“When people tell me that women choose this life, I can’t help but laugh. Do they know how many women like me have tried to escape, but have been beaten black and blue when they are caught? To the men who buy us, we are like meat. To everybody else in society, we simply do not exist.”
When people think of abolitionist leaders, the names of icons like Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Henry Ward Beecher, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton come to mind. A diverse cross section of Americans—black and white, enslaved and free—were in the forefront of the 19th century antislavery movement and responsible for its many victories. But America has a new generation of 21st century abolitionists, women and men committed to ending human trafficking here in our country and everywhere. Our gallery of portraits celebrates New Abolitionists and their determination to end slavery once and for all in our lifetimes.
The New Abolitionists Campaign is much more than a collection of photographs. It is a campaign that teaches that slavery is neither a historical artifact nor something confined to distant lands. Sex and labor slavery happens in our midst to our girls and boys, to our women and men. Some of the victims are brought here from other parts of the world. Often lacking English and immigration status, they are at the mercy of the criminals who buy and sell them. Many more, however, are born and raised in our communities and enslaved by traffickers from our communities, usually for sexual exploitation that typically starts when the victims are children or young teens.
Serial predators, traffickers seek out victims rendered vulnerable by such factors as youth, poverty, and a history of abuse. Traffickers brutalize their victims until they are too broken to be lucrative commodities and then move on to new prey. When law enforcement takes down a pimp ring, it not only does justice for its victims; it prevents the exploitation of others.
Traffickers are only half of the slavery equation. The other half are the buyers whose demand for commercial sex—or, in the case of labor trafficking, for free labor or cheap goods—is the economic driver of the local and global trafficking industry. When buyers are held accountable, the incentive for trafficking is curtailed. Nineteenth Century abolitionists recognized that slave buyers are just as culpable as slave traders. Those who wear the abolitionist mantle take a stand against demand.
Few know that between the first wave of abolitionist leadership and the anti-trafficking movement today there was a second wave, carried out after the Civil War and waning before the Second World War. Founded by British suffragist and feminist education reformer Josephine Butler, this abolitionist wave fought the legalization of prostitution in the United Kingdom through the Contagious Diseases Acts, which branded prostituted women and girls as vectors of disease and would have forced them to undergo brutal inspections and incarceration. Butler’s demand-focused abolitionist campaign not only prevented the Acts from being voted into law but raised the age of consent from 13 to 16, protecting vulnerable girls from sexual exploitation.
New Abolitionists, like our forebears, are dedicated to the protection and empowerment of trafficked people. Protection means safe harbor for all, regardless of age, race, gender, sexual identity, or immigration status. Protection means an end to the re-victimization of victims by the criminal justice system. Too often, the justice system has failed in its mission, turning a blind eye to the perpetrators and punishing their victims. Too often, society has reinforced injustice, stigmatizing victims as “prostitutes” or legitimizing their oppression as “work.”
New Abolitionists are not only educators and thought leaders. We are activists who take bold action, as Henry Ward Beecher did when he staged a mock slave auction in Plymouth Church in 1860 and purchased an enslaved girl’s freedom. Like our predecessors, New Abolitionists take to the streets, petition our government, and stand at the bully pulpit to educate our peers and the public that all humans are equal and no one should be bought and sold.
Today’s abolitionists are neighbors, philanthropists, doctors, lawyers, social workers, students, actors, and business leaders. We are judges, teachers, political leaders, and community organizers. We are old, young, in the public eye, and completely anonymous. Some of us are survivors. We are united by our commitment to ending human trafficking, in our country and globally. Take a look; you might be surprised by the faces you recognize. Embrace our abolitionist legacy and help build its future. Join us!