People who deprive young girls of their freedom for years and years are obviously crazy sickos who need to be put away for life. Nobody’s going to argue about that. Except that for most of history, treating women like they’re ownable was the normal thing to do. In many places in the world, it’s still the normal thing to do. And although they don’t always get the coverage that Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight are receiving, women are being held against their will all the time in the U.S.
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And then in New York on April 30, just a week before the Ohio case, seven women were freed when another prostitution ring was broken up and 13 people arrested. Most of the women had been trafficked through Mexico, typically by men whom they believed at the time to be their boyfriends. The U.S. attorneys prosecuting the case allege that the women were beaten, threatened with physical harm to them and their family, sexually assaulted, and verbally abused if they declined to have sex with strangers for money. Or sometimes even if they didn’t. This doesn’t sound all that different from what we know about what happened in Ohio, or in Austria (twice!), or in Utah, or in California or in any of the high profile cases where girls have been kidnapped and held captive for long periods. But unless you’ve been looking, you may not have heard about the rescued prostitutes, even though their story is arguably a bigger one.
According to the complaint filed in court against the New York traffickers, in a typical day a Mexican sex trafficking victim in New York has to service 20 to 30 customers. Since these women are not willing participants, that’s 20 to 30 rapes. A day. The victims may not have been held for 10 years, but they were treated worse. Eventually, Ramos let the 15 year old girl go (her name has not been released), not out of the kindness of his heart but because each girl only has a certain sexual shelf-life. Once discarded, she had very few options. Luckily she found her way to the police.
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Jimmy Lee, executive director of RestoreNYC, which provides shelter for trafficked women, has some theories on why locking a woman up for one’s own pleasure is more newsworthy than locking a woman up in order to pimp her out. “I think it is because of the stigma of being prostituted,” he says. “We too easily lessen our compassion for a “prostitute” even if it comes out that she was clearly not being prostituted by choice.’
Another factor may be what is known in academic circles as “missing white women syndrome.” Lee thinks race could be a a factor along with the victimized women’s questionable legal status. “I wonder if there is something about these seven women being brown women primarily from Mexico or El Salvador,” he says. “It’s easy to put them in the category of an illegal immigrant and a criminal.”
But it cannot be that these girls’ families in Mexico and El Salvador care any less about their daughters, or yearn any less for their return than did the families of the girls who were set free on May 6. It may be that they’re more used to hardship, hopelessness and fear than were the families in Ohio, but grief and loss are equal-opportunity burdens. Apparently, so is sexual abuse.