400 Years of Slavery and the Lash of the Whip Can Still be Felt

October 30, 2019 Celia Williamson Opinion 
Awareness, Academia, Domestic Servitude, Sex Trafficking, Bonded Labor, Forced Labor, Child Labor, Forced Marriage, Empowerment, Policy Making

Since human trafficking involves taking away someone's freedom in order to allow someone else to economically benefit, it is modern-day slavery.

The first recorded group of slaves arrived in the U.S. in 1619. This year, 2019, marks 400 years of slavery in this country. In 2000, the U.S. government passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, acknowledging the presence of modern day slaves on U.S. soil. There are similarities between historic slavery and modern day slavery and also many differences. According to Kevin Bales, slaves today are disposable. There is little need to provide long term housing, food, and health care to them. It is much easier to recruit vulnerable youth and adults, exploit them for sex and/or labor and when used up, move on to others who are vulnerable. Modern-day slavery is a lucrative business bringing in upwards of 150 billion dollars.

We no longer openly support slavery in its crudest forms, having abolished pre-Civil War chattel slavery in 1865. However, our acceptance of the new form of slavery is evident. Just as we turned a blind eye to slavery in historic times, we do so today, but in a more civilized manner.

The lash of the whip now comes in the form of our words, our ignorance, and our judgement. For example, underage victims of sex trafficking are sometimes called “child prostitutes” while trafficking victims from other countries are referred to as “illegals” when forced to work on U.S. soil. It was not long ago that the U.S. deported international trafficking victims, thereby denying them justice and ignoring what awaited them when they returned home to traffickers. It was not until 2010 that Ohio passed laws to protect these victims. We would arrest and stigmatize a 14 year old American teen who was forced by an adult to sell sex to another adult. We felt comfortable blaming a child by stigmatizing and incarcerating them. It wasn't until 2012 that Ohio decided to view child trafficking as child abuse.

Furthermore, just because laws change does not mean that our attitudes follow suit. When we stigmatize someone; other them; and make them feel excluded in our organizations, our houses of worship, and our daily interactions; it can feel like a whip across their back. It’s the whip of privilege and ignorance.

You can use your privilege for good or for evil. There is no in between. If you claim ignorance, you are using your privilege to deny reality. There is no safe space from this fight. You are working for oppression or you’re working for freedom from oppression. For those of you that are not so sure, working for the freedom of others is a full time job. As an abolitionist or emancipator you should know that your words are important. Your actions are important. What you spend your money on is important. What you spend your time on is important. Who you spend your time with is important. What you choose to wear or not wear and the places to which you go or don’t go is all important. How you choose to speak or not speak as you pass someone is all important. What you attend to and what you ignore is important. Understanding your privilege is important.

In historic slavery it was clear who was in charge and who was oppressed. When someone stepped out of line, the lash of the whip caused immediate pain. In the present time, we still use the lash of the whip. The lash comes in the form of our words, our actions, what we choose to attend to and what we don’t. How we vote, how we shop, who we give power and attention to and who we dismiss or ignore is the lash of the whip.

In historic slavery the whip was meant to whip you back into submission and to keep you in line. The current form of the whip is meant to whip you into submission and keep you in line. The former could cause immediate death, the current causes a slow death. The former cuts immediately across your back, the latter is death by a thousand cuts, and the cumulative effect is felt just as deeply and over time.

If you haven’t figured it out yet, the issue of human trafficking is not as much about rescue and restore, as the U.S. government claims. Rather, it is mostly about human rights, emancipation, and freedom. These are the ideals we should aspire to uphold in the U.S. and around the world.

It’s a critical time. Instead of trivializing the issue by believing the fight to end trafficking is solely about rescuing victims, let’s end the exploitation and victimization of others. Fighting for freedom means we have to go deeper than that and not compartmentalize our actions for freedom and “do” anti-trafficking work. We need to spend our time on real human rights violations and daily actions to support a pro-freedom and anti-trafficking stance and “be” a freedom fighter in all we do.


Topics: Awareness, Academia, Domestic Servitude, Sex Trafficking, Bonded Labor, Forced Labor, Child Labor, Forced Marriage, Empowerment, Policy Making

About the Author



Celia Williamson

Dr. Celia Williamson has been engaged in anti-human trafficking work for over 25 years. She has published numerous articles on the subject and has delivered over 200 presentations at various conferences and events. She founded the first anti-trafficking program in Ohio in 1993 and directly worked with victims in Toledo for several years. She has completed numerous federally funded studies, written several articles and reports, edited 2 books on sex trafficking around the world, and completed her memoir as an anti-trafficking advocate. Additional accomplishments include: Founding the annual International Human Trafficking and Social Justice Conference; founding the Lucas County Human Trafficking Coalition; Chairing the Research & Analysis Subcommittee for the Ohio Attorney General's Human Trafficking Commission; and serving as President of the Global Association of Human Trafficking Scholars. In 2015, she became the Director of the Human Trafficking and Social Justice Institute at the University of Toledo to further the mission of combating human trafficking through research, education, and engagement. Dr. Williamson teaches social work practice, human trafficking, and culture and oppression courses to university students. 

Related Actions


Participate in National Human Trafficking Awareness Day

Mark your calendars, January 11th is National Human Trafficking Awareness Day. Help raise awareness by participating in an anti-trafficking action.

Participate in #MyFreedomDay, a Project Organized by CNN

On March 14, 2019 help students across the world bring awareness to modern day slavery by participating in #MyFreedomDay.