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Human Trafficking Center

Sex and Morality: Why Americans are So Averse to the Conversation on Forced Labor


Oct 2016



By Catie Fowler, Projects Manager

The HTC was honored last Wednesday to have Yvonne Zimmerman, a noted theologian and the author of Other Dreams of Freedom: Religion, Sex, and Human Trafficking, return to speak to our students for the sixth consecutive year.  Zimmerman’s speech, which highlighted the theological foundations of popularized sex trafficking narratives, also brought to light points relevant to the fight against forced labor in global supply chains, a topic often relegated to a secondary position within the human trafficking discourse.

As a theologian, a large portion of Zimmerman’s professional work has focused on the way sex is moralized—and overemphasized—in US anti-trafficking policy.  By emphasizing the moral significance of sex, and by saying that only marital sex can be virtuous, the impact of Protestant thought on the American anti-trafficking movement has led to a focus on sex trafficking and led to the omission of global forced labor.

Zimmerman declared that “sex trafficking is something Americans love to hate.”  It speaks to our Protestant abhorrence of sex as sinful and as something that is easy for many to speak out against.  By contrast, forced labor for industrial purposes has an almost opposite effect.  As some of the top consumers in a global supply chain, Americans have an active aversion to the conversation on forced labor in global supply chains.  It causes Americans guilt, rather than a sense of moral righteousness.

Consideration of forced labor should be brought to the forefront of the anti-trafficking movement, in order to better reflect the reality of the problem.  While there is no surefire way to guarantee global estimates on the prevalence of human trafficking, the International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that, of the 18.7 million persons subject to trafficking by the private economy, 68% are victims of forced labor.  This is in comparison to only 22% of that same population estimated to be victims of sex trafficking.  Still, US policy and political rhetoric continues to focus on sex trafficking, rather than on labor.

The need to focus on forced labor, particularly in global supply chains, is crucial.  Zimmerman illustrated the difficulty in doing this, as forced labor, the cheapness of goods, and the American economy are almost inseparably linked.  She pointed out that neoliberal values–those in which the state exists to serve the economy–only facilitate this, going so far as to say that, under neoliberalism, Americans almost view the “market as God.”

There is a need to address the role of the market in human trafficking and there is already good work being done on exactly that.  Notably, a number of organizations and companies are beginning to address this problem from a variety of standpoints, from awareness campaigns to auditing services. (Several of these companies are listed and briefly described below). In order to combat all forms of human trafficking it is necessary to recognize our aversion to discussing forced labor and abuses within the global supply chains from which we often benefit. Perhaps if we expand our concern beyond the “easy” crime to hate, the anti-trafficking movement will begin to see a more significant impact on the crime as a whole.

Organizations addressing labor issues in global supply chains*

  • The Enough! Project has worked to raise awareness of forced labor in coltan mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo
  • Auditing organization Verité helps companies form a better understanding of the labor issues and potential abuses taking place in their supply chains
  • The Cotton Campaign focuses on working to end forced and child labor in the cotton fields of Uzbekistan, a major global cotton supplier
  • Global risk analytics company Verisk Maplecroft has recently released a Modern Slavery Index ranking the risk of forced labor or other modern day slavery being a part of goods and commodities produced by individual countries
  • Tech company Provenance has developed a tool to track products through the supply chain using blockchain technology

*This list is not extensive, but rather a sampling of the different ways companies are addressing the issue

Photo Credit: NilsW via Pixabay

About the Human Trafficking Center

The Human Trafficking Center, housed in the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies, is the only two-year, graduate-level, professional-training degree in human trafficking in the United States. One way graduate students contribute to the study of human trafficking is by publishing research-based blogs. The HTC was founded in 2002 to apply sound research and reliable methodology to the field of human trafficking research and advocacy.

Founded in 1964, the Josef Korbel School of International Studies is one of the world’s leading schools for the study of international relations. The School offers degree programs in international affairs and is named in honor of its founder and first dean, Josef Korbel.


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