Seventeen brothels of Asian sex slaves exposed in Atlanta

Is sexual slavery a barbaric Old World myth or a common contemporary crime?

Published November 2, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

Nov. 2, 1999

Stories about "comfort women" abducted and raped by the Japanese military during World War II (as detailed in Naked World Monday) may suggest that sexual slavery is an extinct barbarism that haunts only impoverished or war-torn countries. But recent reports testify that such exploitation continues to this day, sometimes in our own, peaceful backyards. Indeed, many young women who migrate illegally to the "land of the free" find themselves imprisoned in skanky, clandestine brothels.

On Aug. 17, the FBI and the Immigration and Naturalization Service busted a smuggling ring in Atlanta that had "recruited" from 500 to 1,000 young women and girls, aged 13-28, from China, Thailand, Laos, Korea, Malaysia and Vietnam.

The bust, chronicled in November's International Enforcement Law Reporter, unveiled 17 brothels in residential neighborhoods. Often held in "prison compounds," the women lived encircled by barbed wire and fences with chained dogs and gang members as guards. According to the Associated Press, the women slept on mattresses separated by hanging bedsheets and splayed on the brothel floors surrounded by "used and unused condoms, piles of towels and tubes of lubricant."

As in much modern sexploitation, what had begun as a consensual arrangement turned into violent coercion. Originally, the imprisoned women signed contracts promising to pay $30,000-$40,000 to smuggling agents, called "snakeheads," for transport into the United States. Many of the women told investigators they thought they'd be working as seamstresses or masseuses to pay off the debt, but what awaited them was prostitution in confinement. Clients paid $100 per trick; $30 went to the smuggling group and the remaining $70 was deducted from the sex slave's debt. This meant that the average woman needed to satiate about 500 johns before earning her freedom.

Modern sex slavery isn't confined to Atlanta. Recent investigations have uncovered brothel-prisons in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, with additional sex-slave rings suspected in 16 states and the District of Columbia. Deputy Chief Gary Beamish of the Toronto police estimates in Monday's Toronto Star that some 30 million women worldwide have become victims of the sex trade.

What happened to the Atlanta sex slaves who were set free by federal investigators? Quick deportation back to their homeland. How sad that these young women perhaps spent most of their sojourn in the land of liberty gazing wistfully out the windows of their sordid chambers.

By Hank Hyena

Hank Hyena is a former columnist for SF Gate, and a frequent contributor to Salon.

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