Emma Thompson used to walk by a nondescript massage parlor on her way to the Underground stop near her London home. She never thought twice about the establishment—until, rehearsing for her part in the 2003 film Imagining Argentina, she met with celebrated British human rights activist Helen Bamber, a psychotherapist who has worked with torture victims since 1945, when she traveled to Bergen-Belsen to help rehabilitate Holocaust survivors.
Sex Slavery Is a Hot Issue for Celebrity Philanthropists. Click Image Below to View Our Gallery of Stars Who Fight Human Trafficking
Thompson was seeking insight into her role as a journalist who critiques Argentina’s brutal military regime and is kidnapped, tortured, and raped by government forces. But Bamber introduced Thompson to a reality just as disturbing as the film’s plot: Even in Western cities today, the streets are filled with female torture victims. They have been trafficked into sexual slavery, often from Asia, Africa, and Eastern Europe. One such woman, a 19-year old from Moldova, was held against her will in the massage parlor Thompson passed by walking to the Tube.
Standing on Greenwich Village’s Washington Place, where she and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg unveiled an art installation Tuesday meant to simulate the abuse experienced by trafficked women, the Oscar-winning actress became animated—even visibly angry—when speaking about the Moldovan massage parlor worker, whom she has now met. After the parlor was raided by police, the woman was jailed and then deported to Moldova by the British government. Desperately poor, traumatized, and shunned by her family, she returned to the U.K. illegally and resumed work as a prostitute. It was years before she sought help, finally winning political asylum and later finding work at a London law firm.
“I want you to understand,” Emma Thompson says, “this is a hidden crime, and the most hidden thing about is the condition of the victim after the fact.”
Thompson raised her voice for emphasis. “I was furious,” she recalls, practically shaking. “Victims end up losing their voice twice: once when they are tortured, and again when nobody wants to hear about it. She was invisible, just behind the glass. When I found out, I wanted to rip the place apart.”
Policy changes, Thompson says, would make it easier for trafficking victims to get help—police, for example, could be trained to recognize that many sex workers have been forced into prostitution. She is irate that in London, a dedicated human trafficking division of the police force is at risk of being folded back into the vice squad, because of budget cuts.
Stateside, the Justice Department says New York City’s John F. Kennedy Airport is a trafficking hub, with thousands of women, most of them from Latin America and Asia, trafficked to the region each year. At the art installation Tuesday, Bloomberg announced a $2 million public campaign, called “It’s Happening Here,” to raise awareness of the problem. Ads will appear on subways and buses this spring, encouraging New Yorkers to call 911 if they meet an individual whom they believe to be enslaved. In addition, the city is training staff at Family Justice Centers in the outer boroughs, as well as emergency room workers, to recognize signs of trafficking. Bloomberg said his message to victims was, “We will not deport you, we will not punish you, we will help you.”
The art exhibition in Greenwich Village, called “Journey,” includes seven shipping containers. Inside each container, an artist has represented a scene from a trafficked woman’s life, beginning with her kidnapping from her home country. One container re-creates the room in which a sex slave worked—dingy, stinking, and with prices for various sex acts posted on the wall.
In the United States, more than 90 percent of the estimated 20,000 annual trafficking victims are women, and 83 percent are subjected to sexual exploitation. Worldwide, human trafficking is the third-largest source of illegal capital, after drugs and weapons; according to the United Nations, the industry takes in $7 billion each year. Typically, girls and women are lured into captivity by promises of jobs in child care, waitressing, fashion, or entertainment. They are then held captive by pimps, their wills broken through physical violence, rape, and threats of deportation or retaliation against their loved ones. Many of the women are foreigners, away from their support systems. But according to the Department of Justice, in the U.S., a full 63 percent of coerced sex workers are American citizens.
In New York, Thompson made time to discuss the issue with every journalist and curious bystander who approached her. She ignored her publicist’s repeated requests to get a move-on.
“I want you to understand,” she exhorted, “this is a hidden crime, and the most hidden thing about it is the condition of the victim after the fact. She will never say she needs help because she is concerned that if she tells anyone, her family will be killed. She has been so well and horribly fucked up.”
Dr. Alex Frank, a physician who works with torture survivors at the Helen Bamber Foundation in London, says the key to reaching trafficking victims is facilitating communication. “It’s about trying to make them feel that they can speak the unspeakable,” Frank says. “Torture is immensely humiliating—especially sexual torture, whether you are a woman or a man—and in many cultures, it carries colossal shame.”
For trafficking survivors to feel safe coming forward, advocates agree there must be a liberalization of immigration policy at the national level, since without political asylum, victims often face deportation to home countries.
“While survivors wait for decisions on their immigration status, they live in fear,” Helen Bamber told The Daily Beast. “If they return to their home countries, they could easily become prey to the traffickers again. They will be stigmatized as women who have been violated, and they may not be accepted by family.”
Get Involved: The New York Anti-Trafficking Coalition lobbies for passage of federal legislation based on New York State’s groundbreaking Anti-Trafficking Law. GEMS (Girls Education and Mentoring Services) works with girls who have experienced commercial sexual exploitation. The UK-based Helen Bamber Foundation provides medical, psychological, and legal aid to survivors of human trafficking and torture.
Dana Goldstein is an associate editor and writer at The Daily Beast. Her work on politics, women’s issues, and education has appeared in The American Prospect, Slate, BusinessWeek, The New Republic, and The Nation.