Kraft prof discusses sex trafficking research, scandal
Prof. Bernadette Brooten (NEJS) discusses her research of sex trafficking through the lens of Christian studies.
New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft has been implicated in a sex trafficking ring involving the Orchids of Asia Day Spa in Jupiter, Florida, where he was allegedly taped receiving sex acts from employees, according to a Feb. 22 New York Times article. Police began to suspect the spa was part of a sex trafficking ring after officers found explicit online reviews, per a Feb. 22 Business Insider article. The sting has uncovered a massive sex trafficking ring involving businesses “stretching from Florida to New York to China,” a Feb. 22 Boston Globe article stated, and over 200 people have been charged.
The allegations against Kraft are very significant to Brandeis professor Bernadette Brooten (NEJS), who studies sex trafficking. Brooten is the Robert and Myra Kraft and Jacob Hiatt Professor of Christian Studies.
The Kraft-Hiatt family created the endowed chair professorship because they felt that “Jews and Christians and others needed to understand one another better,” and have “academic opportunities for learning about other traditions than one’s own,” Brooten said in an interview with the Justice.
Brooten has met Robert Kraft on several occasions and said she was “stunned” and disturbed when she found out about the allegations against him. According to a Mar. 1, 2019 USA Today article, Robert Kraft has donated to several organizations dedicated to stopping sex trafficking. Though she is very “disappointed” by the allegations, Brooten still acknowledged that many people including herself and these organizations have “benefited” from his philanthropy.
Brooten, a New Testament scholar, said that there is little research on sex slavery within a religious context. She began a “collaborative research project” to better understand “how deeply slavery is embedded within Christian, Jewish and Muslim thinking and history, and how we have not yet overcome its legacies today.” Though many think of sex slavery as a “modern phenomenon,” Brooten said, “the sexual exploitation as part of forced labor is a very ancient practice.”
She added that the exploitation has evolved with technology to conceal the identities and transportation of people involved in sex trafficking. In ancient times, women and children were forced into sex slavery as captives after war, while others sold themselves into slavery as a way to get out of extreme poverty. Governments did not regulate slavery in the past because the institution of slavery is based on “the owner having complete control over the body and life of the enslaved person,” she explained.
Brooten said she is also interested in how modern Christianity grapples with its history with slavery and sex trafficking, especially during the era of U.S. chattel slavery, which occurred before the Civil War. She argued that an assessment of this history is necessary to shape future Christian activist work against sex slavery. During the 19th century, Brooten said, “many Christians and some Jews … supported slavery and … appealed to the Bible” to justify slavery. The New Testament states that “enslaved persons should obey their masters and mistresses in all things,” and Jesus “did not prohibit slaveholding in any of his teachings,” Brooten said.
She added that she worries that some modern Christians view sex slavery through a moralistic lens, and noted that Christianity has had a “problematic relationship … with sexuality.” Enslaved African women were sexually exploited by “white Christian men who were upstanding members of their congregations or even the pastor” which “has had a long-term effect on … the way that black women’s sexuality in this country is often popularly viewed,” Brooten said. Coming to terms with that history would help reshape Christian activism against sex trafficking because “one would be paying attention not only to current women who are forced into prostitution,” but the activism would also address race relations.
Female slaveholders could also be as cruel as their male counterparts, according to Brooten, particularly within the context of the sexual torture of enslaved women in America. When masters would rape and impregnate enslaved women, the mistresses would often inflict their rage on the women because they felt “slighted,” she said.
Brooten made the distinction between enslaved women and married women forcibly subjugated to a dominant husband. The idea that men own their wives and children is a concept that originated in slaveholding, and is a common thread in these types of marriages. Abused or subjugated and enslaved women differ, however, because “the enslaved woman is not allowed to leave, does not receive pay, [and] is subject to violent sexual abuse at the owner’s whim.” Though the former group of women may also be subject to abuse, they are still free, she asserted.
With the attention surrounding the Kraft case, Brooten stated that she is glad that media outlets are “paying more attention to the conditions of forced labor among prostitutes,” and how women become trapped in sex trafficking. Though many women were forced into sex slavery, others are in debt servitude. This means that they have paid traffickers in order to gain passage to the United States and then prostituted themselves to pay their debts, Brooten explained. Many of these women are so deep in debt, however, that they cannot get out of sex slavery.
The women working at Orchids of Asia were East Asian, Brooten said, which reveals another problem in the world of sex trafficking — sexual fantasies based on ethnic stereotypes. “In prostitution, the ethnicity of the prostituted individuals makes a difference,” she explained, adding that women’s bodies are “marketed” based on stereotypical fantasies held by the “consumers,” who are mainly white men. Thus, she said, “prevention efforts have to differ given the communities” of different ethnicities.
Today’s slavery is distinguished by its underground nature, unlike the slavery of the past. The “invasion of one’s body that occurs in forced sexual labor,” however, “is a thread that runs through the history of slavery,” Brooten stated. The economic inequality which has also been present throughout the history of slavery has been increasing in the U.S., which could exacerbate the problem of sex trafficking. “I’m deeply concerned that inequality in this country is growing, and that we are not addressing it in any adequate fashion,” Brooten said.
Curbing sex trafficking, Brooten said, is “not just about rescuing a few women at a massage parlor,” but must involve addressing economic inequality. If a man “has the economic means wherewith to support himself and his family,” she explained, “he will not sell his daughter into slavery or allow her to go into slavery.”
Brooten said that having the Kraft name on her professorship would not impede her work, as “the work speaks for itself.” In the future, Brooten will continue her work on sex trafficking, specifically studying sexual violence against people with disabilities as well as the intersection of race and gender among black women suffering sexual harassment. She will also continue her work with the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project, which aims to “reduce sexual harassment and violence” by “learning about … differences [in communities] and by working to create the conditions in which all victims/survivors know that reporting will result in justice,” according to a statement on the project’s website.
As a result of the attention given to the Kraft allegations, Brooten said she believes that people will become better at recognizing the signs of sex trafficking. Many massage parlors are hubs for sex trafficking, and people wondering what goes on in these establishments could help build awareness. In the Kraft case, next door to the Orchids of Asia spa, a pizza shop owner often saw women aimlessly walking around the strip mall where the spa is located. “They looked malnourished,” he said in the New York Times article. “One I even offered a slice of pizza to. She wouldn’t even say hi, wouldn’t even say thank you. Just kept her head down.”