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103 6 Transnational Media Wars over Sex Trafficking Abolishing the “New Slave Trade” or the New Nativism? Felicity Schaeffer-Grabiel Government websites, television, films, documentaries, news channels, and other media depictions equate sex trafficking with what is popularly labeled the “New Slave Trade.” While various political parties and organizations are divided over how to address migration, the branding of sex trafficking as modern-day slavery strategically galvanizes these very same politically divergent constituencies .1 Bipartisan support and popular consensus against trafficking is evident in the outpour of funds for this cause. The administration of George W. Bush announced that from 2000 to 2008, the federal government spent $295 million in tax dollars toward the fight against sex trafficking in the United States and a total of half a billion dollars globally.2 A significant amount of resources earmarked for media campaigns in the United States and around the world educate the public on the severity of sex trafficking and how best to combat it. This chapter focuses on media campaigns during President Bush’s tenure from 2000 and 2008 that saturated the public with images of horrific sexualized exploitation and regurgitated statistics circulated by government officials and documents. In a vicious cycle of misinformation recently proven to be grossly overestimated, the government relied on sensationalist media accounts to profess alarming statistics.3 Since 2000, state officials claimed that from fifty to eighty thousand people are trafficked to the United States each year and six hundred to eight hundred thousand globally. In fact, the administration only identified 1,362 victims of human trafficking during Bush’s presidency. Scholars and journalists, in contrast, assert that trafficking is being blown out of proportion and that most women know what they are getting into but have few choices for livable jobs in their home and destination countries.4 These statistics do not capture the nuances for defining and distinguishing those who are exploited “against their will” from other “undocumented ” migrants. So the question remains, what purpose does this glut of government and media attention on sex trafficking serve if these funds are not actually helpful in improving the lives of women and children and in preventing trafficking? There are true victims of sex trafficking who lack the most basic of human rights. Yet a media campaign to invigorate public outrage and manpower in capturing the “criminal networks” obfuscates the structural inequalities and global desires fuel- 104 Felicity Schaeffer-Grabiel ing women’s entrance into sex work. The spectacle of enslaved bodies repeated in media accounts more broadly creates national panic over the movement of people across borders. This anxiety generates collective support for an increase in state power and in the state’s budget (in militarizing the border, building more prison detention centers, and deporting more immigrants), in order to apprehend and return subjects at the border. By raising fears over women’s mobility through images of sexualized violence, the media works in tandem with heightened border surveillance to slow down or halt migration rather than opening up safe avenues for women to find employment. Trafficking is defined in a United Nations protocol as the movement of bodies across borders and the lack of choice: “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipts of persons” by “the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability.”5 Wendy Chapkis argues that the emphasis on sex trafficking elides the fact that the U.S. Trafficking Victim Protection Act (TVPA) of 2000 protects few “innocent women” while criminalizing the broader masses of migrants who presumably “choose” to break the law by crossing “illegally” into the United States.6 Only the innocent are worthy of legal protection from criminal charges or immediate detention and deportation. At stake in eradicating trafficking is the protection of innocent women and children and, by extension, the nation from the onslaught of“barbaric” forms of slavery and violence, perpetrated by organized crime, that subvert the hegemony of the law and modernity. Trafficking debates, while supposedly not targeted against migrants, stir up national anxieties over just how detrimental certain forms of difference are to modern nation-states. Transnational media depictions of gender and race (and specifically, the treatment of women) are critical in calibrating a nation’s alignment with or distance from modernity and its other, slavery. To be sexually enslaved is depicted as the most grotesque form of “otherness,” the underside of capitalist profit and...


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