“The degradation, the wrongs, the vices, that grow out of slavery, are more than I can describe. They are greater than you would willingly believe.” - Harriet Jacobs
Harriet Jacobs was born into slavery in February of 1813. In 1835 she escaped—after years of sexual harassment and threats from her master. She went on to become a writer, nurse, abolitionist—and arguably an early feminist. Long before terms like “systemic oppression” and “power dynamics” and “intersectional feminism” spread across social media, she was addressing these issues in her autobiography Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.
While Harriet Jacob’s story takes place in the nineteenth century, documentation of the commercial exploitation of African American women in the United States dates back to the 1600s, when “fancy girls”, predominantly light-skinned young African American women, were bought and sold for the sole purpose of sexual exploitation.
Today, more than 200 years after Harriet Jacobs was born, we still see the impact of the slave trade and a social system that allows for the devaluation and oppression of marginalized individuals, in the sex trade. And we see it here in King County, Washington.
In data collected by the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office (KCPAO) between 2011–2016, 84% of child trafficking victims were female, and 52% of them were African American. The general population of King County is just 7% African American. The disparity is enormous.
As we look at this data, a stark image of the legacy of slavery and systemic oppression of African American women emerges. Yasmin Vafa, Executive Director at Rights4Girls explained it well in her keynote speech at Stolen Youth Town Hall in January:
“What I would argue, is that sex trafficking in this country is rooted in multiple systems of oppression that have been exploiting people of color in this country for generations through colonization and through slavery. And to really understand sex trafficking in this country today, we have to understand it in the context of a long legacy of racial and gender violence that is continuing to perpetuate the exploitation and often times the criminalization of young women and children of color.”
If we look at the average demographic profile of a sex buyer, the disparity grows. Not only are those being exploited disproportionately female and African American, but those buying sex are disproportionately male and white. In data collected by the KCPAO between 2013–2017, 100% of the sex buyers that were arrested in King County were male. 80% of them were white. (King County is approximately 65% white.) On top of that, 61% of them had earned a bachelor’s degree or above, compared to the 48% King County average—and a large majority of them are gainfully employed.
King County Prosecuting Attorney Val Richey, said of the disparity, “So now we’re talking about men, who are educated, from every [employment] sector, who are white. And when you take all of that and put it together… what you’re also talking about is a real system that values power and privilege over vulnerability. And that system has permeated every aspect, but particularly in race, gender, and economics.”
We can see evidence of, as Harriet Jacobs put it, “the all-pervading corruption produced by slavery” in race, gender, and economics, dating back to the 1600s, through the 1940s with the story of Recy Taylor, and into today. Recy was an African American woman who was abducted and raped by six white men in 1944. During the investigation, the sheriff and four of the six accused men accused Mrs. Taylor of being a prostitute. Multiple other white men in the community came forward and testified that she was an upstanding member of the community. Eventually, one of the accused men gave a testimony that confirmed Mrs. Taylor’s story—that they abducted and raped her. There were two trials. Neither of them resulted in justice for Recy. During her keynote, Vafa explained the correlation between Taylor’s story and the systemic violence against black and brown women: “[It] speaks to the ways in which we start to see the excusing, the justifications for violating black and brown women’s bodies, and how prostitution begins to emerge as a means to legitimize that violence.”
We must realize that this oppression did not end with the cessation of legal slavery. It did not cease with the end of Jim Crow. Here in King County, Washington, we see this violence continue in the sex trade locally.
Our deepest desire at REST is for those who have been exploited in the sex trade to know that they deserve to be loved—not exploited; and to provide pathways to freedom, safety, and hope. We have learned from our collaboration with other organizations, and our own experiences as a service provider, that because of the history of racial trauma and the oppression of people of color, it often requires greater effort, time, and resources to provide these pathways for sexually exploited African American individuals.
But we are not without hope. We have time and time again seen the fervent hope grow within the survivors that we walk alongside as they step into their own freedom, and fight to have a life they deserve. A life without exploitation. It is beautiful and awe-inspiring.
As we look to the past to understand why the present is the way that it is, we hope that you’ll consider this quote from a REST House Resident who is actively pursuing a better future:
“At REST I have been able to paint a new picture of what I want my life to be. I am discovering a new perspective—full of choices I never knew were available to me. I feel unconditional love and acceptance… I have found my voice, and I am now establishing who I am.”
If you would like to learn more on the gender and racial disparities in commercial sexual exploitation, we’d encourage you to learn more in the Rights4Girls Resource Library and take the time to watch the Stolen Youth Town Hall presentation.