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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

In Context: Sex Trafficking

The Hillsborough County Commission on the Status of Women has been promoting informational programs on the problem of sex trafficking for several months. The May meeting of the Athena Society featured law enforcement officials, as well as a survivor of incest, and so many people were interested in the topic that a good portion of the audience stayed after adjournment to hear more.

I’m very pleased at this widespread public interest: that is what it takes to solve any social problem. I was especially pleased that a male representative of the FBI spoke passionately about the de facto slavery of victims. Getting the attention of law enforcement is absolutely key to solving these problems that affect primarily women. Here in Tampa, for example, STOP Rape eventually had huge effect, but the volunteer women who formed the group in the 1970s encountered difficulty in getting then-male law enforcement officials to accept the premise that victims were not to blame for the crime.

I remember Thalia Potter, who then was an aide to Senator Pat Frank, reading me a satirical piece in which the author substituted “sex” or “rape” for “robbery” or “theft.” This analogy was along the lines of saying to a man: “But with your fancy watch and new sports car, you were making it clear that you are rich; you should have expected to be robbed.”

The Spring, our local domestic violence shelter, initially met the same difficulties. Although now a respected institution and an important arm to law enforcement, back then -- when the word “rape” was whispered and there wasn’t even a term for domestic violence -- Spring founders also endured attacks from conservatives. Many believed that this refuge for victims was intended to destroy marriage, to turn women into men-haters, and even a recruitment center for lesbians.

Because violence of all sorts remains THE basic societal problem, the Spring carries on – but STOP Rape went out of existence as law enforcement took its responsibilities more seriously. I can personally testify to this change. No one today would display the attitudes I found when I lobbied on the issue of rape in the 1970s.

Those men were so likely to believe that a woman was lying that the law required the victim to pay for the medical kit that would prove she had been raped. These were not cheap: Tampa General charged $145 to provide evidence that would be acceptable in court. The victim, if she was affluent enough, paid for the police evidence. If she was not sufficiently affluent, the crime was likely to go unpunished. The system virtually said aloud that rapes of poorer women did not matter.

Yes, that was outrageous – and even more outrageous was that some legislators believed this was just and fair. I’m still so angry about that I’m going to do something unusual here and name the most egregious of these men: Senator Pete Skinner of Lake City voted against the bill to make evidence kits free – and told me that this was an essential money-saver because some women enjoyed having their private parts examined!

* * *

He accused me of naivety, and I think he really believed that. He had some grounds, in that I have been married to a wonderful man who never gave me any reason to stray since we wed in 1966. But there is a difference between being naïve and being ignorant, and knowledge can be acquired in ways that do not involve personal experience. That means paying attention to history.

Of course prostitution is the oldest profession: men have been willing to pay women for sex since time immemorial. I’m sorry to be so blunt, but men also created economic systems that often gave a woman no choice. Countless women – probably even the historic majority – married because that was the only economic alternative to selling one’s body outright.

Think of Third World nations today, and you’ll get the point. A recent survey of Egyptian women showed that 99% had been sexually harassed at some time in their lives. They marry for protection from predators – and if a predator is successful, the expected result is lifelong rejection by the respectable. She may have no economic alternative to prostitution, and some would consider her fortunate to escape “honor” killing by her family.

Although adultery was a capital crime for both women and men in Puritan New England, Americans rarely have killed their fallen women. What was called “the social evil,” however, always was present – and as early as the 1830s, some women organized to expose the facts. Called Female Moral Reform Societies, they grew out of Oberlin, Ohio, where Oberlin College was the first to admit women.

With the goal of battling “the sin of licentiousness, in all its forms and horrors,” it quickly grew to almost 400 members, including young Lucy Stone. Members watched local brothels and paid for ads in local newspapers that reported on who was seen. Others developed shelters where women could give up the life and train for other occupations, especially as seamstresses.

Progressive movements generally took about a half-century to reach the South at that time, and in Tampa, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union opened The Door of Hope in 1899. They bought property at the corner of Tampa and Ross Streets, where they established a home for “saving girls.” To those who criticized them, the ladies replied in the Tribune:

Shall we close our ears to their cry, sit in our comfortable homes and ease our consciences by saying, “we don’t approve of this way of doing the work” or “we don’t believe these women can be reformed,” thus letting the helpless ones…who are often more sinned against than sinning, die in their sin?

Even now, they do indeed die. They died in even greater numbers in the past, when cures for venereal diseases were unknown. The innocent wives of their clients also died, often unaware of exactly what was wrong with them. Nor was this uncommon, as an 1864 survey of New York City showed one prostitute for every 64 men.

The FBI says that currently the average age of entry into the trade is an unfortunate 13, and the life expectancy is a mere seven years. Pimps control their lives, sometimes marking their human property with tattoos. Sadly, even this is not new; I have read of cases of branding. Pimps were termed “white slavers” in the early twentieth century, and they similarly controlled their human property.

The term “sexual trafficking” is new, but the practice is not, as documents from the so-called Victorian Era attest. I explored the subject for a section of my Foreign and Female that I titled “Ambivalence in Morality.” Many people were convinced that most prostitutes were foreigners transported to America, but research showed that was false. Most were natives, and few were of a defined ethnicity.

Asians were an exception, however, especially among the Chinese in San Francisco and in West Coast mining camps, where men greatly outnumbered women of their ethnicity. Those girls, often very young, were kidnapped or sold by their families, crossed the Pacific in confinement, and then kept in what were called “cribs.” Journalists reported that a four-year-old girl could bring in “speculative prospects” of as much as twenty thousand dollars over a lifetime -- a lifetime that averaged four years. Once she had syphilis or other disease, she often was left to die of starvation.

Although there were fewer European immigrants in the business than Americans wanted to think, an international trading system with Europe also existed -- with a premium for French women. Congress investigated this prior to passing the Mann Act, which prohibited moving women across state lines for “immoral purposes.” Senate Document 753, Importation and Harboring of Women, reported of a Chicago brothel owner:

For a certain French girl named Marcelle he had paid the sum of $1,000… Lillie, also a French girl, was sent from Chicago to Omaha and sold…for the sum of $1,400… $500 is the ordinary price for a French prostitute when delivered in America.

That was 1911, and this is 2013. Native or immigrant, white or black or purple, it is way past time to end such practices. It starts with teaching girls to respect themselves and especially to be economically independent. And with law enforcement ending the careers of those who would exploit them.

Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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