Tag Archives: human trafficking

Writing a Book in Public

Yesterday I began a new blog site called Human Trafficking in Historical Perspective. This site is the online research and writing space I’m going to use for my next book project — a project still in its early days mode.

For a long time now I’ve been thinking about what happens when the entire scholarly process — or at least as much of it as possible — takes place in an open environment like a blog or a website. Certainly, I’m not the first person (or even close to the first) to do something like this. Dan Cohen just posted something in his blog on the same subject and he is much further along than I am on his project.

One wrinkle in what I’m doing on this project is that not only will my Zotero library be available for public consumption, but it is also a library that I’m building with students in the classes I have taught/am teaching/will teach on the subject of human trafficking. In this way I’m blending my own research efforts with theirs. How will that work? I’m really not sure, but it will be interesting to find out.

I’m also not sure if the final product of this work will be a book or something “book like.” In the book like category is everything from an eBook, to a website, to something that lives between those two. What that last something might be, I think we still don’t know. I suppose the project could just become a blog that is frozen in space and time with the comments turned off, or it could be something else we haven’t thought of yet. After all, like all good works of historical scholarship, this one is going to take a couple of years (at least) to complete. By the time I’m done, there is no telling what else we might have come up with as a means for displaying our work.

Facebook and Sex Trafficking

[NB: This post contains content that might not be suitable for all ages.]

Regular readers of this blog will know that this semester I’m teaching a course on the history of human trafficking. One of the students in my class wrote a very good paper on the impact of technological change on the sex trafficking industry and in the paper the student discussed, among other things, the increasing use of social networks to promote prostitution.

Just to be clear, prostitution is not illegal everywhere and reasonable people can come to very different conclusions about whether adults should be allowed to sell or purchase sex to/from other adults. But the realities of the sex global sex market as it exists today are that a substantial majority of the women and men providing sexual services for a price are doing so under duress–they have been trafficked and live in states of complete or almost complete slavery. A very large percentage of these people worldwide are under the age of 18. And in case you were wondering, the average age at which someone becomes a prostitute in the United States hovers around 13, a finding that should disabuse anyone of the notion that most prostitutes are selling sex as a matter of choice.

One of the parts of my student’s paper that caught my attention was the section that dealt with the use of Facebook and other social networks for the buying and selling of sex. Because I’m a historian, I’m a natural skeptic and so I decided to see whether there was good evidence that Facebook has begun to take up some of the slack from Craigslist, now that the latter site has begun to clamp down on the use of its site by those selling sex, many (if not most) of whom are/were under the control of pimps and other traffickers.

Because I have two children, one of whom is already on Facebook and the other of whom is already wanting to know when he can have a page of his own, I also have a personal reason for wanting an answer to this question.

Here’s what I found: If you want an “escort” or a “sensual massage,” Facebook can set you right up. With minimal searching, I found a variety of pages for escorts in Germany, the Persian Gulf, the United Kingdom, and India, and links to massage parlors in the United States as well as around the world. Lest you think these massage parlors are offering sports massage or something similarly benign, a quick scan of their pages (such as the one to the left) indicates that they are most definitely not offering therapeutic massage.

I recently met with some key people at the Polaris Project, one of America’s more important anti-trafficking organizations, and among the things I learned that day is that almost all “massage parlors” in the United States are implicated, not just in prostitution (as you might expect), but in the trafficking and therefore slavery of women for sex, especially women from Asia. And Facebook is giving these sorts of establishments an outlet on the web.

Perhaps even more unsettling are the pages I found, such as the one in this image, that are openly soliciting women for work as prostitutes. Again, it should be noted that prostitution is legal in many countries around the world. But the research on sex trafficking is clear that even where prostitution is legal, many (if not most) of the prostitutes working in a given country are victims of trafficking, meaning they are unfree and are forced to service as many as a dozen or more clients each day. Those seeking to traffick women and men for sex use a variety of strategies to lure them into slavery, so why should we be surprised that Facebook is becoming a tool of choice. After all, if you want to find teenagers, where better to look?

Colleagues regularly ask me whether or not I might consider using Facebook in some way in my teaching. And more and more we see examples of educational software developers coming up with applications that integrate various teaching and learning tools with Facebook. The results of my research on Facebook’s role as a platform for the buying and selling of sex, and therefore likely also the buying and selling of humans against their will, convinces me that it is no place for educators until its policies change.

Can you teach 80 students without lecturing?

This semester I’m teaching an undergraduate course on the history of human trafficking (20th/21st centuries). When I planned the course I thought I would probably get between 35-45 students. Working from that assumption, I structured the course in such a way that there would be no lecturing the entire semester.

I have 80 students.

To my surprise and pleasure, it turns out that the history of human trafficking is a subject that really energized George Mason students — I could have had 90 students if my room had been large enough. That’s the good news. The bad news — it seemed — was that I was going to have to junk the syllabus I wrote during the early part of the summer in favor of a course that was heavily lecture. After all, how else can you teach to 80 students in a history class?

Because I am still waiting for someone to show me that study demonstrating that lecturing is an effective form of teaching (if student learning is the goal of teaching), I decided to just jump off the end of the dock and teach 80 students the same way I was planning to teach half that number.┬áIt’s still early days in the semester, but so far the results seem pretty good.

You can read the entire syllabus if you visit the class website, but for the purpose of thinking about how one might teach 80 students without lecturing, you need to know that one of my primary learning goals (in addition to helping students acquire a more sophisticated knowledge of the history of human trafficking) was to teach them how to ask questions. It’s been my observation over the years that the American educational system is very good at teaching our students how to answer questions, but not very good at teaching them how to ask the kinds of questions we want them to ask.

So, the entire first half of the course is structured around questions that the students themselves generate. Each Thursday we break into groups and discuss the questions that need to be answered next week for us to move toward our goals in the course. Between Thursday and Tuesday, the students go to the books I’ve assigned and see if they can find answers to the questions they (not I) decided needed to be answered. Then on Tuesday, we reconvene, they work in groups to see what they’ve come up individually, then report out. And so on for the rest of the first half of the term.

It has been gratifying thus far to see how the questions they are asking are moving from very large and difficult to get hold of to more and more focused with each passing week. I have also been pleased with the results from my decision to tell them that the books I assigned were resources where they should begin their research, rather than saying “Next week we’ll discuss Misha Glenny’s McMafia. Be sure to be ready to discuss it in class on Tuesday.”

Thus far I’ve found that the students are really learning to mine the books for answers to their questions — a skill we also want them to develop.

Are all the students in the class fully engaged? Of course not. There are certainly some who are hiding, sitting quietly, not writing for the blog, etc. But that would be true if I stood at the front of the room and lectured at them, so I’m not sure whether my approach is working for more or fewer students. I suspect that the answer is “more,” but it’s still early days.