Sex sells

Is the coverage of sex slavery about more than human dignity?

Published October 26, 2005 3:02PM (EDT)

Two months ago, advertisements for the new Lifetime miniseries "Human Trafficking" laid siege to the New York City subway system. The promos were hard to miss -- not just because they replaced all those Dr. Zizmor zit ads and Bud Light billboards, but because they were unabashedly seductive. The format was simple: a grainy photograph of five young women, each with full cherry-stained lips and dark hair, side by side, their eyes concealed by black blindfolds.

Indeed, while Lifetime publicists were all over the papers, proudly touting the series as "a tough, uncompromising drama about the brutal realities behind the international trafficking of women and children for sex," the ads were selling subway riders another story -- a sexy one, of ripe young women, blind and in bondage. The Calvin Klein kiddie porn aesthetic might have been calculated to draw in viewers, but it left Broadsheet wondering what other impulses -- besides the humanitarian -- the series aimed to gratify.

It's a question that has shadowed other media representations of the so-called sex-trafficking epidemic, -- namely, Peter Landesman's now infamous (and hotly contested) 2004 New York Times Magazine feature, "Sex Slaves on Main Street." And it's a conflict that comes out in images more than words: For instance, the cover illustration for Landesman's piece depicted a dark-skinned adolescent, clad suggestively in a short plaid skirt, and viewed from below as she leaned back into a pink motel bed.

Perhaps it's petty to find fault with any story that brings more attention to the plight of impoverished and persecuted women around the world -- but it's worth wondering why the issue of trafficking so often focuses on sex. Recently, Jack Shafer in Slate, David Feingold in Foreign Policy and Debbie Nathan in the Nation have all brought to light convincing evidence that the media coverage of sex slavery is wildly disproportionate when compared to the number of trafficking victims forced into other -- often equally dangerous -- unpaid labor. Though it's difficult to pin down reliable statistics, Feingold's article in particular cites compelling new research. A 2005 study conducted by the International Labor Organization asserts that "of the estimated 9.5 million victims of forced labor in Asia, less than 10 percent are trafficked for commercial sexual exploitation." On a worldwide level, the ILO says, "less than half of all trafficking victims are part of the sex trade."

Many of the others are forced into labor in fields, factories and private homes. And while those victims are not bound for brothels, they are spared little suffering. According to Mahidol University's Institute for Population and Social Research and the German Agency for Technical Cooperation (GTZ), rape and sexual assault, psychological abuse, work without pay, and sleep deprivation are all frequently used to control trafficked workers -- whether they be Burmese domestics or Cambodian boys aboard fishing boats.

Nathan's piece tells the story of Alice, a Kenyan woman brought to the U.S. and held as an indentured domestic worker in California. Alice eventually escaped her captors and started over with the aid of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (which passed in 2000). Why aren't there more accounts like Alice's in the press? Nathan has an opinion: "Probably because [Alice] was 'just' an imprisoned nanny and not a brothel captive," she said. "People forced to work in factories, fields, restaurants and homes -- and there are plenty of them in the United States" -- are often overlooked.

Certainly, stories about field laborers and housekeepers rarely come prepackaged with images of pouty-lipped teens. Like child abduction -- that other favorite American "epidemic," symbolized by the shining faces of Natalee Holloway and Amber Hagerman -- the sex slave "epidemic" arrives as a ready-made cause for the American media, offering a never-ending pipeline of girls to mourn for innocence lost.

It was gratifying at least, while watching Lifetime's "Human Trafficking" last night, to note a rare moment of candor from Mira Sorvino, in the role of a dogged immigration and customs agent, Kate Morozov. Appealing to one of her superiors for assistance in an investigation against an international prostitution kingpin, Sorvino cleverly spins her pitch: "We have an innocent young girl ... sold as a sex slave and murdered. This an extremely mediagenic case."

By Sarah Karnasiewicz

Sarah Karnasiewicz is a freelance writer and photographer based in Brooklyn, N.Y. Until recently, she was senior editor at Saveur magazine; prior to that she was deputy Life editor at Salon. She has contributed to the New York Times, the New York Observer and Rolling Stone, among other publications. For more of her work, visit and Signs and Wonders.

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