U.S. Media's Failure to Set the Agenda for Covering Sex Trafficking

By Danielle Martinelli
Elon Journal of Undergraduate Research in Communications
2012, Vol. 3 No. 2 | pg. 1/4 |


The sex trafficking industry poses a clear and present threat in society, but the American public seems to be unaware of the gravity of the issue within the U.S. Analyzing the agenda setting theory by focusing on stories on the New York Times and CNN websites gives evidence that the media failed to inform the public. The public's lack of awareness was found to be due to the presence of social media and the birth of online newspapers. For a bigger impact, the media can create a social consensus through more high profile articles and personal stories and place them in prominent, high trafficked areas of their websites.

I. An Outlook of the Sex Trading Industry

Human trafficking is a broad and multifaceted issue, which contains the illegal activity of sex trafficking. Sex trafficking falls under the umbrella of human trafficking, but is specifically targeted at exploiting, vandalizing and coercing women and children into sex without their consent. This form of modern day slavery has been a problem around the world for centuries, but the realization that millions of people are being trafficked specifically for sex in the United States has only recently been covered as a top story within the past two years. The number of people who are actually aware of the problem appears to be shockingly low, although human trafficking is the second largest illicit business in the world.

This is not a new problem at all. In the 1900s America shipped workers from China for the purpose of forced labor, which also led to the selling of Chinese girls because of their erotic appeal (Shelly 237). The other issue, both abroad and in the U.S., that has created barriers in attempts to fight the issue is the perception that these women are prostitutes and therefore are choosing it as a career. Prostitution became more public and even accepted during the late 19th century because it would "provide sexual outlets for military men and laborers in metropolitan and colonial areas . . . by ensuring police oversight of brothel areas, state officials and their supporters believed they could provide for men's presumed sexual needs, maintain public health and social order" (Limoncelli 7). This "necessity" meant that women were starting to be trafficked to fill brothels over borders like cattle throughout the world.

Evidence of this problem is seen in the League of Nation's documents. There have been conventions in 1904, 1910, and 1921 to fight trafficking through anti-trafficking laws (Limoncelli 8). More recently in 1978, the United Nations held another convention and drafted rights for immigrants, but it was not signed until 1990 and not enforced until 2003. By 2005 only 27 countries had ratified the treaty (Naim 103). This shows the slow progression of laws and action at the governmental level.

The other reason sex trafficking has particularly received little attention in the past was due to the perceived value and rights of women. In many countries and cultures, women were not seen as important or equal with men. The International Abolitions Federation helped to show that all women, including prostitutes, deserved equality, justice and liberation (Limoncelli 51). Fighting against stereotypes that trafficked women were prostitutes further stifle the call to action. In 1935 the secretary for the British committee of the International Abolitionist Federation said, "I have always believed that if you believe in liberty you will see to it that your weakest link in the chain is secure. The weakest link is the prostitute since few people care whether she is justly treated or not" (69). Her argument then is still pertinent today, as the fight for the marginalized and hurt needs to be societies' first priority.

Anti-sex trafficking awareness fell out of the public light until the 1980s, when the fall of the Soviet Union combined with the start of globalization sparked the return of trafficking at a global level (Limoncelli 150). The reemergence of trafficking no longer took the old form, but with the accessibility of the Internet and new technology, traffickers were now able to communicate around the world to move a woman to the desired customer.

With the fall of the Soviet Bloc, there was hope of new freedom. Ironically, slavery of women has increased to tens of thousands of girls being exported from Ukraine, Moldova, Romania and Russia (Naim 92). Before the 1990s trafficking was mainly geared toward mail-order brides, but once the Soviet Union collapsed, a new sex market emerged, facilitated by criminal groups operating internationally (Kelly 87). Today, traffickers, or pimps, are able to take the women and children across borders more easily due to the international gang movement. Gangs no longer operate in one area, but members are located across the world, just as they are spread across the U.S. (Shelly 232). With the increase of communication, trafficking women from one country or state to another is easier.

A third major problem is the economic gain combined with political corruption and government failure. In China alone, there is an estimated profit of $1-3 billion a year in smuggling women (Naim 88). This is partly made possible by the political corruption to help deport women out of the country. Some Chinese coast guards "conveniently disappear" when a shipload of illegal girls are sent out to another country (101). The problem that has been seen across borders is that "those in charge of curbing these illicit businesses are in fact personally profiting from them" (100). In the past, the problem was addressed by helping those victims, but the issue is rooted in the economic gain that is driving the industry.

Sex trafficking is on the rise in the 21st century due to the slow process of governments creating, signing and then enforcing new laws. Looking into multiple forms of illicit activities, Robert Kelly reported that "the favorable economic conditions also provide an environment conducive to transnational crime... the global commerce system offers so many opportunities for rapid growth that law enforcement agencies cannot keep pace" (Kelly 7). With acts and laws taking three to ten years to be ratified, nothing is stopping this profitable trade. The laws, however, are seen as a threat to globalization because the basic nature of the acts are calling for increased border security, less trade between nations and enforcing ways to make travel between nations more expensive (Naim 107). Governments have to take away the profit motive by making the consequences severe enough in order to tackle the core of the issue. While data for illegal activity is hard to confirm, and is usually underestimated, the Trafficking In Person (TIP) recently reported that the industry generates about $57 billion by trafficking 800,000 women and children each year (Parrot 9). The supply and demand chain is how the industry keeps growing. Unlike other illicit trade, such as drugs or weapons, people can be used again and again, and so supply does not get depleted (Kelly 87). In Cambodia alone girls are forced to serve 7-10 men a day, maybe more if the girls are younger because they are seen as more desirable (Parrot 10). In the United States the Polaris Project reported that Latino gangs in particular have women serve 20 to 35 men a day for 15 minutes costing the men $30 each (Comparison Chart). Their bodies are used and abused until they are no longer profitable and then they are literally thrown out.

The industry is able to find so many children and women because of the dire social condition in which they are found. The one child law in China, the destructive nature and displacement of war or the status of being an illegal immigrant in the U.S. all feed into the industry (Parrot 12). Pimps use the allure and promise of giving the girls a better life or giving them passage into the United States. But once they arrive in America, their passports that have often been bought in the black market are taken from them and they are told they have to work off their "debt" to the pimps before they are released. This debt is usually intangible and simply made up by the traffickers (Naim 95). Due to the abuse, both physical and mental, fear of being caught by authorities and the threat of hurting their family, the trafficked victims are bonded to their pimps. Being seen as illegal immigrants also has made it difficult for the victims to seek any help from authorities in the past, especially in America. Police have arrested some of these women for being illegally in the U.S. or for being prostitutes instead of arresting the pimps or buyers of the sex (Bennets). Illegal drugs are also the main way the pimps are able to bind their victims, since they force them to become addicted so they stay with or come back to their owners in order to feed their forced addiction (Shelly 241). The combination of seeking a better job or life, parents selling their children for money to merely survive, economic imbalance, unequal rights for women, political corruption and economic gain all have made the sex trafficking industry the fastest growing illicit trade in the world.

Analysis of this issue in the United States gives perspective to how the industry has grown and changed with little coverage on the degree and danger of the problem. There are three different aspects that have resulted in 100,000 to 300,000 child victims of sex trafficking in the U.S. each year, which do not include the thousands of women trafficked into the U.S. for sex ("Media Coverage"). First, the girls are not only brought in from other countries, but are often kidnapped or coerced into the industry due to lack of means to survive or with promises of love or a better life. Often the trafficked woman knows the pimp. Girls and women from within the U.S. are preferred since transporting them across the borders is not needed. The another major contributor to the sex industry is pornography. Over $9 billion is spent on pornography each year (Parrot 8). This small subset of sex trafficking is often forgotten due to its being online. Women and children are still forced to participate, as shown in one sex video called "Rape Camp." The women in the video were from Cambodia, but the video could be seen in the U.S. The men could choose how the women would be humiliated and tortured through voting over the Internet. While the creator was arrested by Cambodian authorities, the site still stayed up because the server was based in the U.S. (9). Finally, the sex trafficking industry primarily started as mail order brides but has expanded into a network of shipping and selling women across the U.S. "The boom in trafficking women and children for sex has utilized the Internet to display the wares in cyberspace equivalent of slave auctions . . . women are listed 'for sale' on the web at several points of the supply chain" (Naim 102).

Another misconception is that trafficking only happens near the border or in a few big cities. This is an epidemic that has reached far across the nation and into suburban areas. The most recent studies have found that "Johns," or men who buy the women, live primarily in the most affluent counties in the U.S. like "in Montgomery and Fairfax counties, around Washington D.C., and in states with a strong commitment to the welfare of their citizens, like Minnesota" (Shelly 246). California, Florida and Texas, due to their location near the coast or the border, are the top states with trafficked women, and North Carolina is rising since most trafficking happens on trucking routes (241). The connection of highways 85/40/95, with the immigrant working force in the area plus one of the largest military bases, makes it a prime place for traffickers to travel to (252). The U.S. is one of the leading countries introducing legislation to stop trafficking, but there is still a lag between drafting laws and arresting the actual pimps and Johns. Presently, people who are caught with marijuana have to spend more time in jail than someone caught trafficking women and girls (Naim 104). These facts only begin to scratch the surface of the underground sex trafficking industry, but also point to the need for this issue to be more prominent among the news and media, not just in the non-profit world.

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