When the phrase ‘sex trafficking’ is uttered, the image that’s conjured up is one of dilapidated dwellings, dirty mattresses, and helpless victims held against their will by violent strangers: cross-border trafficking where women or children are smuggled from one country to another and forced into sex slavery.
Although sex trafficking is a major global issue, with an estimated 27 million people being trafficked worldwide, such an image of sex trafficking is not quite accurate. And it definitely doesn't capture what sex trafficking looks like in New Zealand.
Recent research by social worker Dr Natalie Thorburn has examined sex trafficking here and it’s pretty clear that we’ve got our head in the sand as a county when it comes to recognising that sex trafficking is something that happens in NZ. “We have this image of New Zealand as clean, green and not corrupt,” says Thorburn, “but we need to face the fact that we have a hidden and ongoing sex trafficking problem.”
The type of sex trafficking we see in NZ doesn’t fit the stereotype. It’s not cross-border or international trafficking. It involves intimate partners or family members forcing or coercing young girls or young women into sex work and then taking their earnings.
It's called domestic sex trafficking and Thorburn says it’s much more prevalent than we realise. “We’re just not asking the right questions. When victims do present to various services, they’re not picking up that this person is showing signs of being trafficked.” This is mainly due to issues of definition, which are murky and create confusion with frontline service providers who might come into contact with trafficked persons.
Thorburn’s research involved interviews with 16 survivors as well as surveying social workers and health practitioners. Most of the victims were underage, with some as young as 10 when first trafficked. Although two were abducted, most were forced into sex work by their much older male partner. These girls came from fraught or unstable backgrounds and would find solace in older adult men who promised to provide them with affection and stability – what Thorburn calls the “love-illusion”. Once trust was established, these men would then opportunistically start forcing the girls into sex work in order to cash into “easy money”.
“The girls did not see any of the money, nor did they know where it was going, sometimes it was to fund drugs or seemed to be going to gangs.” says Thorburn. As one 15-year-old girl noted: “He controlled everything, I just worked [as a sex worker], I don’t spend and never get to see it. He wanted to make more money and not work.”
All the girls knew the situation was not right, but they either did not question it as they hoped things would get better, or “if they did refuse they were met with violence that kept them in line” says Thorburn.
Another 15-year-old participant in the study noted: “After…six months or so of doing it I did make an attempt to stick up for myself… [They] broke my cheek bone on the left side, snapped one of my teeth in half, four broken ribs and I had black eyes on both eyes.”
The sad irony is that our anti-trafficking law is actually pretty robust, but it’s just not being applied. When police are presented with cases of domestic trafficking, they tend to prosecute under sexual violence laws, rather than the anti-trafficking ones, which gives the illusion that the problem does not exist. “It’s just not on their radar as trafficking, it’s downgraded to a lesser offence which minimises the issue,” says Thorburn.
She argues that the trafficking we see in New Zealand is an extension of gender-based violence where “power and control is exerted over girls who have a lack of social resources or other reliable intimate connections”. The girls end up trapped in dire situations of violence and sexual servitude without many viable options of escape: “I knew he would kill me if I left… Because he would put a gun in my mouth a couple of times,” says Kate, 20.
Thorburn says the way to address the issue needs to be top down: “the government needs to provide some definitional clarity and make it a policy focus”.
Although we currently have a national plan of action on trafficking, there is nothing on domestic trafficking – which she says is a huge oversight. When trafficking is not documented by frontline services, it goes under the radar—and then, without figures to go by, it becomes hard to campaign for change. Thorburn says it’s time for us to take a serious look at trafficking and realise that the perpetrators are home-grown, and so are the victims.