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During Passover, Remember That Sex Trafficking is Bondage

As Jews across the world gather to celebrate Passover, we are reminded of our ancient history of struggle to escape bondage in Egypt. Of the many forms of oppression involving forced labor that persist in our world, surely sex trafficking is among the most pernicious, and the spirit of Passover ought to prompt us to redouble our efforts to end it.

Sex trafficking is a broad term. It can include involuntary commercial sex work, but it is a much wider phenomenon, including forced participation in pornography, exotic dancing, stripping, live sex shows, mail-order brides and sexual tourism. It elicits a visceral response — a compulsion to apprehend and lock up anyone who would coerce or sell another human being into any form of bondage.

But combating sex trafficking and assisting survivors is a much more multidimensional enterprise. Using an intersectional lens, we can see many more aspects to trafficking beyond the act of coercion itself. Much has been written about the criminal justice system reforms required regarding trafficking. But we also need a strong focus on how to prevent it and to help survivors recover from its trauma. Our response must recognize the reality that although women make up the majority of those trafficked, boys and men and especially LGBTQ youth are also at risk.

Domestic sex trafficking grows out of a complex mix of misogyny and distorted cultural norms that skate all too close to the edge of justifying rape.

Subcultures have developed on some campuses and attitudes persist elsewhere that clearly normalize sex with women who do not or cannot consent. Too often media images convey the message that forced sex is okay or what women, in particular, really want. Those who experience rape are stigmatized and often punished for seeking help or speaking out. It is not a far step from rape to forcing a woman, or anyone, to have sex with someone else and then to collect money for it. Even for men who strongly reject a predatory view of sex, calling out other men on their behavior or attitudes is relatively rare. That has to change.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth are particularly at risk to be trafficked for a variety of reasons. Data suggest they make up to 40 percent of the runaway and homeless youth population, thrown out of their homes because of entrenched social attitudes about gender norms and expectations. Yet some in Congress have stalled a bill that would assist this population and prevent trafficking because it contains protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in federally funded programs.

Sex trafficking isn’t something that only happens on the other wide of the world. Image by National Council of Jewish Women

The right to bodily autonomy is at the foundation of reproductive justice. When teenagers don’t develop healthy attitudes toward gender and sex that incorporate that autonomy along with the basics of biology, they become vulnerable to those who would dominate them and can drift into the snare of trafficking. Too many parents, schools, and religious leaders are afraid to talk about sex. Increased sex and sexuality education, including education on healthy relationships, is a critical prevention mechanism as well as the foundation for self-respect. Federally funded abstinence-only sex education has gravely undermined broad sexuality education and left teenagers to cope on their own by consulting their ill-informed peers or learning from online sources, including pornography that can grossly distort what healthy, non-coercive sexuality looks like.

The right to have control over our bodies includes the right of women to make their own decisions about abortion, based on their own beliefs and circumstances.

But access to abortion is increasingly difficult as a result of draconian restrictions enacted in states across the country, and those who are trafficked are especially ill-equipped to overcome the impact of those restrictions.Whether forced to have unprotected sex and then coerced to have abortions, or denied abortions they desperately seek, survivors are victimized twice. For lawmakers to insert abortion bans in the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act, as they did in 2015, makes a cynical political point at the expense of those trafficked.

Sex trafficking is a public health crisis, increasing vulnerability to STDs, unintended pregnancy, and unhealthy pregnancies.Those who are trafficked can suffer from a variety of acute and chronic physical and mental health conditions. Health care workers trained to detect signs of trafficking can provide a safe and nonjudgmental space for survivors to receive assistance that can be transformational.

The Exodus story at the heart of Passover also tells us of the spirit of community among Jews that no doubt eased the pain of their oppression. Those ensnared by sex trafficking need that same sense of solidarity and caring from us that addresses every aspect of their physical and spiritual recovery from the treacherous territory of sex trafficking.

Nancy K. Kaufman is the chief executive officer of the National Council of Jewish Women, a grassroots organization inspired by Jewish values that strives to improve the quality of life for women, children, and families and to safeguard individual rights and freedoms.

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