“The global struggle for gender equality is the paramount moral struggle of this century.” –Nicholas Kristoff
“The clients are insecure drunks who believe whatever we tell them,” a young Cuban prostitute in a Cancun lap-dancing bar tells Lydia Cacho, a Mexican journalist who has devoted her career to investigating violence against women. “Some of them are very vulgar, and they believe we are going to fall in love with them.” Worldwide, one of the first things enslaved girls are taught, Cacho reveals in Slavery Inc., her devastating exposé of the rapidly expanding global market for sex slaves, is to call their clients “my love,” “my life,” “darling,” “big daddy,” or “my king.”
International trafficking of women and children for sex is a multi-billion dollar business rivaling the numbers of African slaves sold from the 1500s to the 1800s. Each year, 1.39 million people — mostly women and girls, many as young as 4 years old — are sold and subjected to rape and enslavement. Over a period of five years, Lydia Cacho traveled the world from Mexico and the U.S. to Thailand and Japan, from Turkey and Israel to the UK and the Ukraine tracking small and large sex slave mafia operations run by the Japanese Yakuza, the Chinese Triads, the Italian, Russian, and Albanian mafias, and the Latin American drug cartels. Often risking her life, she interviewed victims, clients, pimps, traffickers, politicians, businessmen, law enforcement officials, and employees of NGOs trying to help the victims. Packed with mind-boggling statistics, her book provides a detailed explanation of how sex trafficking works and the fundamental role played by mafias, governments, and banks.
In a conversational prose, Cacho unfolds a horror story of unfathomable human suffering. She reports on girls sold to traffickers by their mothers in Cambodia, girls stolen from orphanages in Romania, women in Uzbekistan and Brazil who, seeking to escape poverty, are duped by traffickers with fake foreign employment contracts as nannies, domestic workers, secretaries, models, etc., then forced to repay their exorbitant travel and immigration expenses through prostitution after undergoing systematic brainwashing convincing them they are good for nothing else. Confronted by these abhorrent practices, Cacho tries to understand how, ethically, we as a society can allow sex slavery to exist and thrive. She boldly questions every aspect of our civilization, including sacrosanct values such as free speech, free markets, and liberty. Recalling Isaiah Berlin’s famous quote, “Liberty is liberty, not equality or fairness or justice or culture, or human happiness or a quiet conscience,” she wonders: “What is liberty for these girls, for women? Or perhaps liberty is what allows men to foster a culture where slavery is normalized.”
Despite the strides made this past century to improve women’s lives, our planetary culture is still permeated with Page 3s and Page 6s, ubiquitous advertising equating eroticized women and girls with merchandise, and movies, music, and computer games promoting violence against women. Cacho writes: “In a culture governed by misogynistic and patriarchal values, the female body is viewed as an object that can be both sold, used, and disposed of. No country has made an effort to create real conditions for equality between the sexes.”
The pervasive cultural practice of blaming the victims of sexual violence for their fate — “they asked for it,” “they like it,” “they’re born that way,” “they tempt men into it” — is a sex trade industry tool used to maintain their power structures. Even campaigns to stop violence against women, Cacho notes, promote the blame-the-victim-paradigm by telling women not to “allow themselves to be fooled or abused.” A shift focusing on the aggressors has begun, however. For example, the common slogan: “Every fifteen seconds a woman is abused” has now been changed to “Every fifteen seconds a man chooses to abuse a woman.”
Though governments and individuals can effectively fight sex trafficking,* Cacho believes the ultimate answer lies in a global reassessment of masculinity itself. “A new masculine revolution is necessary,” she declares. “We need a new generation of men, not warriors, not armed, not threatening divine punishment, not violent, but men who possess a strong sense of progress and justice… Male power must re-invent itself.”
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