Eleanor Gaetan: Interview with a truth-teller

Posted by on May 12, 2017 in Spotlight

Eleanor Kennelly Gaetan advises Demand Abolition on federal policy and regulation regarding sex trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation. She also works closely with the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW), the nation’s oldest organization dedicated to ending human trafficking. Eleanor spent over five years in the State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons (2003-2009), overseeing public outreach and editing the annual Trafficking in Persons Report. She lives in Washington, DC.

As part of our Spotlight Q&A Series, Eleanor explains the importance of policies to fight sex trafficking, and why Demand Abolition’s approach is so crucial.

Q. What are the most important policies for fighting sex trafficking?

The US government advocates an approach codified in 2000 in the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, and we spread this approach around the world: we prosecute the traffickers, protect the victims, and prevent the crime.

Prosecuting traffickers and protecting victims have been the priorities, but what we’ve realized over the last 15 years, is that the harm is profoundly deep and helping a victim recover is tremendously expensive. It is a very long road. Medical and psychological services are immediately needed. Shelter is needed. Legal assistance is needed. Job training is needed. There are very few public budgets or national governments that can really provide the full range of services that survivors need.

So that makes us look at prevention more seriously. What Demand Abolition advocates prevents the crime. We prevent it from the get-go, and that requires reducing the market by criminalizing the demand for paid sex. We have to make sex buyers accountable.

Q. What are some success stories of how policies effectively reduced sex trafficking?

There are very few success stories unless you look at limiting the demand for purchased sex, which is typically not about sex, frankly, but about power and degradation—something I have learned from survivors. That’s what people are seeking when they buy another human, and that’s one of the reasons why we can very confidently say that it has got to end, because degradation should not be legal.

In the last three years, three major countries, democracies—Canada, France and Ireland—have adopted what we call the Nordic model, or the equality model, and they have spent years examining the pathology of commercial sex. They looked at the problem of importing migrant women, which is what I originally saw in Romania. They looked at the profoundly negative, harmful impacts of prostitution, and they looked at the rampant engagement of criminal networks in the sex industry. They saw all of this and said, “No, we’re not going to empower this industry, we’re going to eliminate this industry.”

France took this move last year, Ireland adopted the Nordic model this year, and Canada in 2014. We are winning. The approach that Demand Abolition is advocating right now, at the local level in the US, is spreading across the world, and that success is inspiring increasingly aggressive opposition from the industry itself.

Q. What is Demand Abolition’s unique value in ending sex trafficking?

Demand Abolition is unique in at least three ways. First, it’s the only organization dedicated in the United States to changing the way law enforcement and the public looks at the commercial sex industry. Second, it advocates a specific paradigm in which we stop arresting those who sell sex, who are typically vulnerable women and minors, but we increase accountability for those who exploit, meaning sex buyers, who are traffickers under the law, much as pimps are traffickers. And then third, Demand Abolition is deeply engaged at the local level where most of these cases of sex trafficking are encountered.

My role in DC is to ensure that those lessons learned in the field, where we’re having great success through the CEASE Network (Cities Empowered Against Sexual Exploitation), are recognized and supported by the federal government.

Q. What do you want people to know about the harms of sex trafficking?

Talk to the victims and you’ll see how brutally they’re treated. All victims of sex trafficking are trafficked into prostitution. If you maintain this as a theoretical, policy question, you might be swayed by the pro-prostitution and so-called sex work proponents who portray themselves as happy, willing, consensual, saying, “I’m making money like I never have before.”

But this isn’t a job like any other.

I have never met a survivor who hasn’t used drugs or alcohol to get through it. One of the best studies of trauma in commercial sex, a study led by Dr. Melissa Farley, found that the PTSD levels of prostituted women is at the same level as combat veterans and victims of state torture. The same level! Because you cannot be used multiple times a day and night without disassociating. Almost every survivor I know has flashbacks: wakes up in the middle of the night sweating or cries randomly. PTSD follows survivors for years. In this country, it’s largely people of color and minors who are sex trafficked. They have no representation in any lobbying circle. So talk to them.

Talk to the people who have exited. That’s the other thing. Rachel Moran, who wrote the best book on this subject, “Paid For: My Journey Through Prostitution”—she says that when she was in the game, she would have fought us. She would have fought Demand Abolition. When she was in “the life,” she was so dependent on those payouts that she would have fought us just like her sisters are fighting us now.

Q. How did you originally get involved in this work?

I worked for the US Agency for International Development (USAID) in Romania, and as part of my portfolio in the democracy sector, I interviewed women who had been trafficked to Western Europe. What reoccurred was a very typical story: after the fall of communism the economies of Eastern Europe collapsed, and young women who had no jobs were tricked into going abroad for jobs they dreamed of and wanted.  Jobs in restaurants or eldercare, babysitting, they were promised these jobs.

But instead what happened, once they got to a destination—whether it was Italy or Turkey, the Netherlands, or Germany—their passports were taken and they were pulled into the commercial sex industry, which is huge in Western Europe.

Many of the women who got arrested and deported back to Romania seemed like zombies to me. It was a horrifying experience to see 18-year-olds, 17-year-olds, 21-year-olds—they were always between the ages of 16 to 24—who not only had their bodies stolen, but their souls had been stolen. They were devastated by the experience. So that was my introduction to the work and to the crime of human trafficking, but also to the profound injustice of the economics of sex trafficking, because there’s a demand for a commodity and the commodity is bodies.

In Germany, or in the Netherlands, local women are not prostituting. They have other options. So women are imported, and it’s the bodies of poor, naive women from Ukraine or Moldova or Romania—they are the women who are exploited.

Q. What do you want to be known for?

I’m a truth-teller about the commercial sex industry. There are so many people right now fogging up the mirror on what it really does to people. It all goes back to when I was helping a 17-year-old walk to a car; she couldn’t walk because she’d been raped by hundreds of people in a few months. I mean, I cry still to this day, after 17 years. I’m like a journalist at heart, so the facts move me, and the fact that this hasn’t gotten better, it argues for Demand Abolition’s approach. Other stuff has been tried.

The views and opinions expressed in this interview are that of the interviewee and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of Demand Abolition.

About the Spotlight Series
Across the world, people are doing powerful, innovative work to end prostitution and sex trafficking. Our Spotlight Series of blog posts features leaders in the anti-demand and abolitionist movements. We want to provide a showcase for these essential contributions to the fight against sexual abuse. The idea is simple: we’ll be asking people a few questions and publish their verbatim responses.

Read more in our Spotlight Series: Leaders in the Movement »

Do you know someone we should interview? Are there any questions you’d like us to ask? Please send your ideas to policy@demandabolition.org.