Reality check: There are more slaves in the world today than were taken from Africa in the four centuries of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade--over 27 million. Of those, two million are children exploited in the commercial sex trade.
Human trafficking is the fastest growing criminal industry in the world, with annual profits exceeding that of ExxonMobil ($32 billion from sex trafficking alone). The average girl forced into prostitution is 13. Many are younger than that.
As a father, I am haunted by this thought. Even as I type, kids are being sold for sex in cities across the East--Tel Aviv, Dubai, Mumbai, Bangkok, Tokyo and Phnom Penh. In 12 hours, the same will be true in the West--Amsterdam, Rio, Toronto, Atlanta, Dallas and Portland. In the underworld, a girl is a money tree. Unlike a kilo of cocaine or a cache of AK-47s, a girl can be sold a dozen times a night for years. Siddharth Kara at Harvard estimates that a stable of four girls in a Western European apartment brothel can net a pimp an annual income of $300,000.
We in the West have a hard time believing that this is really happening, that the forcible exploitation of humans for profit is not only alive and well in the 21st century but worse than ever before. We are taught in history class that slavery ended after the Civil War. This is partially true: our ancestors defeated one incarnation of the monster. But the instinct of people to buy and sell other people for economic gain did not die with the 13th Amendment. It went underground and metastasized, waiting for conditions to ripen again. Then in the 1990s, slavery exploded into new life, fueled by globalization, the post-Cold-War economic vacuum, the Internet, and rising demand for cheap commercial sex and labor.
Four years ago, I was an attorney working in commercial litigation. If you had asked me how well I understood human trafficking, I would have told you about Svay Pak, Cambodia and the Western sex tourists who traveled there to abuse children. I would have told you about the heroic team of investigators, lawyers and social workers from the International Justice Mission working in the red light areas of India to rescue children from pimps and traffickers. But if you had asked me how well I understood the trade in the United States, I would have had little to say. Sensitive as I was to justice issues, I knew almost nothing about slavery in my own country.
The first stage of my awakening occurred in the spring of 2008. Interestingly, it was art that made trafficking personal, a film that brought it home in my heart. I started talking about it with my wife, scratching the surface of the world I thought I knew, and learning how profoundly I was in the dark. My wife's response to trafficking was even more visceral than my own. The truth about forced prostitution (bluntly put, the serial rape of women and children for profit) touched her deeply. Not long afterward, that touch triggered an epiphany. The concept for A Walk Across the Sun was hers before it was mine.
In the beginning, I struggled with the idea. I had a mountain of student debt and a law practice to grow. I knew that to write a novel on global human trafficking I would need the help of people in places of influence and danger; I would need time to research and write; and I would need resources to travel. In the end, however, I could neither ignore the idea's attractiveness nor deny its moral imperative. I was not in a position to rescue girls from brothels, but I could tell a story that would bring trafficking alive for readers just as a film brought it alive for me. I could lend my voice to the rising chorus of abolitionists saying: "Not in my generation."
When I said "yes" I dived deep, immersing myself in the literature on trafficking, learning the stories of slaves, traffickers, and customers, studying the international legal landscape, interviewing activists and officials in the U.S. and Europe, and traveling to India to see the reality of trafficking on the ground. In Mumbai, I met investigators working the streets of the red light areas to collect tips about captive children. I met attorneys laboring within the justice system to prosecute pimps and brothel owners. I met social workers with the most difficult job of all--putting rescued girls on a path toward healing and reintegration.
I knew, however, that I could not take my readers inside the sex trade unless I had gone there myself. Thus, one humid night a few days before I returned to the West, I met a man outside Mumbai Central Station, only a few blocks from Kamathipura, the city's largest red light area. The man was a friend of a friend and had offered to take me on an undercover "brothel tour." We took a taxi to M.R. Road where we met a malik--a brothel owner--known to my guide. After some negotiation, the man led us up two flights of steps to a room outfitted with couches and a mirror. The malik locked the door, closed the blinds and brought out about eight girls. All of them were young, and all of them were scared. I did not need a psychologist to tell me that they were not free to leave.
It has been almost three years since that night, but I can still picture the faces of those girls, still remember the revulsion I felt shaking the brothel owner's hand after I declined to make a purchase. I am haunted by the truth of slavery because I have seen it with my own eyes. I wrote A Walk Across the Sun to bring that truth alive for people like me, people who might prefer to believe that slavery is dead, or at least confined to dark alleys in the developing world. Human trafficking spans the globe, and so does my story--sweeping the reader from Mumbai to Paris to New York and Atlanta and revealing the many dimensions of the trade. The story is honest; it is hard-hitting, and based on the best research available. But--and this is critical--it is neither overwhelming nor grim. A Walk Across the Sun is a story of hope.
Hope, you say? How can you be hopeful after all you have seen? The answer is written in the pages of our history. However powerful and pervasive it may be, slavery is no more inevitable now than it was in the 1850s. But we cannot expect to counter a $32-billion-a-year industry without a massive society-wide effort. To vanquish this incarnation of the monster, we must pool our talents and resources, petition our elected officials to turn the millions in our war chest into billions, and commit ourselves to the cause of freedom for as long as it takes to win. It may take a generation, but it can be done. The only question is whether we have the courage to say "yes."