By Caroline E. Winter
March 27, 2008
Eliot Spitzer’s high-priced prostitute, Kristen, is not a slave; she’s a prostitute. Or so says Benjamin Skinner, author of the new book A Crime So Monstrous: Face-to-Face With Modern-Day Slavery. Skinner’s opinion is informed by his definition of “slave”: someone who is forced to work, under threat of violence, for no pay beyond subsistence.
Going by this definition and the desire to humanize one of the globe’s most devastating injustices, he spent the past five years traveling between five continents to infiltrate slave trafficking networks—at times negotiating sales undercover (but never buying human life)—and collecting the searing stories of more than 100 victims.
The point of the book is loud and clear: Slavery is far from dead, and there’s not enough being done about it. There are more slaves in the world today than at any other point in history, with estimates ranging from 12 to 27 million, and we’re not talking about those laboring for less than a dollar a day in developing countries or choosing to charge thousands for an hour of intimacy. The statistic refers only to those who truly have no choice.
Skinner took time to speak with Mother Jones from his home in Brooklyn about how some evangelicals and a small subset of academic feminists have distorted America’s already skewed understanding of slavery, the hypocrisy of the Bush administration’s soaring anti-slavery rhetoric, and what constitutes the “typical” slave.
Mother Jones: Why does it come as such a shock that there are more slaves in the world today than ever before?
Benjamin Skinner: My sense is that there is a fundamental misunderstanding, particularly in America, of what slavery is. The term has lost its currency and so you get the artist formerly known as Prince writing the word slave on his cheek to protest a binding contract that pays him 10 million per album. You get people using the word slave to refer to those who are underpaid in sweatshops but can walk away.