Twenty-five years ago this year, the United Nations defined the expression “gender-based violence” as “Any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivations of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.”
The phrase “human trafficking” includes both sexual and labor exploitation, but the fact of the matter is that 77% of reported instances of trafficking in the United States, sexual exploitation is involved, according to the Polaris Project. And at the global level, approximately 98% of the 4.5 million people experiencing sexual exploitation are female. Sexual exploitation is gender-based violence.
Here in January of 2018—National Human Trafficking Awareness Month—that definition seems more relevant than ever. The last few months of 2017 were marked with the hashtag #MeToo, bringing light to the pandemic abuses that stem from culturally embedded misogyny and abusive power dynamics. It allowed for a collective bravery among those who have been sexually harassed, abused, and assaulted to tell their stories and identify with one another. In the first 48 hours of the #MeToo hashtag’s resurgent popularity, it was tweeted over half a million times. By October 24, there were 1.7 million tweets. Facebook reported that hashtag had been used by more than 4.7 million users, in over 12 million posts. It was the biggest spike in a social media trend of 2017. (Stats via ezyinsights)
Often, the work we do at REST involves listening to countless #MeToo-esque stories—and more than that: seeing, hearing, and believing those who tell the stories. We daily see the effects of gender-based violence on the women we serve—we see the physical, sexual, and psychological harm that the sex trade yields. We hear the stories of threats, violence, coercion, and deprivations of liberty.
The statistics about women who have experienced sexual exploitation are both astounding and heartbreaking. 86% of women in the sex trade in the United States have been subjected to physical violence, sexual assault, and other forms of violence by their buyers—62% reporting having been raped. A number of studies show that 80–95% of people in prostitution are under the control of pimps. 75–95% of individuals in the sex trade were sexually abused a children. (Stats via Ending Exploitation Collaborative) Often, the journey into sexual exploitation begins with instances of gender-based violence—and continues throughout being in the sex trade.
As we seek to bring awareness to the global, national, and local issue that human trafficking is, we must acknowledge the role that gender-based violence plays in the everyday life of hundreds of millions of women worldwide. To change the sex industry, we must change the way that women are viewed in society. We must say no to gender-based violence, misogyny, and abusive power dynamics—and we must say, “Yes, I see you. Yes, I hear you. Yes, I believe you.”
So yes, #MeToo—victims and survivors of sexual exploitation, too.