Last week I attended the UN Women event Zero Tolerance: Making Society Accountable for Women’s Safety which included an amazing panel including Abigail Disney, Michael Guarnieri, Dorchen Leidholdt, Patricia Latona, and Steven Rotolo. Though the conversation spread among many topics, a major issue that kept coming out was the Super Bowl being a magnet for human trafficking. It was interesting to hear the perspective of not only women, but also the two male contributors. Both men worked as police officers for major transit hubs: Michael for Port Authority in Manhattan and Steven for Newark Airport in New Jersey.
This Super Bowl season isn’t the first time Michael had run into trafficking within New York City’s Port Authority. His unit often stops youthful people who are alone to question them. It is then that he may find out that they are indeed there to meet someone. An example he had seen too many times was a girl with little education from a poor area who believed a man who bought her a ticket to a better life, only to be raped and then sold into trafficking, gun/drug running, or forced labor. He mentioned Port Authority’s Y Issue Unit, which is one of the most successful models in the country to find and help runaway youth which is impressive for a bus terminal that sees 220,000 people each day. They watch for signs and if they take someone in, they are interviewed with a social worker. One thing I did wonder, though, was how the police treated young women and girls who were prostitutes, whether voluntarily or involuntarily. I have been to other events and panels who highlighted this mistreatment in particular. The NYPD has vocalized their plan to hold sex buyers accountable, but it still is often the case that the girls are the ones who get in legal trouble rather than the pimps or johns.
At Newark Airport, Steven and the police there have been planning for the Super Bowl for a year and a half (before NY/NJ even knew for sure they would host it). They learned a hard lesson from New Orleans where the authorities were unprepared and appalled by the level of trafficking they ended up encountering. In Newark they developed a taskforce and are extending beyond transit to hotels, cabs, and more. They must also keep a close eye on backpage ads and social media outlets. Steven stressed the importance of authorities needing constant education as issues like human trafficking evolve.
Abigail suggested that we are having more trouble defining sexual violence today. The media tends to make it casual and funny. She also mentioned that this upcoming generation is the first to grow up with access to porn on the internet, which by the way accounts for 60% of internet traffic. So how to we speak out against bad media and reward media? Sure, the NFL often shows support for women related causes such as wearing pink for breast cancer. However, in the next breath are ads featuring a sexy woman by a car. Abigail believes that mixed signals like these make a bigger impact than we think. This leads to a failure of empathy between men and women and Abigail suggested that men do not cringe when they see violence against women as much as when they see another man being hit between the legs. However, I didn’t particularly care for this generalization because I have men in my life who are very empathetic and deeply disturbed by these cases. I think it’s important to not point fingers as much and offend or blame those men who are advocating for the safety of women and girls. However, it is popular for masculinity to be defined by power and domination. Society will always have a minority number of psychopaths, but when the average individual is influenced by things like the media they become the tolerator, bringing about more individuals to commit these violent acts against women then the small number we might otherwise see. “Rape should be as embarrassing as child molesting,” Abigail said. Unfortunately this typically isn’t the attitude that surrounds it.
Dorchen asked, “How do men and boys get socialized to behave in this way?” Just as Abigail had, Dorchen mentioned porn and media and how it contributes to sex trafficking. “Why are these things sexy and OK?” she asked, referring to the fact that these platforms often show women as objects that exist for another person’s pleasure. Sure laws have passed to legislate that this is not the case, but the media too often puts the negativity in the spotlight rather than showing and reinforcing these laws. She brought up an accountability model that is working in Scandinavia where the country asked themselves, “what is driving sex trafficking?” They found that the demand seemed to be for women considered young and exotic since the men could easily separate them from their moms, sisters, and wives visually. Of course it is the men’s demand that is driving this industry .The country began holding the buyers accountable and using media in various campaigns including simply stating “it’s a crime to buy sex.” I actually recently saw an outdoor advertising campaign in New York City trying to do something similar. My question to Dorchen though would be, how do certain countries get law enforcement to hold these buyers and sellers accountable? In many places police are easily bribed and can sometimes be just as violent to the girls as their pimps and are often even clients in brothels.
Patricia made a point that for gender based violence we have a cause being discrimination and the result of that being oppression. She allowed us to face disturbing facts including that 70% of women across the world live in poverty and 800 women die in child birth each day. Of course each country in the world is difference and it’s essential to look into culture as well to determine what is influencing the violence. Patricia asked us to consider what lens boys from different cultures are looking at girls through.
The discussion in general brought up important points and allowed the audience to ask difficult questions while considering these violent acts against women from different angles. I am glad UN Women included a mixture of men and women since these issues face everyone in society.