Living Room Dialogue with Taina Bien-Aime
When she spoke at a Living Room Dialogue last May, Taina Bien-Aime, Executive Director of Equality Now, had something to celebrate. New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer and legislative leaders had just come to an agreement on a strong bill against human trafficking, stronger even than the women who had been campaigning for the bill had hoped for.
New York State has not had a law against trafficking. Equality Now, an international human rights organization, and other members of the New York State Anti-Trafficking Coalition* worked to get a strong law that criminalized human trafficking for labor and sexual servitude. While many individuals are trafficked for labor servitude, the majority who are trafficked are women and children and most of those wind up in the commercial sex trade. In addition to working toward the passage of an anti-trafficking law, Equality Now and the Coalition wanted to challenge the perception that prostitution is somehow a "normal" activity and to work against the multi-billion-dollar sex-trafficking industry. Despite arguments that the women or girls "consent" to enter the sex trade, bringing women and girls into prostitution, most often through deception and fraud, always involves exploiting their vulnerability . Commercial sex treats human beings as commodities to be bought and sold, a clear human rights violation.
The Coalition wanted to put the legislative spotlight on the "demand" side of the sex trade, the men who exploit women and buy sexual services. In order to focus on demand, Equality Now has worked on trying to shut down sex tour operators.
The new bill makes human trafficking for sexual servitude a class B felony and for labor servitude a D felony. The law also focuses on the "demand" side by raising the penalties for patronizing prostitutes from a B to an A misdemeanor. It also provides for social services for victims who are immigrants or foreign nationals.
Bien-Aime was very appreciative of the intervention of the Governor, who got involved in the anti-trafficking issue while Attorney General when he successfully shut down Big Apple Oriental Tours, a sex tour operator. He began investigating the sex tour company apparently after he received a compelling letter from Gloria Steinem asking him to do so. Equality Now had been trying for years without success to get the DA in Queens to go after Big Apple Oriental Tours, an agency that promised its male clients "the best time of your life" with "as many women as you like."
Equality Now's method of advocacy is to urge members of its Women's Action Network to contact public officials about specific cases of abuse. Bien-Aime cited Gloria Steinem's letter to Attorney General Spitzer as an example of the difference a single letter can make. The Attorney General first obtained a temporary restraining order against Big Apple Oriental Tours, the first of its kind, and later an indictment against its owner and operator. The case is scheduled to go to trial in June.
Also important in the legislative triumph was the persistent work of the Anti-Trafficking Coalition, which had been rallying weekly in front of the court house at New York City's Foley Square since January. An early ally in the legislature was Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz, who introduced an anti-trafficking bill last year. Having an ally in the media also helped: After last year's attempt failed, Bob Herbert wrote two influential columns in the New York Times, including one entitled "Pimps Have Friend in Albany."
All but two of the participants in this Living Room Dialogue were women. There wasn't anyone who argued for a view of prostitutes as independent contractors making this a career choice or "happy hookers." No one tried to make the case that "boys will be boys," or that men "need" sex and must have it available in this way, or that men buying sexual services were helping out women by providing them with income. Such attitudes were cited as views that needed to be countered.
Participants asked such questions as: Couldn't we find another name besides "john" for the client of a prostitute? It makes the purchase sound so innocent – John could be the name of your father or brother. A paradigm shift was thought to be necessary so that this "innocent" and "ordinary" transaction is recognized as an issue of gender inequality.
There was some questioning of what happens to boys so that they learn to look to women either as the embodiment of sexual fantasies or as household madonnas. How can they be educated differently? How are all our children being affected by the sexualization of so many aspects of our culture? One of the men present was a Boy Scout leader who said boys asked him what to do when girls "come on fast" to them. A woman spoke of having a hard time finding a simple dress her young daughter could wear to church because the clothing on sale for girls was so sexually provocative.
Participants appreciated Bien-Aime's account of the elements of this success story. A final observation, though, was that the ideal of "equality" for women is still a profoundly radical notion.
*Members of the New York State Anti-Trafficking Coalition include, in addition to Equality Now, Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, Girls Education and Monitoring Services (GEMS), inMotion, My Sisters' Place, NOW NY State and City chapters, and Sanctuary for Families.
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