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Musings on Spitzer, trade and sex trafficking

The news that Gov. Eliot Spitzer was caught on a wiretap soliciting sex across state lines is shaking the country. If you're like me, the most surprising thing is that politicians think they can get away with this kind of thing, especially when there is a paper and phone trail. My wife informed me at my birthday dinner last night that she would not attend the news conference if I ever attempted something like that!

But the news on this got me thinking about human trafficking, which, as far as I know, is not at all what Gov. Spitzer is being investigated for. No, it's because I recently saw this Kevin Kline movie Trade, which is not the best movie in the world, but which is based on stories of real-life trafficked women in the article "The Girls Next Door" by Peter Landesman. According to estimates in the article, there are as many as 10,000-50,000 individuals kept in sex slavery in the United States every year, mostly trafficked from Eastern Europe and Latin America and then brought across the U.S.-Mexico border.

The whole article is chilling, but this paragraph provided some context:

Donna M. Hughes, a professor of women's studies at the University of Rhode Island and an expert on sex trafficking, says that prostitution barely existed 12 years ago in the Soviet Union. ''It was suppressed by political structures. All the women had jobs.'' But in the first years after the collapse of Soviet Communism, poverty in the former Soviet states soared. Young women -- many of them college-educated and married -- became easy believers in Hollywood-generated images of swaying palm trees in L.A. ''A few of them have an idea that prostitution might be involved,'' Hughes says. ''But their idea of prostitution is 'Pretty Woman,' which is one of the most popular films in Ukraine and Russia. They're thinking, This may not be so bad.''

This recalls the 14 years of Juarez murders, where women that were thought to be trafficked were murdered. A lot of advocacy groups on the border relate this to NAFTA, because of the boom in border maquiladora activity, at the same time of a general decline in rural employment and developmental state strategy in the 1980s and 90s locked in by NAFTA. This of course parallels what has been happening generally in developing countries and the former Soviet Union, where NAFTA-WTO like policies have been adopted over the last several decades.

Mainstream media editorial boards might not have a problem ignoring the men who lose manufacturing jobs as a result of economic restructuring. But these trafficked females are the other side of a move towards more precarious social structures in the NAFTA-WTO period. As everyone from Karl Polanyi to Saul Alinsky recognized, anyone concerned about the majority's economic welfare has an interest in trying to mediate the pace of even otherwise benign economic change. How much more so with our trade policy, which is plainly not benign for the majority? When you read the stories of desperation brought on by restructuring, the call for global full employment and industrial democracy becomes all the more pressing.

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