Our ability to selectively engage and disengage our moral standards…helps explain how people can be barbarically cruel in one moment and compassionate the next. (Albert Bandura)
In the ethics of human sexuality the issues most directly associated with pornography are its potential to foster sexism and violence against women, and its detrimental psychological effects upon women and men alike. Here, I want to add another thread to the discussion, and suggest the same values that inform the social acceptance of things like pornography and legalized prostitution might also be a driving force behind the trafficking of women and children for the purpose of sexual exploitation.
To get a sense for the nature and extent of commercial sexual exploitation in the world today, listen to Sunitha Krishnan describe her experience rescuing women and children from this dark side of human desire:
Another common misconception of human trafficking is that it is a problem limited to the less developed parts of the world. But developed nations like those in Europe and America bear at least equal responsibility for the problem as the primary sources of demand in the sex trade market. For example, listen to the story of trafficking in Tampa Bay, Florida:
If human trafficking is indeed fueled by the same moral assumptions and attitudes about human sexuality that look upon pornography as an acceptable social practice, it is not a stretch to say there may be a causal link between the two. Having already learned to virtually dehumanize the object of one’s desire, it is not a long step to the dehumanizing actions that define the terrorism of sex slavery.
Possibly even more important for this conversation than establishing a causal link between trafficking and pornography is taking note of an insight from social psychology. Experiments conducted by Stanley Milgram and Phillip Zimbardo, among others, reveal the power of social circumstances over one’s actions. It is clear that it takes very little to get people to do things they wouldn’t imagine themselves capable of from the comfortable perspective of their own self image. Zimbardo dubs this the Lucifer Effect, which he describes as “the process of transformation at work when good or ordinary people do bad or evil things.” If people are capable of losing themselves in these ways to the degree our social science suggests, how much more easily, then, is the step from one kind of dehumanization to another taken when one finds themselves in the midst of social and interpersonal acceptance, even expectation, of such acts?
Along with the multitude of additional harmful consequences openness to pornography may have on people and society, there are more than enough reasons to challenge its much too casual acceptance in cultures affluent and developing alike. This is not to suggest fostering a different social attitude towards pornography will solve the problem of the sex industry branch of human trafficking. It may, however, provide one of the many treatments needed to cure the cancer of the human conscience that makes things like trafficking possible.
For more information see Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery, written by Siddharth Kara.
Quotations taken from Zimbardo’s The Lucifer Effect, pp. 5,18.