Gayil Nalls, Ph.D.

Gayil Nalls Ph.D.


Psychoanalyst Karen Morris Asks, “Where Is the Slave in Me?”

The travesty of sex trafficking continues

Posted Feb 28, 2017

Lalesh Aldarwish, CC0 License
Source: Lalesh Aldarwish, CC0 License

Slavery is far from dead, because the root of the problem is demand.

For many, it is hard to believe that today, women, boys, and girls are bought and sold for profit, for forced sex and prostitution, and that it is likely happening in your own community. Sex trafficking is both human trafficking and sexual slavery, and it’s prolific and international. To help prevent the trafficking of persons, organizations have begun asking, “Who is the consumer for this ‘human product’ that drives this market?”

Karen Morris, a psychoanalyst and an Ambassador of Hope for Shared Hope International whose mission is to educate, prevent, and eradicate the sex trafficking of minors, points out that 99 percent of the customers are male. Additionally, a 2001 study of the international and domestic trends of sex trafficking found that the majority of sex businesses operate and thrive around U.S. military bases nationally and internationally. It is possible that that sexual exploitation and violence against women and children along with the severe psychological and physical suffering it inflicts could be greatly reduced with help of the U.S. military.

When discussing the topic, law enforcement agencies report that the problem is the sentencing guidelines for these crimes, as “There are higher penalties for trafficking drugs and guns than for selling women.”1

This past May, Dr. Morris spoke at the While You Were Texting roundtable I co-organized in New York City.2


© 2016 Nalls, Marinez, Dorosh; While You Were Texting
Karen Morris presenting at the roundtable While You Were Texting. New York, NY.
Source: © 2016 Nalls, Marinez, Dorosh; While You Were Texting

I will be speaking today about juvenile domestic sex trafficking and the global commercial sex industry from the perspective of my profession as a psychoanalyst, and as a Zen Buddhist practitioner and teacher. In Zen the responsibility for our life and for our participation in the world– depends upon our choices and our activities. Our intention to live according to the original Buddha’s realization that, although life is suffering, there can also be an end to suffering dependent upon our activities. This is not dogma. It is for us to decide what the right action is, and it's very personal.

Working in private practice in any profession can be very isolating. When I speak about the commercial sex industry and sex trafficking to my colleagues in conferences, it becomes clear to me that most are not aware of the scope of this global, very human problem, because it's occurring outside of their offices. If it's not a patient they're helping, and are quite concerned about, they don't know how to think about what their personal action might be in the world at large.

As a person very much interested in the safety and quality of life for women and children around the world and in my own society, I’ve spent the past eight years leading study groups on the problem of juvenile domestic sex trafficking and the growth of the commercial sex industry. The US Dept. of Justice notes the growth in this industry as being so rampant that it cannot chart it growth exponentially from year to year. However, it is estimated that 89% of the 27 million people enslaved annually, worldwide, are women and children trafficked into the commercial sex industry. Here in the US, it is estimated that 300,000 domestic minors are trafficked annually for those same purposes. Additionally, there is no way of knowing the number of them who are murdered each year. Yet, this so-called work force continues to swell, of entrapped and trafficked under-aged female “sex workers,” as they are now referred to under the pressures of convention to normalize, every form of abuse and violence that mask the greed of those steering this illegal marketplace, driven by the demand of its customers. 

In order for us to understand this growth, Shared Hope International and other organizations working to prevent and eradicate slavery have shifted their attention from the victims of this crime to the customers, the buyers of commercial sex and sex with children, 99% of whom are male. It is essential to understand how demand for commercial sex creates related industries such as sex tourism and pornography, including the filming of violent sex crimes and live entertainment torture, which de-stigmatize gender based crime and increase demand for more human product. 

For most of my adult life I have felt victim to the force behind the growth of the commercial sex industry and related industries, through the conspiratorial projection of women and children as commercial objects of desire. It permeates the visual field and surround I live and work in. From the point of view of exponential growth in this industry, in order for me to understand the scope of what this means for enslaved people the world over, and for future generations, I must decenter myself from the way I hypothesize the world I live in, and from how I think about such things as labor, history, gender, economics and politics. I have to decenter myself from the problem of finding a solution according to my ethos.

Instead, I begin as the historian Mircea Eliade suggested, by asking myself about the slave I am and the slaves I come from. People often bristle when I say this and quickly interject, “Oh, you mean how you enslave others.” While being true, I think it’s unfair to expect us to leap to that resolve without reflection and knowing first, deeply, perhaps on the cellular level, how I have been and continue to be a slave. Where is the slave in me? To whom do I belong? Because it’s that slave who cannot think freely in order to act freely. That’s the slave who expects others to be slave with me, and for me. It’s that slave who feels entitled to think, “If I’m not free no one can be free.” It’s only by going that route that I hear my global self speak, how I know I am with others in these deplorable, unspeakable conditions of the world, a voice my private self does not always recognize or is not in tune with, who feels helpless and hopeless against, while at others times is ready to lead the charge.

Loving our own freedom as we do, how can we remain so uninvolved and unaware of, not only how desperately enslaved people desire freedom, but how human rights are so flagrantly violated in the creation of ubiquitous commercial sex markets? As a westerner it is surely easier to think about the myth of freedom than to entertain freedom itself. I think this is where most of us struggle in our lives, and so given this paradox and the dynamic of inter-dependent arising, we are not really living our lives fully when we fail to develop and act upon our own capacities for reflection and compassion. The power of an identity based upon servitude has been cultivated in us by every imaginable hierarchical system, group and organization from the beginning of history, through militarization, industrialization, family systems, education, religion, commercialization, as well as aspects of so-called creativity; all forms with deep roots in slavery and the power to enslave. We all suffer it. 

The faces of the destroyed are everywhere in plain view, on every street, in restaurants, hotels, train stations, in newspapers, hi-end magazines and on-line for sale; revisioned into entertainment in the forms of ubiquitous pornography, TV and movies. These are my own personal formulations of how I grapple with the rampant growth of the dehumanizing, commercial enterprise of the sex trade.  How may we take the backward step and apprehend the degree and cost in human suffering, as it is evident everywhere in the economics and travesty of the global empire of the sex industry?

© 2017 Gayil Nalls, All rights reserved.

Gayil Nalls, Ph.D., is published online and in print, most recently with her essay "The Politics of Perfumed Objects" in the book For the deeper meaning- fragrance as medium in art, design and communication (Germany, Spielbein Publishers, 2016). Follow her @olfacticinkblot and @themassinglab


Raymond, Janice G. and Huges, Donna M. Sex Trafficking of Women in the United States, March 2001, Coalition Against Trafficking in Women. Supported by a grant from The National Institute of Justice.

While You Were Texting. Roundtable presentations and discussions. El Barrio's Art Space, New York, NY. May 1st, 2016.

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