Human trafficking is the trade of human beings, mainly for the purpose of sexual slavery, forced labor, or commercial sexual exploitation. There are approximately 20 to 30 million slaves across the world today. The reason why human trafficking is such a giant industry is that it is immensely profitable with minimal risk; this is associated with confusion over definition of trafficking, police and government corruption, insufficient victim protection, ineffective law enforcement and prosecution. In regards to how to media covers the issue of sex trafficking, Sarasota Herald-Tribute journalist, David McSwane said, “It was almost a microcosm of what’s happening as a society. We don’t want to look at it because it’s uncomfortable.”
Historically, human trafficking has been in existence across the globe for thousands of years, beginning in ancient Greek and Roman civilizations to medieval times, and up to today. It has become the fastest growing business of organized crime, and the third largest criminal enterprise in the world. The International Labor Organization estimates that the human trafficking industry is worth approximately $150 billion, two-thirds of which comes from commercial sex trafficking. According the Walk Free Foundation, an Australian non-profit organization, roughly 14 million of these modern slaves are held captive in India, where the sex slavery industry has a huge effect on the economy. Unlike other forms of illegal selling and trading, such as weapons or drugs, the supply and demand of sexual slavery and human trafficking is not easily depleted.
Although it is illegal by law, these laws are not properly implemented, allowing humans to be trafficked in and out across India. According research of broadcast and online media between 2008 and 2012 by Barbara Friedman of the UNC School of Journalism and Mass Communication, over 54 percent of the media coverage regarding sex trafficking was twisted and related to some kind of crime story. “If most coverage is crime, people think it requires a law and order solutions, such as increased police and punishment.” In India, the fine for owning a brothel is about $44, while the earning made from one slave is about $12,900 per year, making profit 291 times greater than penalty. Along with this, her researchers determined that only 16 percent of the media coverage of sex trafficking was treated as a human rights issue.
Most coverage of human trafficking is related to a “more newsworthy” event, or in relation to a prominent person in the media. In addition, those stories that do cover human trafficking and sexual slavery do not offer any remedy to the issue. If anything, the “solution” is focused on saving the individual victim rather than addressing the social, political, and economic structures that allow for the continued violation of human rights. An example of this can be found in a September 2009 issue of the Washington Post, which reported “3 Americans Face Child-Sex Charges.”
Human trafficking throughout India not only includes forced labor and sexual slavery, but also organ harvesting. According to the United Nations, traffickers bring roughly 15,000 people from Nepal into India every year. Along with the high demand in Bangladesh, Thailand, Malaysia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Ukraine, India has also become a major supplier to countries in the Middle East.
Media coverage of sexual exploitation and human trafficking throughout the world is very weak. For some media outlets, the reason for this is because they are not aware that human trafficking continues to be a growing problem and major economic industry. According to the Program on Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, a sex slave in Mumbai, India, brings a profit of around $13,000 a year and costs almost nothing to maintain. Given that human trafficking is a giant industry and has such an impact on India’s economy, it is possible that it is not covered due to fear of a collapse in the Indian global economy.
Most of the victims in India come from rural areas, specifically West Bengal. In these poor areas, over 70 percent of the people are illiterate and in poverty, leading to increased vulnerability. The business aspect of human trafficking begins with the communication between agencies and local agents in remote villages in order to identify potential “supply” that becomes the victim. From there, the victim is then relocated to cities, where the agents then sell them to a domestic worker placement agency; the agency then re-sells multiple times. Despite being the largest workforce in the country, it is unrecognized by the media and unprotected according to Indian law.
Sex trafficking has not received adequate attention due to the rights and perception of the value of woman in many parts of the world. Certain aspects of Indian culture continue to devalue women, making them more vulnerable to trafficking. While not directly promoting the spread of trafficking, these cultural and societal constructs enable it.
For others, the issue is inaccurately, directly related to issues surrounding illegal migration and smuggling. According to the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime, human trafficking is different from migrant smuggling for four main reasons: consent, exploitation, trans-nationality, and source of profits. Examples of this misrepresentation due to misconception can be found in prominent headlines of major news outlets. An October 2008 edition of the New York Times, reported “North Dakota: Immigrants Arrested.” Similarly in February 2010, the Los Angeles Times reported “14 Illegal immigrants Found in a Reseda House.” Both of these stories relate migrant smuggling directly to human trafficking.
In recent history, the media has attempted to highlight the issues surrounding human trafficking and sexual slavery
through film and television platforms. Examples of this can be seen in the television shoe “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit” and the film “Taken”. Both attempt to raise awareness on the issue, b
ut it also negatively creates issues surrounding the use of serious global human rights in order to create a profit and entertainment. In addition, it creates a false understanding that human trafficking is only related to forced sex. Rather than budgeting for film and television, the money spend can be used toward programs geared to fighting sexual slavery as well as educational programs.
In recent years, the average age of a sex worker in India has dropped from between 14 and 16, to between 10 and 14. The belief behind this is that younger girls have a lower risk of carrying sexually transmitted diseases. However, this change in industry has lead to victims being taken and contracting diseases at a younger age. Media coverage of sex trafficking often fails in representing the victims, specifically the child victims. Rather than using the correct terms, such as “victim” or “survivor”, research shows that terms such as “hooker” or “prostitute”, or even “child prostitute” were more frequently used. Journalists need to understand the implications of their terminology; a child cannot consent, therefore a child can never be considered a prostitute. This is also related to how the media inaccurately relates sex trafficking to migrant smuggling. According to the Carolina Women’s Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, “smuggling assumes some level of consent” while sex trafficking “requires the use of force, fraud, or coercion.” The distinction is that smuggling is a violation of national boundaries, while sex trafficking is a violation of human rights.
In 2013, the New York Times commented, “Although a brutal gang rape in Delhi last December grabbed national headlines and caused a public outcry, sex trafficking in India has not provoked the same degree of outrage.” According to a study conducted by BMC Women’s Health, there were 534 published media reports regarding this headline.
Regardless of whether or not people want to read about important issues such as human trafficking and sexual exploitation, it needs to be discussed in the media. No one wants to read about unthinkable and uncomfortable crimes such as these, but as long media reports continue to avoid it or misrepresent it, the longer it will continue to be a growing industry.