The Catholic University of America

Modern Day Slaves

Americans who believe that slavery in the U.S. has gone with the wind or faded away into the mist of the antebellum South should think again. The “peculiar institution” survives to this day. It may no longer involve shackled African-Americans working the fields for 16 hours a day, six days a week.  Slavery in 2009 takes a different form: mostly young women and children forced into bondage as sexual property. They may not be physically chained, but the psychological shackles of fear, abuse and lack of self-worth hold them in place just as surely as it did their predecessors in the 19th century.

This sober reality was the subject of Professor Mary Leary’s 2009 Mirror of Justice Lecture, sponsored by the Pope John Paul II Guild of Catholic Lawyers and delivered on Oct. 22 in the Walter Slowinski courtroom.

In remarks titled “’Our Sister’s Keeper’” or a ‘Kept Sister?’ Commercial Sex Trafficking and Slavery: Implications of a Societal Response, Leary noted that 27 million people around the globe are involved in sex trafficking. In the U.S., it’s estimated that as many as 17,000 people are brought into the country each year for such purposes. Behind drug and gun smuggling, the trafficking in human sexual bondage is the third most profitable venture for organized crime.

“Human sex trafficking is modern day slavery,” declared Leary, who spent a significant portion of her remarks drawing unsettling analogies between today’s practices and those of 150 years ago. The pre-Civil War slave trader reappears today as a prostitute’s pimp, Leary argued, observing that each made money from the suffering and degradation of others.

There is a key difference, however. While the Catholic Church (and organized religion in general) was largely silent about 19th century slavery, today’s Church has vociferously condemned human sexual trafficking in the strongest terms.

“The Church has spoken very clearly on this issue. There is no ambiguity, no ‘I didn’t understand,’” Leary said.

Part of Leary’s Mirror of Justice lecture examined the coarseness and vulgarity of popular culture in America, which in her view serves to minimize the revulsion people should feel about the business of sex trafficking. The saturation in the media of sexualized images of underage children, even in such venues as the Disney Channel, results in “omission” of recognition of the problem by bystanders.

“We reinvent, recast and glorify prostitution,” said Leary. “I submit it means that we live in a society that allows slavery, and we should judge ourselves as harshly [as we have judged those from the past].”