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Human Trafficking Center

Rape Culture and Sex Trafficking

22

Sep 2015

1

by Jillian LaBranche, Associate

A discussion on sex trafficking necessitates a conversation on rape culture. Rape culture is broadly defined as an environment characterized by dominant cultural ideologies, social practices and media images that condone sexual assault by normalizing and trivializing sexual violence. While rape and sex trafficking are not necessarily synonymous, parallels between the treatment of victims of rape and sex trafficking do exist due to underlying rape culture.

THE “PERFECT” VICTIM

Rape culture perpetuates the myth that a victim needs to be “perfect” in order to be worthy of empathy and care.

When someone is raped questions like “what was she wearing” and “was he drunk” surface, implying the victim might bear some blame for what happened. Society is more concerned with the circumstances surrounding the rape than the ramifications — as if rape is a consequence of poor behavior, rather than a result of systemic issues of sexual violence.

Rape victims are faced with a hostile climate due to the perpetuation of rape myths. They are expected to have “known better” and held responsible for their actions. The perfect example is the Steubenville rape case, in which the victim was blamed for the consequences her rapists faced.

Conversations surrounding sex trafficking also tend to focus on the palatability of victims. Questions surface: “was he illegal?” or “did she ever use drugs?”  As with rape culture, these questions ignore systemic causes of trafficking and instead focus on the actions of the victim.

Furthermore, trafficking victims that do not fit the illusion of the perfect victim, such as LGBTQ survivors, often face barriers to accessing treatment. Polaris Project reports “high rates of service denial, as well as violence from breach of confidentiality and unsafe and discriminatory treatment, by staff and other recipients of these services on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity, [or] gender expression.

The “perfect victim” is an illusion, yet the media continually perpetuates this portrayal. So what is the perfect victim? This victim is virtuous, proportionately weak, and most importantly — blameless. They do not engage in risk taking behavior (such as being intoxicated or migrating to another country for a job one knows little about). People’s ability to empathize with a victim is contingent upon the victim being perceived as “perfect.”

“STRANGER DANGER” MYTH

TV crime and drama shows such as Law & Order: SVU perpetuate rape culture by validating the myth that rape is largely committed by strangers.

In fact, rape is largely committed by acquaintances. This stranger-danger mythology suggests that victims are those taken advantage of by strangers, rather than those attacked by intimate associates.

The popular movie “Taken” about sex trafficking continues to perpetuate the myth and idea of a perfect, kidnapped victim. It suggests that victims are largely “taken”  — ignoring a large population that is groomed by traffickers known to victims. Traffickers can be parents, friends, trusted relatives or even an intimate partner.  Presuming victims of sex trafficking are forcibly abducted by strangers ignores the agency the victim may have had in trying to secure a better life before finding him or herself in a trafficking situation. Admitting the victim has agency makes the victim “imperfect.” This presumption also obscures the intersectional nature of factors like lack of education, opportunity, or security that can lead to vulnerability- much more so than being snatched by a stranger trafficker.

Both rape and sex trafficking signal a depreciation and devaluation of humanity, with both types of victims often blamed by society unless they can be perceived as “perfect.” In many sex trafficking cases in the US, victims are arrested and charged with prostitution while pimps and traffickers go free.  In fact, many traffickers are known to victims and have established relationships, complicating a victim’s ability to understand the situation as trafficking or testify without fear of retribution.

DIFFICULTY IN PROSECUTION

While the federal anti-trafficking legislation states that individuals engaged in forced  prostitution are trafficking victims, law enforcement officers continue to arrest and charge them with crimes- even if they are committed as a result of being trafficked.  Colorado only recently passed a bill to allow victims of sex trafficking an affirmative defense for such charges- but only for prostitution charges.

It is worth noting that 97 percent of rapists do not see the inside of a jail cell. Rape is a difficult crime to prosecute — a rare crime where the victim must prove they are innocent.

Similarly, incentives are greater for traffickers to trade in sexual exploitation, rather than other illicit commodities, such as drugs. For them, it is less dangerous to sell people than drugs — especially since human trafficking is largely under-prosecuted globally. Additionally, because many people can be working together to carry out the act of sex trafficking, it too, is very difficult to prosecute.

This miscarriage of justice furthers public perception that there is something inherently wrong with rape victims or victims of trafficking.

Furthermore, many sex trafficking victims do not self-identify as trafficking victims. The same is true of rape victims, because our culture has normalized rape — many people fail to realize that their experience qualifies as rape or trafficking, limiting cases that can be brought before the court

A parallel between rape culture and sex trafficking certainly exists. But where is the nexus? More research needs to be done to uncover the intersection between these two forms of sexual violence, as rape culture appears to be perpetuating the dehumanizing treatment of those in sex trafficking in both courts, media, and public perception.

Image via Chase Carter

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