The Brief: Law School News and Events

Taking on Human Trafficking
Gloria Steinem speaks at the Penn Law Review's November symposium,  
Gloria Steinem speaks at the Penn Law Review's November symposium, "Trafficking in Sex and Labor: Domestic and International Responses.

When Gloria Steinem visited When Gloria Steinem visited a brothel in Nevada several years ago, she thought sex work could be non-exploitative.

She hoped she would meet women who had willingly entered prostitution and remained in full control of their bodies.

Instead, she found the prostitutes locked in cages by the brothel-owner and so underfed that neighbors regularly threw food to them over a fence.

"I'm at fault for having bought the phrase ‘sex work' and the rationale that comes with it," she declared in her opening remarks at the Penn Law Review's November symposium, "Trafficking in Sex and Labor: Domestic and International Responses." Steinem focused her remarks on sex trafficking, but called for a cooperative approach to ending all forms of human bondage.

"I don't want a competition of tears. Let's just say it's all wrong and we should try to end it all," she said.

Early in the discussion, speakers began referring to human trafficking and human enslavement interchangeably. "It is much more useful to talk about trafficking as the modern human slavery," argued James Gray Pope, professor of labor law at Rutgers Law School. About 30 million people live in slavery today, based on estimates presented by various speakers.

Despite Steinem's call for cooperation, speakers repeatedly pointed out that modern abolitionist efforts often conflict with each other. "It used to be that the only way to get a forced labor law through was to sneak it in under the veil of a sex trafficking law," said Martina Vandenberg, an attorney who has testified on human trafficking before several U.S. and international committees.

Yet labor exploitation is occurring all the time, right under our noses, and rarely gets noticed unless an outside individual gets involved. "Be a nosy neighbor," Vandenberg advised.

Sex trafficking and labor trafficking abolitionists don't merely compete for attention, according to Janie Chuang, who advised the United Nations Commissioner on Human Rights about international trafficking law; they also compete for aid.

"In order to get access to global anti-trafficking money, you need to take a stance against prostitution, which makes it harder to get access to the prostitution community," she said.

Allowing prostitution to enter the debate over human trafficking, according to Chuang, has "muddled the legal definition of trafficking" and "dilutes the force of having a single definition" in the first place.

University of Michigan and Harvard Law professor Catharine A. MacKinnon summarized the debate in her keynote address by reminding speakers of their common cause.

"There is no pro-trafficking position, nor is there a proslavery position for labor or sex. The only issue that comes up around these terms is defining them, so that nothing that anyone wants to defend is covered by them," she pointed out.

"What defines trafficking is not crossing borders, or even especially severe violence: it is third-party involvement. You can't traffic or enslave yourself."