Could abolitionists stop mixing up chattel slavery with sex slavery?

People in the United States who want to lead a new anti-slavery movement should know better than anyone what chattel slavery is: The institution that allows one person to legally buy another and do whatever they want with them. Legally is the keyword: that is, the sale and purchase of human beings is permitted by the state in open sales; the slave becomes the owner’s possession in the same way a house or box of chocolates does. The women in the picture above, hanging out in front of a brothel or bar, are unlikely to have been purchased in that kind of sale or to feel themselves that they are slaves. Very likely they would feel offended to be called that, even if they don’t care for the work they are doing or object to working conditions.

Free the Slaves, founded by Kevin Bales, says there are 27 million slaves in the world today, which doesn’t match anyone else’s estimates. That’s because they lump together a very wide variety of people as slaves, mostly because their working conditions and pay are awful. That this reminds people of slavery is understandable, but to not distinguish between different states of freedom, volition and labour of individuals is a way of imposing an abstraction on them. Yes, it is colonialism again, by saying We Know What Your Situation Really Is, We Know Better Than You Do. Poor You, We Will Rescue You.

One effect of this generalising is to trivialise the worst cases of exploitation. How must descendants of chattel slaves feel when abolitionists say all women who sell sex are slaves? Are they annoyed at the comparison? Insult is added to injury when putting an end to modern-day slavery is called our civil rights movement, as Kristen Lindsey did. It’s not as though civil rights are no longer an issue in the US! I also find the desire to own a movement repellent, rather than thinking about how to empower and support the actual protagonists and victims of the story.

Here are excerpts from a piece about students at an Arkansas university who are opening a chapter of the International Justice Mission. They are newly thrilled to have this cause and incredibly muddled about what’s going on.

IJM coming together at ASU to end slavery, 26 January 2012

. . . According to conservative estimations, there are thought to be about 27 million people enslaved or human trafficking victims in the world today. Does the OR mean they are hedging their bets because everyone isn’t agreed about generalising slavery yet?

Right now there are more people enslaved in the world than any other time in history. There are currently even more slaves than when the Civil War was fought in the 1800s. There are more of all kinds of people, for heaven’s sake.

Our group hopes to raise at least $1,000 to go towards stopping human trafficking and helping the former slaves get back to their lives. These are college students, remember.

When a sex trading ring or brothel is discovered by the IJM, the local police are informed and are then sent out to raid the compounds and rescue any slaves they find. Do none of these students wonder about IJM’s meddling in other countries’ business? Have they no questions about these ‘slaves’?

The IJM has already gained national attention and support from some large corporations. Google Inc. donated $11.5 million last month to IJM and 10 other organizations focused on stopping slavery and human trafficking. Oh, fine, no need to think about it yourselves then. If Google says it’s good it must be.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

5 thoughts on “Could abolitionists stop mixing up chattel slavery with sex slavery?

  1. Frank

    They conflate prostitution with chattel slavery and no, they can’t stop conflating the two because if they did they would lose the criminalization of prostitution argument and they wouldn’t be able to get funding for their high salaries and free exotic travel. I believe that most of these ‘leaders’ are fundamentally dishonest.

    I mean, how much has Kevin Bales raked in over the years from the “non-profit” sector?

    1. laura agustin Post author

      Probably the Free the Slaves website explains things, but what the general public hears and repeats are short slogans, like ‘Slavery is back’. Which certainly gives reasons for imperialist interventions, funding rackets and the rest.

  2. Richard Gadsden

    I think you mean “descendants” of chattel slaves, not “ancestors”.

    Even the worst cases (some domestic staff situations where their immigration status is dependent upon employment, and where they can’t quit and return home because they can’t afford the air fare) are, maybe, equivalent to indentured servitude, which is not “free labor” but isn’t chattel slavery either.

    1. laura agustin Post author

      thanks for pointing out the editing slip. yes, there are many jobs where the word ‘job’ doesn’t feel right because the employer has so much control. here i just wanted to make sure that the slavery US abolitionists mention is understood in its original sense.

  3. Pingback: Interesting Anthropology Blogs - 6 February 2012 | Anthropology Report

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