New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof's crusade last spring against domestic sex trafficking and the online marketer Backpage.com, which he accused of helping sell underage girls into sex slavery, prompted a widespread movement against the website and its owner, Village Voice Media. Many advertisers in Village Voice Media – including Starbucks, AT&T, and Best Buy – cut ties with the company.
There have been local benefit concerts against sex trafficking and, recently, even a Tennessee church rodeo to raise awareness about the issue.
Federal prosecutors have also increased their efforts against human trafficking – with a primary focus on sex trafficking. The Department of Justice prosecuted only two human trafficking cases in 1998; in 2011 it charged 120 defendants with human-trafficking crimes. The bulk of cases were related to sex trafficking.
"For years, whenever we talked about sex trafficking in America the reaction was surprise," says Andrea Powell, executive director and cofounder of FAIR Girls, an anti-trafficking organization based in Washington, D.C. "The perception was that it happened to girls in foreign countries.... We've seen the beginning of a shift in the attitudes in the US, and that has to do with public awareness."
On one level, the new and growing focus on domestic human trafficking seems straightforward. Clearly, enslavement of individuals, and sexual exploitation of children, is cause for concern. But when the international issue becomes a domestic one, and when forced labor starts to involve sex, there also comes an emotional debate about where the real problem ends and where hype and sensationalism begin.