Real Men?: Sports, Slavery, and Sex Trafficking

August 24, 2011 (Originally Published at NewBlackMan: Real Men?: Sports, Slavery, and Sex Trafficking.)

Real Men?: Sports, Slavery, and Sex Trafficking


by David J. Leonard | NewBlackMan

In the midst of the NFL lockout, Adrian Peterson joined a chorus of players who were both critical of the league’s owners and commissioner Roger Goodell, describing professional football as akin to “modern-day slavery”:

People kind of laugh at that, but there are people working at regular jobs who get treated the same way, too. With all the money … the owners are trying to get a different percentage, and bring in more money. I understand that; these are business-minded people. Of course this is what they are going to want to do. I understand that; it’s how they got to where they are now. But as players, we have to stand our ground and say, ‘Hey — without us, there’s no football.’ There are so many different perspectives from different players, and obviously we’re not all on the same page — I don’t know. I don’t really see this going to where we’ll be without football for a long time; there’s too much money lost for the owners. Eventually, I feel that we’ll get something done.

Although not the first person to use the slavery analogy, with William C. Rhoden, Larry Johnson, and Warren Sapp all offering this rhetorical comparison, his comments elicited widespread commendation and criticism.  Dave Zirin notes that he was denounced as “ungrateful,” “out of touch,” “an idiot” and, in the darker recesses of the blogosphere, far worse.”   Like much of sports media, the controversy quickly reached a zenith with columnists and fans ultimately focusing on other issues, spectacles, and controversies, although never forgetting his insertion of race into the world of sports.

Recently, however, an ESPN columnist brought a spotlight back onto his comments, celebrating Peterson’s determination to right his rhetorical wrongs.  In “Adrian Peterson continues righting a wrong” Kevin Seifert cites not only Peterson’s efforts to apologize for his “unfortunate analogy,” but his decision to get involved with anti-slavery efforts as part of a larger effort to make amends.  “If some good came of Adrian Peterson’s unfortunate use of analogies this offseason, it’s this: It forced one of the NFL’s highest-profile players into a bond with two of the world’s most prominent advocates for ending human trafficking.”

Citing his involvement with Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher’s DNA Foundation, a group committed to “rais[ing] awareness about child sex slavery, chang[ing] the cultural stereotypes that facilitate this horrific problem, and rehabilitat[ing] innocent victims,” Seifert argues that Peterson missed-used analogy reflected a lack of knowledge about human trafficking.  “As a professional and respectful public figure,” Peterson would never knowingly make such a silly and harmful comparison had he known about the realities of human trafficking and child sex slavery.  At least that seems to be the argument emanating from this piece. “I’ve always believed that Peterson wasn’t making any sort of political statement,” writes Seifert, whose column about Peterson’s comments brought up the real-life circumstances of modern-day slavery.  “There was no reason to think he harbored some previously unexpressed level of insensitivity. Like many of us, he probably just didn’t know that in 2010, 12.3 million people world-wide were in forced or bonded labor. To that end, Peterson jumped at the chance to work with Moore and Kutcher.”

Seifert’s celebration of Peterson’s PSA is questionable given his efforts to cite this as evidence of his efforts to do penance along the path to redemption. At one level, it is unclear if the PSA was in actuality a response to the controversy surrounding the comments (the interview took place in March and the PSA filming taking place shortly thereafter in April).   At another level, and more importantly, Peterson had nothing to apologize for, and therefore his involvement with an organization committed to thwarting modern-day slave sex trafficking has nothing to do with his past comments about the NFL.

The relative silence of the media regarding his PSA, especially in comparison to the ubiquitous level of criticism that he experienced for deploying “the S-word” (Zirin), demonstrates that irrespective of his actions it will be difficult for him to secure redemption in the eyes of mainstream America.  Richard King and I wrote about the precarious path to redemption experienced by many black athletes in wake of controversies in “Lack of Black Opps: Kobe Bryant and the Difficult Path of Redemption” (Journal of Sport and Social Issues).  There we argue,

The media and public fascinations with Kobe Bryant, Tiger Woods, and other Black athletes accused of personal and/or criminal transgressions should remind us of what a prominent place race, redemption, and respectability play in sport today. Sport media not only rely on the White racial frame but also play a leading role in its repro­duction. In this frame, Blackness has overdetermined the actions of African American athletes from O. J. Simpson, Mick Tyson, and Barry Bonds to Ron Artest, Shani Davis, and more recently Marion Jones, Michael Vick, Santonio Holmes and Tiger Woods, creating a context in which interpretations and outcomes for Black and White athletes vary greatly. . . . Yet what is clear is in spite of the celebration of the comeback stories of Tiger Woods, Kobe Bryant, or even Michael Vick, their Blackness, and the broader signifi­cations associated with their Black bodies contains and limits their public rehabilita­tion. Just as their Blackness continues to confine the meaning of their bodies inside and outside of the sports world, their past “mistakes” and “misfortunes” (as Black men) cannot be outrun, out maneuvered, and even controlled.

In other words, while recognizing the unfairness in demanding redemption from Peterson for comments about exploitation and abuse through a deployed slavery analogy, he faces a difficult challenge given the ways in which race and the associated tropes of the “ungrateful,” and “militant” black athlete governs over Peterson in wake of these comments.  Yet, the specific nature of the PSA itself lends itself toward some sort of redemption.

Peterson appears in a PSA as part of DNA’s “Real Men” campaign, which includes spots from Bradley Cooper (“Real men know to make a meal”), Sean Penn (“Real Men know how to use an Iron”) and Jamie Foxx (“Real Men know how to use the remote.”)  In his PSA, Peterson is sitting in a living room befitting of a member of the aristocracy (or at least the American upper-class).  Confirming his class status and respectability, Peterson simultaneously represents an authentic manhood, able to start a fire by merely rubbing his hands together.  Unlike other men, Peterson embodies a true and enviable manhood, evident in his physical prowess and his economic prowess.  In this regard, his blackness is muted by a desired class- and gender-based identity.

Peterson’s represented identity is an important backdrop for both his purported redemption resulting from his participation in this campaign and the PSA itself.  The narrative argument offered within the campaign is that “real men don’t buy girls,” and that “real men” don’t participate in “child sex slavery.”  Peterson, as a man who can start a fire with his bare hands, and who is economically successful (not to mention someone who make defenders look silly) is already a real man within a hegemonic frame; his stance against sex slavery is but another signifier of a real masculinity, all of which is constructed as important attracting women.  The PSA ends with a young woman asking, “Are you a real man,” followed by a clear reminder: “I prefer a real man.”   At this level, the PSA is disturbing in that it tells viewers to oppose childhood sex slavery because that is what real men do and because women of age find such a stance attractive.

In a world where 12 million people are enslaved and where 2 million children are bought into the global sex trade, it is rather simplistic (and comforting) to reduce this injustice to a faulty masculinity.  Given that sex trafficking, according to the United Nations, involves “127 countries of origin, 98 transit countries and 137 destination countries” it is rather dubious to reduce the problem to a single construction of bad masculinity.

And to be clear, this isn’t just ELSEWHERE, with between 100,000 and 300,000 girls sold into sex slavery yearly, with many more “at risk of being sexually exploited for commercial uses.”  Whether in the U.S. or elsewhere, the existence of child human sex trafficking reflects patriarchy and the dehumanizing ideologies that govern society.

Catherine MacKinnon makes this clear in her analysis of global sex trafficking:

If women were human, would we be a cash crop shipped from Thailand in containers into New York’s brothels? Would we be sexual and reproductive slaves? Would we be bred, worked without pay our whole lives, burned when our dowry money wasn’t enough or when men tired of us, starved as widows when our husbands died (if we survived his funeral pyre)?

She notes further the links between sexual violence, heterosexism, and dominant notions of masculinity

Male dominance is sexual. Meaning: men in particular, if not men alone, sexualize hierarchy… Recent feminist work… on rape, battery, sexual harassment, sexual abuse of children, prostitution, and pornography supports [this]. These practices, taken together, express and actualize the distinctive power of men over women in society; their effective permissibility confirms and extends it.” (In Dunlap)

The links between sex trafficking and patriarchy and misogyny, along with racism, xenophobia, and global geo-politics is further illustrated by comments offered during a NGO forum, which among other things dispels arguments about “bad apples,” individual pathologies, and “real/unreal” men:

Trafficking in persons is a form of racism that is recognized as a contemporary form of slavery and is aggravated by the increase in racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance. The demand side in trafficking is created by a globalized market, and a patriarchal notion of sexuality. Trafficking happens within and across borders, largely in conjunction with prostitution (In Agathangelous and Ling).

In other words, “real manhood,” as codified legally, as defined culturally, and as constructed ideologically not only sanctions sexual violence but also promotes its very existence.  Child sex trafficking reflects the logic of hegemonic masculinity.  While comforting to imagine the problem of child sex trafficking as an aberrant and abhorrent masculinity, this injustice has nothing to do with real or a desirable manhood. It is about power, hierarchies, and the systemic dehumanization of women, particularly women of color.

The problem of slavery is real and reflects the systemic and historic manifestations of sexism (along with racism and colonization).  To imagine this as a problem of a faulty masculinity does not work to eradicate the problem. While I certainly applaud the efforts of DNA, and celebrated Peterson’s involvement with a campaign committed to raising awareness about the painful realities of human trafficking, the narrative leads us back to the same place.

Taking a stand against child sex trafficking and other forms of sexual violence reflects a willingness to embrace a feminist ethos, not one of “a real man.”  The struggle against sexual violence, whether it be rape or sex trafficking, should not be about redeeming and celebrating REAL men, Adrian Peterson, Justin Timberlake (who shaves with a chain saw), or anyone else, but challenging the injustices that result from hegemonic patriarchy.  How about we make a PSA about real resistance and real transformation rather than real men!

From NewBlackMan: Real Men?: Sports, Slavery, and Sex Trafficking.

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