Thanks to Liam Neeson and edgy action-thrillers like Taken, Americans have a pretty specific idea of what the sex-trafficking industry looks like: naïve young American girls, traveling on their own for the first time, who trust the wrong guy and get kidnapped. In Taken, the girl’s father happens to be ex-CIA with a “very particular set of skills,” who can hunt down her kidnappers and rescue her in under four days. In reality, few of the women and children who have been kidnapped and sold into sexual slavery in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries are ever found.
Several other Hollywood films have been made about the genuine dangers of sex trafficking. They all have similar plot lines and usually end with a fairy tale rescue that paints one nationality (usually Eastern European or Middle Eastern) as villainous and the other (American or English) as heroic. One truth that Taken does capture is the greater likelihood of resources and effort being put into finding one white American girl, while the hundreds of thousands of “others” are left in drug-fueled brothels around the world. Human trafficking is not fiction. It is as much a part of our world today as it was during the height of the Atlantic slave trade. In twentieth-century Europe, war – both real and “Cold” – ravaged the continent and, coupled with economic recessions and political instability, it fostered regular increases in black market sexual slavery.
The phrase “sex trafficking” is a relatively recent term developed by American feminists in the 1980s. Although newly coined, the act itself is one of the oldest forms of slavery, either as forced prostitution or for personal use by the enslaver (or, in many cases, both). There are and have been male victims who were exploited sexually, but that is often less documented, less studied, and less common.
The rise, reign, and fall of the Soviet Union was particularly instrumental in the increase in trafficking of European women for sex. When Europe was at war or recovering from war, women were vulnerable targets for several reasons. With an increase of soldiers in their area, there was a higher demand for prostitutes. The war also brought economic hardships, which could leave women impoverished and susceptible to being kidnapped and then trafficked. Political instability allowed for the rise of black markets for all kinds of scarce goods, including trafficking victims.
With the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, regions like the Balkans were particularly susceptible to human trafficking. Prior to the Balkan civil wars, traffickers tended to kidnap, move, and sell East and South Asian women. The turmoil in the Balkans allowed traffickers to shift their focus to Eastern European women, cutting down on the expense of transporting those women into the welcoming black markets in the West and the East and increasing traffickers’ profits. The Whistleblower is a film based on the true story of a female police officer from Nebraska recruited by the United Nations to infiltrate and bust a sex trafficking ring in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1999. The director of the film, Larysa Kondracki, left out details such as the three-week “breaking in period” for newly kidnapped girls. The movie was criticized as too violent and severe, while the director says she heavily downplayed the violence experienced by victims.
Eastern Europe is a large target for human traffickers to take their victims, but also a popular destination for trafficked women. Girls and young women traveling alone are easy targets for trafficking rings to kidnap. In the late 1990s, this is precisely what happened to Petra Hensley in the Czech Republic when she was just 16 years old. Petra was waiting at a train station on the way to a fun weekend away with friends when she was grabbed by several men, blindfolded, and thrown into a car. Once the blindfold was removed, Petra realized that she and many other girls were being kept locked in a room where they could hear the other victims through the walls. At first, it was only the kidnappers who raped Petra to “break her in.” Then they brought other male clients to her. Petra said one of the most horrifying things she experienced was the sound of the girl in the next room being shot, and the constant fear that she was going to be next. On her third day of imprisonment, she noticed her window was only barred with a small piece of plywood, and she was able to escape. Petra ran until she knew where she was, which ended up being only a few miles from her home in a small town in the Czech Republic. She was supposed to be on the weekend away with her friends, so her parents didn’t even realize anything was wrong. Petra was so embarrassed and ashamed that she didn’t tell anybody what happened, and she didn’t seek help for many years. In an interview, she said, “it felt like I was walking around naked screaming for help and no one could hear me.” Petra survived, and her story, despite the horrors she experienced, conveys hope for those “taken.” But for every girl who escaped or was rescued, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of victims who did not get as lucky.
During the twentieth century, there was little that European governments could or would do to deter human trafficking successfully. Now, many have joined the fight against human trafficking. The TIP Report is a several-hundred-page document issued by the United States government every year that ranks and assesses every country’s activity in addressing human trafficking. For example, Austria is ranked Tier 1 for actively prosecuting and creating new policies to end the vicious cycle. Once a trafficking victim is rescued, some countries have a law that grants victims who are brought into the country illegally 30 days of temporary residence to “recover and reflect” without requiring some sort of physical or emotional evaluation first. Conversely, the Democratic Republic of Congo is rated a Tier 3 country due to their non-existent laws regarding human trafficking. Lack of funding and politicians willing to fight has allowed the Congo to be a fruitful transit nation in which traffickers freely operate.
In the twenty-first century, sex trafficking has become a major topic of conversation. As media attention has increased global awareness, many people think this issue is new; unfortunately, sex trafficking has been a successful criminal enterprise for thousands of years. Movies made depicting the PG-13 version of this industry attempt to tell the victims’ stories, but can barely scratch the surface of these horrific experiences. Too many are taken, and too few escape.