A 26-year-old Hungarian national named Andras Janos Vass was sentenced to 11 years in prison on Tuesday for operating a sex slave ring out of New York City and Miami. His two accomplices are awaiting trial. The victims in this case were all gay men from Hungary, who were lured to the US believing they'd return to their families in a few months after making money as escorts overseas. According to the Daily Beast, one victim who testified in court was allegedly raped by Vass and the other suspects upon his arrival in the US; a victim also claims Vass and his accomplices then kept him prisoner, forcing him to perform sex acts as a prostitute without pay for nearly two years.
"This case doesn't fit our normative public imagination of sex trafficking," says Crystal Jackson, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York who specializes in gender and sexuality, sex work, social justice, and inequality. "This case is about men, not women. This case is about gay men, not straight women."
Barbara Brent, a professor of sociology at the University of Nevada, affirms Jackson's point about the significance of gender in this case. "There is a great deal more cultural attention to trafficking of females," Brent says. She believes that attention is due in part to a "gendered concern about young women who are victims of male lust." This, Brent suggests, mirrors greater societal anxiety about the perceived loosening of cultural sexual morality and "openness to recreational sex. The data shows that a number of men sell sex, and while it is the minority, it is a significant number." While the fact that the victims were male doesn't surprise her, she says it is "culturally significant."
Trafficking is complex, and in this case, what we call 'trafficking' occurred at the point of labor, not movement across borders.
Despite public perception around sex slavery, and a recent uptick in media coverage, Brent says that human trafficking is so understudied in the United States that there aren't any accurate figures representing this issue. "While there is a lot of media attention surrounding sex trafficking, statistics are not based on good data, and definitions of what constitutes trafficking vary greatly," she explains. "For example, according to the US Trafficking Victims Protection Act, anyone selling sex under age 18 is considered 'trafficked.'" She says that while people often picture victims of human trafficking to be in extreme situations, such as in chains, it rarely happens that way. "What commonly makes newspapers as sex slavery often turns out to be examples of human smuggling, or young people engaged in prostitution, or prostitution involving third parties."
"This case is about people who were fine with engaging in sex for money," Jackson says. "Popular culture has us think of trafficking as people who are kidnapped, torn from their homes. Trafficking is complex, and in this case, what we call 'trafficking' occurred at the point of labor, not movement across borders. These are important to note." The men came to the US willingly, and they were willing to work as escorts, but they were forced into sex slavery once they reached their destination.
The fact the victims in this case were all brought from Hungary to the United States may correlate to a global increase in immigration and international trade. "There are larger numbers of people seeking to cross borders for greater economic opportunities, and if border controls are tight, it increases the need for third parties to broker deals with individuals who don't have proper traveling credentials," Brent says. According to her, the lack of regulation in these backdoor transactions presents the sort of problems that one can expect to find in any unregulated business. "Although the kind of abuse we saw in this case seems rather rare compared to the amount that happens."
I don't think this story is getting as much attention as it could because it's about gay men.
Critical discourse on a wide range of human rights and social justice issues is necessary in order to understand the problem of human trafficking and its prevention. "I want to talk about migration, poverty, and criminalization, but the public imagination just hears a salacious scandal," Jackson says. Sensationalized reporting on cases like these often works against the activism and policy change that scholars and experts on human trafficking are working on. For instance, much of the coverage of Vass's slavery ring has focused on the fact that he was sentenced only to 11 years in prison, advocating for tougher sentencing and laws against traffickers. But Jackson says that the people who are actually working on these issues day to day don't endorse that strategy. "Many scholars and activists alike argue [focusing on tougher laws] doesn't work, like the Sex Workers Project and the Sex Workers Outreach Project, to name two important US organizations. What we need to do is address root causes of inequality and exploitation."
"Sex trafficking is not as common as we think," Jackson continues. "Other forms of trafficking—into hotel work, agriculture, construction, domestic home work—[those are] significantly more common. But it doesn't capture the public imagination. We, tellingly, like stories of rescue and salvation for duped, powerless women. I don't think this story is getting as much attention as it could because it's about gay men."