The Frightening Parallels between 19th Century American Slavery and 21st Century Sex Trafficking

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tags: slavery, sex trafficking

Calvin Schermerhorn teaches history in Arizona State University’s School of Historical, Philosophical, and Religious Studies and is author of the new book The Business of Slavery and the Rise of American Capitalism, 1815-1860 (Yale, 2015). He also authored Money over Mastery, Family over Freedom: Slavery in the Antebellum Upper South (Johns Hopkins, 2011) and co-edited Rambles of a Runaway from Southern Slavery, by Henry Goings (Virginia, 2012). His research focuses on slavery, capitalism, and human trafficking.

"Slaves Waiting for Sale." Women and children slaves wait to be sold in Richmond, Virginia in the 19th century. Wikipedia

As Congress passes the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act of 2015, two cases of sex trafficking separated by nearly two centuries show how historically rooted the practice is. An African American teenager, Allice Sparraw, was bought in Virginia in 1833 and sold as “fancy girl Allice” in Mississippi in 1833 for more than double her purchase price. A Thai teenager named Sunee was promised a waitressing job in Chiang Mai, a few hours’ drive from home. But instead she was trafficked to Los Angeles, where in 2006 she was forced into sex work to repay the expense of bringing her there. The Act is aimed at punishing traffickers and johns. It funds assistance and healthcare for victims, pays particular attention to trafficked minors, and expands law enforcement. But sex slavery is tenacious, and any such act must confront enslavers’ centuries of accrued cunning.

Many of the ways present-day sex traffickers do business would look familiar to nineteenth-century American slave traders supplying “fancy maids” -- females sold for sexual exploitation -- to buyers in the South. Franklin & Armfield, the biggest U.S. slave trading firm of the 1830s, bought captives for cash in places like Alexandria, Baltimore, and Richmond, and sold on credit in Natchez and New Orleans. Fiercely competitive, they edged out rivals and managed a human supply chain of captives.

Their relentlessly sexualized view of the business framed their participation in sex trafficking. In letters, managing director Isaac Franklin and his partners referred to themselves as “one eyed men” while splashing ads in Washington, D.C. newspapers reading “Cash in Market” and “Negroes Wanted.” Franklin & Armfield trafficked more than a thousand captives a year between the Chesapeake and a New Orleans-Natchez Mississippi River corridor in the 1830s. By 1831 Richmond partner Rice C. Ballard oversaw purchasing in central Virginia and the lower Chesapeake.

Sex trafficking was a particularly lucrative part of the enterprise. In 1833 Ballard bought Allice Sparraw for $375 and Minerva Robinson $400 from one of several purchasing agents he employed. Figured as commodities, Sparraw’s real price is $10,900 in 2014 dollars. The income value of banknotes given her Virginia owner amount to $249,000 today. Sparraw and Robinson were taken from family who had no way of tracing them and confined in Ballard’s private jail in Richmond, along with scores of others.

There Ballard sized them up for sexual exploitation, reckoning that teenaged females with light skin and striking features would fetch more from buyers if offered for sexual exploitation than for other domestic or agricultural work. Somewhere in the dark recesses of company jails, coffles, or ships, Ballard and the agents of the firm turned Sparraw into “fancy girl Allice.”

Members of the firm raped female captives so designated. “The old man sent me your Maid Martha,” a purchasing manager wrote Ballard in 1834 of eighteen year-old Martha Sweart. “[S]he is inclined to be compliant,” he hissed euphemistically, hinting later on that she might be pregnant. Rape was a sharp disciplinary shock. To her owners sexual violence was on a continuum with market penetration.

Poverty initially propelled Sunee away from her family. She was trafficked from her native Chiang Rai, Thailand, at fifteen. Sunee had dropped out of school. Her father was sick and needed medical care he could not afford. Aran, a trafficker posing as a labor broker, offered a way out. Like Ballard, Aran sized Sunee up for sexual exploitation then offered the fifteen-year-old a waitressing job in Chiang Mai to the south. Sunee would remit wages less the broker’s commission. Some Thai teenagers are sold like chattel, but Sunee was not one.

Regardless, the Chiang Mai job offer was bogus. After driving her to Chiang Mai, Aran handed Sunee off to a female trafficker, Sawat, who offered a higher-paying waitressing job in Los Angeles. After contacting her parents, Sawat bought her a plane ticket and a passport. Sunee boarded a Thai Airlines commercial flight from Bangkok with Sawat and another girl her age. After landing, Sawat handed her off to a man who drove immediately to a massage parlor near the intersection of Hollywood Avenue and Western Avenue. There she met her pimp, Chuvit. He told her she owed $20,000, which she would have to pay back through sex work. After refusing initially, a gang of traffickers raped her and whipped her until she cooperated.

About ten months after her arrival in the United States, Siddhartha Kara interviewed Sunee while she was enslaved in a Los Angeles massage parlor, a front for prostitution. That was in 2006. She was bringing in $7,500 per month. Chuvit claimed he remitted small sums to her parents, which was one mechanism for keeping Sunee enslaved. In tightly controlled spaces, Sunee was subject to serial rape in a setting that from the outside looked like a legitimate business.

In Mississippi, Sparraw was jailed at an establishment that hid its human horrors. In the late summer or fall of 1833, she was held captive at the Forks of the Road. A visitor in the 1830s entered “through a wide gate into a narrow court-yard, partially enclosed by low buildings.” In a clean showroom, males and females were segregated. “Opposite the line of males was . . . a line of females.” Twenty or so were “dressed in neat calico frocks, white aprons and capes, and fancy kerchiefs.” The visitor called their appearance “extremely neat and ‘tidy,’” but recalled that “They could not be disciplined to the grave silence observed by the males, but were constantly laughing and chattering with each other in suppressed voices, and appeared to take, generally, a livelier interest in the transactions in which all were equally concerned.”

Chatter and lively appearance concealed how Allice Sparraw was forced into cooperating in her own exploitation. “I sold your fancy girl Allice for $800,” Isaac Franklin crowed in November, 1833, adding there was “great demand for fancy maids [and] I do believe that a likely girl [who was also] a good seamstress could be sold for $1000.” Taking off expenses, Franklin & Armfield’s profit on sex trafficking Sparraw were considerable, approaching 90 percent. Minerva Robinson proved tougher to sell. From Natchez, word reached Ballard in Virginia, “we have no fancy girls on hand but your girl Minerva and she is a caution.” Robinson refused to participate in her sale as a “fancy girl” and could expect intensified violence.

Like Forks of the Road, the place Sunee was enslaved welcomed customers. Kara reported that the massage parlor was “upscale,” featuring the calming “scent of lemongrass fill[ing] the waiting room,” and a proprietor who greeted him warmly talked prices -- and discounts -- while ushering him back to a private viewing room. “Pick your girl, sir,” Sunee’s pimp bid him. Isaac Franklin could have mouthed those words as the buyer was invited to view the human goods on display in terms of the fantasies he projected onto them. As Kara beheld “four Thai girls wearing black pants with ethnic-printed tops, reading magazines in a small sitting area,” he was assured that all spoke good English.

Slavery was scripted to look like pleasure. After choosing Sunee, the youngest, the trafficker bid him enjoy the “massage” as Kara followed Sunee into a clean private room with a mattress on the floor. As Sunee chewed mint-flavored gum she went over a verbal menu of sex services. Kara surprised her by identifying himself as an abolitionist, but after thinking it over Sunee refused help.

One can easily go too far comparing Sunee and Sparraw. Sunee was born free and Sparraw legally enslaved, the aggressions of slavery falling hard. Poverty and class constrained Sunee’s family’s choices. But race-based slavery in the United States had long been institutionalized by the time Sparraw’s glance met the appraising eyes of Rice Ballard. What abolitionists called “the chattel principle” was a legal mechanism legitimizing sex trafficking. Sparraw had few if any rights, and Franklin & Armfield specialized in exploiting African Americans. They focused on retail sales of sex-trafficked females as one human product line among many.

Sparraw’s body was offered for sale and Sunee’s for rent. Sunee’s traffickers plied a segment of the sex market in Los Angeles in the first decade of the twenty-first century, forcing her to work twelve hours’ a day, seven days a week, serving about eight johns a day. Most were Thai. Twenty-first-century Los Angeles was little like nineteenth-century Natchez, is sex market dizzyingly more diverse. The density of sex-trafficking usually corresponds to the depth of the market and breadth of demand for particular services. Traffickers adjust accordingly. That toweringly important context should not be set aside. But similarities also abound.

Sunee and Sparraw were subject to similar strategies that exploited subjects’ vulnerabilities. Both were trafficked through a well-organized enterprise whose business model externalized human costs while privatizing profits, stealing the proceeds of forced exploitation. Both were high-tech. Franklin & Armfield and Sunee’s captors used third-party advertising, whether newspapers or Internet sites. Both used the commercial transportation infrastructure, whether buying a ticket on an international airline or passage on a steamboat on the Mississippi or Potomac River. Neither firm was self-financed. Franklin & Armfield used the credit facilities of the Second Bank of the United States along with premier state banks in New Orleans and their correspondents in New York City. The banks and financial services Sunee’s traffickers used were not disclosed, but they were international.

A mighty chain of violence links their predicaments, and violence against females and children has an ancient and particularly ugly history. Franklin & Armfield along with Sunee’s traffickers enforced a script and demanded compliance using sexual and other physical, personal, and psychological violence (if the categories can be separated). For both, the violence was punctuated by enforced separations though an isolating chain of custody. By the time Kara encountered Sunee, she had been transported by three principal traffickers and at least one agent and had traveled 8,750 miles. Sparraw was passed among at least three managers besides the agent who initially bought. She was transported a little over 1,000 miles.

Physical dependence complemented psychological dependence as captors assigned captives’ responsibility for their own captivity. Sunee’s captors used family and other human attachments as weapons. If she fled, Chuvit threatened that her parents would be harmed back in Thailand and that Los Angeles police would detain her because she was in the country illegally. Regardless of the veracity of her pimp’s claims, the narrative shaped the contours of slavery. She refused Kara’s offer of assistance facing what she saw as the least-dreadful option. In Sparraw’s case, captors showed remarkable concern for profits and no regard for captives. She knew no magistrate or constable in Adams County, Mississippi, interfered in Franklin’s right to dispose of his human property as he wished. She faced a choiceless choice of appealing to the “fancy” of would-be buyers or be violated until she did or died.

The Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act of 2015 will not end sex trafficking but might blunt some of the razor-sharp advantages traffickers have honed through the ages. Sparraw and Sunee were largely invisible, and raising awareness through education and outreach through public health initiatives shines some lights in the shadows. Targeting johns and traffickers, along with linking child pornography and trafficking, disrupts markets sex traffickers serve and cultivate. Penalizing traffickers while lowering bars to assist trafficked subjects might end some of the enforced silences, weakening the diabolical chains, and making trafficking and its effects less invisible.