Sunday, November 7, 2010

Sex trafficking and spatial isolation: part 2 of 2

Two weeks ago I wrote a blog post analyzing sex trafficking within the framework of “spatial isolation," a concept discussed at length by UC Davis Law Professor Lisa Pruitt. In my previous post I discussed how spatial isolation exacerbates the problems that sex trafficking victims face. I applied this framework to an actual situation reported by the New York Times (“NYT”). Continuing my analysis of sex trafficking within the framework of spatial isolation, in this blog post I will argue that: (1) spatial isolation results in lack of anonymity for sex trafficking victims; (2) spatial isolation, as manifested through sex trafficking, reinforces the public/private divide for women; and (3) an understanding of spatial isolation may be used to assist recovering victims of sex trafficking.

In the context of rural communities, Professor Pruitt has stated that the lack of anonymity that results from spatial isolation and low population density in these communities restricts rural women’s autonomy. Accordingly, “[s]uch diminished privacy may, for example, deter women from reporting crimes.” (Gender, Geography, & Rural Justice, p. 359).

In the NYT article, Ms. Iana Matei, a sex trafficking activist, states that she admires former victims for their strength in continuing their lives. As an example of their strength, she says that “[w]hen they are back in school and all the boys are offering them money for oral sex because they know, that’s not easy.” Much like in the rural context, I think that lack of anonymity resulting from spatial isolation negatively affects the autonomy of sex trafficking victims. First, when young girls and women are spatially isolated from their hometowns or native communities, their absence is probably very noticeable, especially in a context such as school. Second, though a girl or woman may live in a fairly populated city, on a day-to-day basis she is also part of a smaller, more immediate community.

Considering these localized areas as the basic unit of community, her absence from her normal surroundings likely magnifies the lack of anonymity that she must experience. As a result of this lack of anonymity stemming from her conspicuous absence from familiar areas such as school or the local community, when she does return she may face sexual harassment from those that know her and about her victimization.

Regarding the public/private divide, Professor Pruitt argues that “[b]y relegating women to a sphere that is both conceptually and spatially private, society limits their access to knowledge and power.” (Gender, Geography, & Rural Justice, p. 363). Thus, the private sphere has been “the critical ‘locus of women’s oppression and exploitation’.” (Gender, Geography, & Rural Justice, p. 365). According to Professor Pruitt, the private sphere encompasses the household, but not public institutions such as the market and politics. (Gender, Geography, & Rural Justice, p. 365).

Sex trafficking further reinforces the public/private divide for women through spatial isolation. At its core, sex trafficking exploits victims through forced prostitution. Prostitution necessarily involves sexual acts. Sexual activity is probably universally considered a “private activity.” That is, people generally have sex within the confines of private spaces, not in public areas. Thus, sex trafficking relegates girls and women to the private sphere. By being both literally and conceptually isolated from the public, captors limit victims’ access to knowledge and power to escape their situation.

Despite these barriers resulting from spatial isolation, spatial isolation as a conceptual framework can be used to help assist victims of sex trafficking. Ms. Matei and other sex trafficking activists are countering the spatial isolation of sex trafficking as well as its resulting effects. NYT reported that, “[u]ntil a few years ago, Ms. Matei’s shelter [] was the only one in Romania for victims of traffickers, though the country has been a center for the trade in young girls for decades.” Moreover, child welfare services would routinely ignore these victims. Ms. Matei stated that she obtained an apartment for sex trafficking victims, and that is how she began her activist work.

As revealed by NYT, sex trafficking victims in Romania remained spatially isolated from help because the resources simply did not exist. Therefore, in both a physical and psychological sense, victims were isolated from those who may have the means, inclination, and training to help them. Shelters like the one that Ms. Matei opened counteract spatial isolation by providing a physical location and healthy support network for sex trafficking victims. In this way, shelters serve as a safe space that provide both material and psychological support. In short, by identifying the causes and effects of spatial isolation in the sex trafficking context, one may be able to help victims recover a life of normalcy.

1 comment:

Rebecca said...

The commoditization of women in the form of human trafficking is very disturbing to me. According to the United Nations, 4 million people a year are “trafficked” and most of them are women.

I was reading a book recently called Forsaken Females by Andrea Parrot and Nina Cummings. They say that trafficking of women for sexual exploitation and forced labor is one of the most lucrative forms of organized crime. Professor Pruitt’s research on spatial isolation in rural communities and the restriction on women’s autonomy has heightened my awareness regarding notions of spatial isolation in non- traditional forms. I found a quote that made me think about the different ways a woman is confined, controlled and subjugated by a man in the context of trafficking:

“I own you, “ he said. “You are my property, and you will work for me until I say stop. Don’t try to leave. You have no papers, no passport and you don’t speak the language.” (Lederer, 1999 a)

The confinement is not by controlling the physical space a woman occupies, but her freedom to move in a physical space is none- the- less, significantly restricted by robbing her of her “documented” identity and stripping her of her “voice”. She is spatially isolated-walled off from the world, as she knew it.

At the same time, the phenomenon of the Internet that touts “borderless” business has allowed for human trafficking to flourish on a global scale. Trafficking is benefitting from a world without borders or public scrutiny. The magnitude of the “invisibility” is striking.

I think about these women and the double bind they are in. They are forced into prostitution against their will or because there is no other viable economic option available. This forced prostitution is a kind of sexual slavery that confines what is possible for them. Add to that, the risks of disease, disability, pregnancy, stigma, cultural isolation and disgrace and you have “boxed” them in through every dimension of their lives. It is no wonder that very few women ever escape to become respected citizens and attain independence.