non-linear nature of trauma in a way that can enlighten viewers into this aspect of a victim’s experience. Often, victims of extremely traumatic experiences face difficulties putting those experiences into a chronological, linear narrative that normal experiences generally allow; rather, they remember and recount their trauma in nonlinear flashes of memories and feelings, which is evident in Micah’s interview with psychiatrist Dr. George Huang. Micah begins his story in the middle, describing the sounds, smells, and feelings of the cellar in which he was held. He then says, “Do something wrong, make a mistake, and we all get a beating” (“Merchandise”). The rest of the conversation follows this nonlinear pattern. Huang attempts to put Micah on a chronological path with leading questions, but Micah’s narrative continues to push back. This conversation demonstrates how severe trauma like slavery is resistant to a linear narrative.

These themes of misconceptions, re-victimization, and non-linearity are all extremely prevalent within the critical analysis surrounding slavery. While the question still remains as to whether television shows like SVU are capable of productively engaging in an ethical discourse about slavery or whether they are simply exploitative, the show certainly engages in the conversations surrounding contemporary slavery in ways that raise awareness about these issues through its storytelling.


*For more information on revictimization


Works Cited

“Merchandise.” Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. NBC. 6 October 2010. Television.

Saar, Malika Saada. “There is no such thing as a child prostitute.” The Washington Post.  The Washington Post, 17 February 2014. Web. 23 November 2014.