Picture a 17-year-old living in the Midwest, victimized by her sexually abusive stepfather who repeatedly rapes her. The teenager leaves her home because her mother won’t do anything to stop the abuse, moves out and meets a man who she now considers her boyfriend.
The boyfriend starts pimping her out; instead of leaving, she stays because, at this point, her only options are returning home to her rapist stepfather and letting him abuse her, working at McDonald’s, barely making ends meet, or staying and continuing to be pimped out.
Is sex work really the worst part of it all?
Last year, I had the privilege of interviewing University of Toledo Associate Professor of Law Shelley Cavalieri who painted such a picture to highlight that treating sex work as the worst part of this teenage girl’s circumstances misses the bigger picture.
Sex trafficking is not a cause but, rather, a symptom of the inequality women face as a result of living in a patriarchal society.
“The fact that we're worked up about the terminal point in a completely broken patriarchy of power and poverty seems bizarre to me,” Cavalieri said in the interview.
The problem starts from the very point when we teach young women to fantasize over the idea of love and marriage. In books and movies, we illustrate scenarios where women feel incomplete without finding “true love.”
Elle Woods, the main character played by Reese Witherspoon in “Legally Blonde,” depicts a rich dumb blonde who follows her ex-boyfriend to Harvard Law School in hopes of winning him back.
The idea of a woman attending a prestigious law school in hopes of winning her boyfriend back sends the message that a woman’s world revolves around a man’s, but this isn’t the first time a movie has painted such an unrealistic scenario, nor will it be the last.
Granted, the movie is intended to be humorous, but it is a little off-putting that a woman’s existence is portrayed as being solely dependent on a man’s, a plot that's repeatedly presented in Disney movies where little girls are brainwashed into believing in princess fantasies. This feeds them the false idea that their worth is defined by how a man perceives them.
Instead, women should be taught at very young ages how to become economically independent and conceptualize this as the purpose of their lives. We raise men to think independently and become the breadwinners of their households; why are we not holding women to the same standard?
For women, we create a different standard and glorify the idea of love and teach them to settle for the attention of men. We limit them to their physical characteristics and attach labels that only begin to scratch the surface of who they truly are.
This leads to larger problems with younger women not understanding the power of intellect and settling for mediocre opportunities that limit them from reaching their true potential, but this is only a minor problem in a system that's completely broken.
Cavalieri said that people pretend trafficked women are uniquely oppressed within a global patriarchy. Rather, she sees trafficking as part of a broader system that simultaneously denies women opportunities and yet portrays them through a narrative about women needing to be rescued.
“It’s not that trafficking is the only huge catastrophe,” Cavalieri said. “It’s one of 87 bad things that happen to women because they have few options in a society that allocates power and privilege according to gender.”
This explains why sex trafficking is a symptom, not a cause.
"Of all the things the patriarchy does, this isn't the worst one,” Cavalieri said. “This conversation, the fact that we treat women as [incapable] of formulating rational plans for their lives, that's not just about human trafficking."
Denying them opportunity, limiting them to their physical characteristics and not teaching them the importance of becoming financially stable all contribute to the larger problems.
Coercion doesn’t necessarily always involve force or threat. There's a softer kind of coercion, one where women have limited access to financial opportunities.
In these cases, women have no option but to look at a set of choices they have and decide among the least worst option and, for some of them, that option is prostitution.
People think of trafficking as being chained to a bed and locked in a basement, but, sometimes, it’s the social factors that leave women with no actual exit path, where they are trapped without knowing they’re really trapped.
Like a bird cage where the vast majority of the cage consists of open space but has just enough wires to imprison the bird, for many women who are trafficked, a combination of economic desperation and lack of education functions in a very similar way. That’s the bird cage.
Areeba Shah is a fourth-year communication major.