Elevate Difference

Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery

Besides weapons and drugs, sex trafficking is the most profitable type of illegal trafficking in the world. In Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery, Siddharth Kara takes the reader on a disturbing global tour of Coalition Against Trafficking in Womensex slavery, traveling to India, Italy, Thailand, and several other countries. 

An overarching theme that Kara mentions repeatedly is the deep-rooted cultural misogyny in so many of the countries he visited. Although poverty, war and social turmoil create a fertile ground for sex trafficking, the author identifies cultural attitudes toward women as the primary reason that sex trafficking occurs. In his words: “Millions of women lived in a world that overwhelmingly disdained them." 

One of the most interesting aspects of Sex Trafficking is the circumstances that led the author to write it. He first became interested in trafficking as a college student, when he spent the summer of 1994 in a Bosnian refugee camp in Slovenia and learned about the trafficking of Bosnian Muslim women. Although he has been interested in sex slavery for many years, he is not an academic, nor does he advocate for anti-trafficking work professionally. Kara is a businessman, and funded his trafficking research trips around the world using personal savings. During his research trips, Kara conducted hundreds of interviews with slaves. In order to find sex for sale, he usually talked to cab drivers, posing as an interested client. In most countries, finding cheap sex was easy, and Kara usually found conditions indicative of sex slavery where he found cheap sex. The book's revelation that legalized prostitution often acts as a cover for sex slavery was very disturbing, especially in the chapter about slavery in Amsterdam. 

In one of the most devastating passages of the book, Kara locates sex slavery at a “massage parlor” in Los Angeles. The young woman he meets was trafficked from Thailand with promises of a job as a waitress. Once in the U.S., she was told that she owed $20,000 to the “massage parlor” owner she was sold to, which she would earn by having sex with several men a day. At first she refused, but was beaten and raped into submission. Most of the money she makes goes to the owner, except for a small portion that is sent to her parents. Kara offers to help the woman by calling the police, but she refuses his help because she is afraid the trafficker will hurt her parents in Thailand. The author talks about the anguish he felt about whether or not to contact the police. He ended up not doing so, but still isn’t sure if this was the right choice. 

The reader might wonder if the author handles these situations in the most appropriate manner, or whether his presence makes matters worse. Although I am sure that Kara had the best intentions, I have to wonder about the ethical limits of this type of research. At times he puts himself, and possibly the women he interacts with, in dangerous situations. He is essentially powerless to help the women that he comes into contact with, other than giving them educational pamphlets or phone numbers for shelters. 

Kara describes the way that the industry operates, explaining that money is the prime motivator for sex trafficking, which is dominated more and more by organized crime rings and networks of corrupt public officials who can be bought off. Using economic theory, he argues that the best way to shut down the industry is to make sex trafficking less profitable.

Sex Trafficking paints a very bleak picture of the status of women globally, particularly for women from poor countries. Urgent action is required to end sex slavery, and my hope is that people who read this book will be moved to action.

Written by: Liz Simmons, April 21st 2009