Sunday, October 24, 2010

Sex trafficking and spatial isolation: part 1 of 2

The New York Times (“NYT”) recently profiled Iana Matei, a leading advocate who helps female victims of human sex trafficking in Romania. The article gives a broad overview of the sex trafficking industry in Romania, its effect on victims, and Ms. Matei’s efforts to bring victims back to a sense of normalcy.

In a recent session for “Feminist Legal Theory,” a class that I am taking in law school, my professor, Lisa Pruitt, assigned readings regarding feminism and rural women. These topics are of particular interest to Professor Pruitt, who has written extensively on both. The assigned readings discuss one theoretical framework that I think may have particular relevance in the sex trafficking context: spatiality.

Although Professor Pruitt relates spatiality with respect to rural women, as I read the NYT article, it occurred to me that this concept may also help to explain the victimization process of sex trafficking. In the rest of this blog post I will attempt to draw connections between the NYT article and Professor Pruitt’s theoretical framework regarding spatiality.

The beginning of the NYT article briefly discusses a fifteen year-old prostitute’s decision to escape her captors. The article mentions that she had tried to escape before and had been beaten severely; Ms. Matei was unsure whether the girl would have the courage to try again. This scenario is probably not uncommon within the trafficking industry. Regarding rural women, Professor Pruitt has argued that their “spatial isolation” from neighbors and law enforcement exacerbates the problems of domestic violence. (Gender, Geography & Rural Justice, p. 359.)

I believe that spatial isolation from law enforcement and outsiders similarly aggravates the helplessness and dependency that a trafficking victim may feel towards her physically abusive captor(s). The fifteen year-old girl in the NYT article was probably hesitant to try to escape again because her spatial isolation from anyone able or willing to help likely rendered an escape attempt ineffectual. Spatial isolation in the trafficking context is further illustrated by the fact that once girls and women are forced into the industry, “they are sold to gangs and locked up in brothels or forced to work the streets.”

Related to the idea of spatial isolation is the concept of “spaces of dependence.” One scholar, Kevin Cox, has defined spaces of dependence as “the idea that some socio-spatial relationships are interchangeable within a given space but difficult or impossible outside that space.” (Gender, Geography & Rural Justice, p. 360.) Professor Pruitt has argued that the concept of spaces of dependence may help explain the lack of mobility among rural women. Extending this argument, I believe that spaces of dependence may partly explain the helplessness and inability to escape for victims of human trafficking.

First, in the case of a girl or woman who has been working in the same brothel or on the same streets for a long period of time, she may eventually cope with her situation by becoming accustomed to her local streets, clientele, or routine. However, if removed from her area of knowledge and familiarity and forced into prostitution in a new location, she may not necessarily be able to adapt easily to a new and unfamiliar place.

Conceptually speaking, a victim’s knowledge and understanding of her surroundings may be substantially filtered through the lenses of prostitution and sex trafficking. Even if she attempted to escape on her own or to seek help from authorities, her ability to effectively attain this help may be hampered by the fact that her local knowledge depends on mechanisms of oppression – sexual servitude, physical abuse, enslavement, and isolation. Thus, she may not have the confidence or knowledge to seek outside help in order to escape her circumstances.

Professor Pruitt has stated that “[e]mpirical research shows that rural women rely heavily on social networks for material assistance (e.g., babysitting services, transportation, and even assistance with paying bills), as well as social and emotional support.” (Gender, Geography, & Rural Justice, p. 361.) Similarly, victims of sex trafficking probably rely on their social networks – captors and other victims – for material assistance (e.g., money, transportation, protection, housing), as well as for social and emotional dependence. In this way, spaces of dependence apply to both physical and metaphorical spaces.

In part two of this blog post I will discuss: (1) lack of anonymity resulting from spatial isolation in the sex trafficking context; (2) sex trafficking as an example of the public/private divide reinforced through spatial isolation; and (3) using spatial isolation as a theoretical framework to assist recovering victims of sex trafficking.

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