Features, Feminism, Politics, Religion

Why Isn’t Sexual Slavery a Feminist Priority?

That Nadia Murad’s #StandforYazidiWomen campaign hasn’t captured the attention of Western feminists is an appalling oversight. Some of the most popular feminist topics on Twitter last year included equality for public nudity, sexism in the tech industry, and racial diversity for Oscar nominations. Yet the topic of global sexual slavery brings a scarcely believable absence of attention.

The Yazidis, viewed as devil worshippers by their captors, were overrun by ISIS in north-western Iraq in August 2014 in the beginning of what is now being recognised as a genocide. Most of the men and older women were instantly slaughtered. Thousands of younger women and girls were taken to the Islamic State’s ‘caliphate’, where they were traded among Jihadists as sex slaves.

Nadia is a survivor of this mass sexual enslavement, and now a human rights advocate. Regarding her fight, Nadia said “I am continuing to do this, with resiliency, because millions of women and girls have no rights. Their lives were destroyed, and their lives will remain destroyed if we don’t say anything. To bring back their rights, we must speak up.”

In such areas of the world, it isn’t just ISIS responsible for the worst of crimes. The soldiers of Bashar al-Assad have engaged in a deliberate campaign of systematic rape and torture as a tool of widespread demoralisation. But within Western feminists circles, such crimes gain significantly less attention than online harassment, representation in the media, and the ‘gender pay gap’.


The bleak reality is that widespread Western condemnation may have no impact in improving the situation in Syria. Perhaps this is a situation that is beyond the influence of a populist Western revolt, and modern feminists are simply being situationally pragmatic. But if so, where are they on the issue of child marriage?

Iraqi refugee girl with her family at Newroz camp

Iraqi refugee girl with her family at Newroz camp

A recent move to ban child marriages in Pakistan was withdrawn, after the Council of Islamic Ideology dubbed the motion ‘blasphemous’. In May of 2014, this influential organisation confirmed its earlier ruling that girls as young as nine years old were eligible for marriage “if the signs of puberty are visible”.

My critique is not that feminists were found to support such medieval cruelty, but that there was virtually no response at all. This in a world where 15 million girls are married before the age of 18 every year.

I don’t think it’s too much to suggest that a nine year old girl cannot possibly consent to marriage. Therefore, I submit what should be a profoundly uncontroversial point in 2016; the reality of a marriage between a middle aged man and a nine year old girl is nothing less than the enslavement and systematic rape and torture of a child. If ever there were an example of a patriarchal practice, surely this is it. Yet how many times have you seen the term ‘patriarchy’ being used in this context?


The key issue here is not that feminists view sexual slavery as an issue unworthy of attention, but rather the widespread inability among progressively minded people to willingly engage in moral triage. When two patients are rushed to the emergency room, one with a broken nose and one with a bullet to the stomach — the lone on-call doctor must use triage to determine which case demands more attention. On the most pressing moral issues facing us today, we must also take responsibility for difficult choices. If each person had 10,000 hours to dedicate to feminist causes, and we had to split them between sexual slavery and Twitter abuse, what should be the ratio? This is an empirical question of meaning. We have limited resources with which to combat global injustices, and we cannot ethically allocate them equally among all issues.

There are wonderful charities dedicated to fighting female genital mutilation, human trafficking, and child marriage; many of which were doubtlessly started by feminists. Why doesn’t this translate to genuine global support? It’s important to state that #NotAllFeminists suffer from this sin of omission, but #FarTooManyFeminists do.

It’s true, I’m not a woman. So I can’t possibly know how it feels to be on the receiving end of virulent online attacks. But I also can’t possibly know how it feels to be on the receiving end of daily rape and torture. As Maajid Nawaz tirelessly argues, you don’t have to be black to condemn racism, nor gay to condemn homophobia, nor Muslim to condemn anti-Muslim bigotry, nor Jewish to condemn anti-Semitism. I’d add that we must be willing to make distinctions between relative horrors, particularly when those around us refuse to.

You might think this is all just too historically universal to gain a rush of attention, and that the real answer is in a bias we have to large scale current events. But a content analysis of social media reaction to the enormously pervasive Brock Turner case compared to the feminist ambivalence towards the New Year’s Eve attacks in Cologne would indicate that one captured American rapist is worthy of significantly more public attention than hundreds of uncaptured rapists in Germany. Comparing news stories on Turner and those on Yazidi women and girls reveals a similarly ghoulish trend in the media.

Moral relativism bears much responsibility, but it is clearly not the only factor. Away from atrocities committed by the likes of ISIS or Saudi Arabia is the world of commercial human trafficking. This happens everywhere, including the United States. Of the over 20 million adults and children bought and sold into commercial sexual slavery, women and girls make up 98% of the victims. Men of all ethnicities, committing the worst conceivable crimes on women and girls of all ethnicities. And yet, in quantitative terms of coverage, the interest of tackling sexism in video games absolutely dwarfs that of combating sex trafficking. How is this possible? (That wasn’t rhetorical. Please tell me. There’s a comment section below and everything).


In a classic philosophical thought experiment, Peter Singer asks the following: Imagine that one morning you’re walking past a pond, when you notice a child who appears to be drowning. To wade in and save the child would be easy, with only one issue; you’ve just purchased expensive new shoes, and if you jump in the water they’ll surely be ruined. Do you have an obligation to save the child? Unanimously, we answer yes. He follows up with asking, would it make a difference if the child were very far away, in another country perhaps, but equally within your means to save at no great cost? Again, almost all of us say yes. What Singer is getting at is our inability to give to charity in a manner consistent with our underlying ethical intuitions. However, we can, and should, apply this idea equally to our moral concern for all monstrous situations happening on the other side of the world.

It’s often said that in a century we may look back at our current day treatment of non-human animals in a similar light as we do other horrific practices of our frighteningly recent past. I think there’s every chance of that being correct. But at least on this front we acknowledge the possibility of our making an enormous ethical error. When sexual slavery exists, in various forms, in significant numbers, and without any signs of being abolished, this should be almost all any of us are talking about. It represents, without exaggeration, the height of possible suffering.

There’s a theory that the recent mass movements on college campuses are a response from a generation that doesn’t have their international battle to fight. The sixties and seventies demanded action on Vietnam. The eighties demanded action on apartheid South Africa. Today does not demand action on ‘micro-aggressions’, nor ‘triggering language’. Today demands action on global sexual slavery.


Keiran Harris is a graduate student at the University of Melbourne. You can follow him on Twitter @KeiranJHarris

Filed under: Features, Feminism, Politics, Religion


Keiran Harris is an Australian writer whose current focus is effective altruism – the use of high-quality evidence and careful reasoning to work out how to help others as much as possible.


  1. Any time a practice like ” . . . girls as young as nine years old were eligible for marriage “if the signs of puberty are visible” remain uncriticized by the progressive left, it essentially condones the practice. And let’s be clear, the above quote is not attributed to an extreme Jihadist group like ISIS, but to a “Council of Islamic Ideology” in a democratic country. Many conflate the idea that criticizing religion is itself a sign of intolerance. But one cannot be intolerant of intolerance. And there are no greater usurpers of equality than the Abrahamic traditions. The one, single topic, too few of us are willing to publicly engage in out of fear, is the necessity to confront the morally relativistic ignorance and barbarism of the iron age belief systems. Once we cast off the yoke of these ancient mythologies (i.e. Islam, Christianity and Judaism) will we enter a new age of true enlightenment.

    • Bitfu says

      Since you’re so into true enlightenment, allow me to introduce you to a term called ‘Suppressing the Correlative”.

      From Wikipedia:

      The fallacy of suppressed correlative is a type of argument that tries to redefine a correlative (one of two mutually exclusive options) so that one alternative encompasses the other, i.e. making one alternative impossible. This has also been known as the fallacy of lost contrast.

      For example, take two people discussing religions…

      Person 1: “Religions are either Reformed or Pre-Reformed. Islam, as a religion with no recognized Reformation is causing an inordinate amount of barbarism around the world. Religions from the Judeo-Christian tradition, however, have undergone a Reformation. Even if one does not agree with their precepts, these religions are not used as cover for terrorism and other atrocities like gender mutilation.”

      Person 2: “All religions are barbarous relics from the iron age! Christians are doing bad things around the world too.”

      Folding the problems posed by modern-day Islam into the pre-Reformation barbarism of Judeo-Christianity is your own form of ‘relativistic ignorance’.

      Regardless of whether Person 2’s statement about world religions is true or not, the redefinition of “barbarous” is so broad that it omits significant contrast in the current level of barbarism from these respective religions. [Ultimately, it’s the current level of barbarism we’re interested in…right?] If we hold the barbarism of Islam and Judeo-Christianity as equivalent because the Christianity was barbaric 400 years ago, then it’s essentially unimaginable how any belief system–including yours’–could be described as non-barbaric. [Yes, Greek Rationalists had their own form of barbarism.]

      Your re-classification of ‘barbarous’ into a concept that reads–‘Once barbarous, always barbarous’–means that the term ‘barbaric’ has lost any useful meaning,

  2. I think the allocation of attention is pretty straightforward if we consider that feminist claims in the West exist largely within the broader social justice movement. The narrative requires keeping one’s oppressors and victims straight, once they’ve been filed into the sacred or profane category.

    So, ISIS sex traffickers are actually less oppressive than Brock Turner because ISIS are plausibly the victims (or result) of Western imperialism and colonialism. Black and brown misogyny and patriarchy more broadly get less attention for the same reason.

    We can expect the continued lack of attention to social problems among the global poor for this reason. The assumption is that the problems of the global poor are the result of Western imperialism, so social justice activists will keep focusing on whichever American elites they can get their hands on here at home.

    Policing the language of white men on college campuses in America isn’t trivial slacktivism. It is actually, literally, really cutting right at the root of global and historical oppression, for these folks.

  3. Doug S. says

    We ordinary Americans don’t have much power to affect what happens in Pakistan, no matter how much we whine. The only lever we have is through our government and elected officials, and they’re going to do what they’re going to do based on a mix of different priorities. The only option for us to affect ISIS in particular is military, and it’s questionable whether a greater American military presence would accomplish anything good. We’re not about to go emulate Saddam Hussein and enforce peace in Iraq by killing everyone who looks at us funny, so what we have is what we get. As for forced prostitution, in the developed world it’s a matter that’s well within the purview of normal law enforcement and everyone already agrees it’s a bad thing; we don’t need to do “more” because we’re already doing it, and outside the developed world our options are, again, severely limited. Furthermore, sex work in general is a frequent topic of feminist discourse already.

    Sexism in video games, on the other hand, is something that we can actually do something about, and, to be fair, affects us a lot more in our daily life than someone suffering on the other side of the world. Developers such as Bioware and Blizzard actually listen and respond to concerns! We can make a difference and have what we say actually matter! It’s better to work on changing what we can than beating ourselves up over what we can’t.

    • Keiran J Harris says

      Why does this brand of defeatism only begin at the borders of the United States? There are rallies held throughout the US that hold little hope of real influence, but are applauded on the basis of their motives. There are practical reasons to avoid holding rallies against the horrendous humans rights violations of North Korea, because the US government really is applying near maximum pressure. The same does not apply to Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. If the US public declared en masse that the gender apartheid of Saudi Arabia was as unacceptable as the racial apartheid of South Africa – this really would have an impact. That this seems such a fantasy begins with the self-fulfilling prophecy of an assumption of defeat.

  4. I agree that this subject does not get enough awareness or attention. There are many children victims of sexual trafficking and child marriages, particularly in the developing world. This is largely an everyone-issue, not merely a feminist-issue.

    And I agree with Doug S. that everyone in the developed world already agrees that forced prostitution is a bad thing and we are already doing what we can (or are we? — homegrown child sex trafficking does not get much notice in the US).

    Sexism in video games plays a part sexualization of juvenile female characters and thus relate to the “sexual slavery” problem. Same thing with pornography, violence in media et cetera.

    For every Yazidi girl/woman that is enslaved, there is at one represented female child in Brazil, Panama, Thailand, Philippines, Indonesia being bought by a Western sex tourist.

    Last month a UK pedophile was exposed (arrested and jailed for life) for writing a manual giving pedophiles advice on how to abuse children and avoid detection. He plead guilty to abusing 23 children in Malaysia, whilst pretending to be a respectable Christian preacher and English teacher. His victims age range from 6 MONTHS to 12 years old.

    None of his victims have a voice, or a name, or a #hashtag.

    On the other hand, campus rape/date rape/campus sexual assault affect 1 in 5 college-aged women. It is much closer to home. Gender income gap affect almost if not all women, 100%, in the United States. The root of these evils doesn’t stem from malevolent, but from inaction and normalization. If we accept that women get paid less, treated with less respect in media or video games, and is assaulted for getting drunk on campus, then we are part of the problem. Why should we even bother fixing Saudi Arabia or ISIS sex trafficking if we “accept” these standards at home?

    • Paul says

      “Sexism in video games plays a part sexualization of juvenile female characters and thus relate to the “sexual slavery” problem. Same thing with pornography, violence in media et cetera.”

      Would you care to expand on this? It reads as manifestly absurd.

      You can’t be seriously suggesting that fighting the sexualization of juvenile females in video games (which I expect is news to anyone who actually plays video games) is in anyway helping, or relevant to, end sexual slavery.

    • Amy says

      I am a woman.
      I have been playing video games since 1995.
      I like to dress my characters sexy. I enjoy playing video games with strong, sexy female characters.

      I am not contributing to sexual slavery because I want to play a hot character.

  5. Up until July 1st, 2016, the following would be true in Virginia (USA):
    ” Having sex with a child is considered rape, but if that child became pregnant and her parents got behind her marriage to her rapist, in Virginia, he wouldn’t have to answer for his crimes.”

    Virginia finally outlawed child marriages, in 2016.



    As this appears on Slate’s Double X section, I would say that sexual slavery and child marriages is quite a feminist priority in this country.

    You can’t so much change the situation in Pakistan or Thailand. Contrary to your point, there are feminists who pay attention to these things, and even bring light to what is happening nationally is probably a bigger priority than internationally.

    • Keiran J Harris says

      As explicitly said in the article, this does not apply to all feminists – and those who are actively fighting in this space should be highlighted and lauded constantly. But if we ran a Western poll of those who identify as feminists, and asked “What are the three most important topics facing women today?” – where do you think sexual slavery would land on the list? If the answer is number one – then the premise of my article is completely flawed and I’ll release an unequivocal retraction on receipt of the data. But the evidence we have suggests it would not be listed anywhere near a top priority by the majority – and I’m arguing that this is a significant moral failure that necessitates discussion.

  6. j e says

    Perhaps the most damning indictment of today’s orthodox (academic left) feminism is its complete silence on the grotesque “grooming” scandals in England, known mostly through the events in the town of Rotherham but occurring in dozens of other towns and involving tens of thousands of young white girls raped, tortured and brutalized over many years by gangs of Muslim predators.

    • Sources please otherwise ‘tens of thousands’ is a massive exaggeration. Also it wasn’t just Muslims involved. There’s also no ‘complete silence’ either. You’ll really have to do better than that

  7. j e says

    RS, You write from a position of complete ignorance and utter disregard for the truth. Should you care to expose yourself to the world of facts and evidence, you might begin by reading Peter McLoughlin’s Easy Meat, the footnotes in which provide more than adequate proof of my assertions. Otherwise, feel free to remain oblivious to reality.

  8. https://www.ksl.com/?sid=40638726&nid=148

    If you run a Western poll of feminists and non-feminists alike, and ask them the three most important topics of the day: do you think sexual slavery would land the top 3? And if so, do you think that American sexual slavery or trafficking would land the top 3 or are you just referring to ISIS sex slave trade?

    Here in Utah, 71 arrested. At least six CHILDREN between the ages of 5 and 12 were rescued from SEXUAL SLAVERY. This didn’t even make national news, unlike that of the slavery of Boko Haram girls or ISIS.

    My argument is that 1) it should not be a moral failure on the part of feminists alone in the fight against sexual slavery (why isn’t it everyone’s priority?) 2)when referring to sexual or labor slavery, the article clearly points finger at ISIS and Saudi Arabia for committing these crimes of humanity, but does not mention at all the sex trade and child sex trade in the US. In the fight against global sex slavery and especially child sex slavery, the article ignores the fact the majority of demand for child sex slavery pours from the Western world (where pedos are much more connected via internet, and share guidelines on how to exploit third world children). UK authorities recently arrested a man who poses as an English teacher in SE Asia, promotes Christianity, whilst abusing over 100 children, boasting on the dark web and authored a “pedo” how-to book, and a guide on how to groom children and parents in third world countries. There is clearly a huge demand for this in the English-speaking world.

    Why isn’t this a feminist priority or an American priority for that matter? Why is it more important to impose moral superiority towards another part of the world halfway across the world when the exact same thing happens here?

    • Keiran J Harris says

      From the article: “Away from atrocities committed by the likes of ISIS or Saudi Arabia is the world of commercial human trafficking. This happens everywhere, including the United States. Of the over 20 million adults and children bought and sold into commercial sexual slavery, women and girls make up 98% of the victims. Men of all ethnicities, committing the worst conceivable crimes on women and girls of all ethnicities.”

      You’re critiquing a position I do not hold.

      Of course this should be a moral priority for everyone. I’m additionally arguing that those specifically dedicated to fighting for women and girls should be leaders here.

  9. Alright mate, child sex trafficking. I’m pretty sure most Western groups, organisations, religions, and philosophies are fundamentally against this appalling problem – why don’t they do anything about this obvious priority first and foremost… Maybe feminism is as flawed by racism/interest/locality/indifference/selective outrage/lack of interesctionality as any of these other groups, who from their mere definitions, should also be directly interested in this issue.

    But there is another aspect – it is fairly obvious that feminists from these areas have been extremely vocal about these issues. I would suggest you be very careful in what you are expecting from the Western feminists (that you seem far more interested by, as some kind of ‘definitive’ version); spreading viral outrage can fast-track into speaking for, and over, the voices of victims.

    I would suggest that by examining our own culture in the West, demanding respect, and enabling women to obtain positions of influence, feminists strengthen the mainstream media’s ability to find any marketable value in reporting on the lives of women.

    Let’s make it simple – I suspect your real criticism is that Western feminism, by examining the culture in which we live and participate, is frivolous. I’m glad that stance did not, outright, devolve into a reminder that Western women should feel ‘grateful’.

    I would suggest that feminism’s endless interest in PTSD, respecting rape survivors, and micro aggressions, is simply what happens when a movement is deeply popular and tapping into an issue that affects ordinary people’s lives. Making people think globally is difficult in practice, it is also feminism responsibility, but it does not discount their work.

    Frankly, the issue is always larger than feminism, it is about racism and the way we consume information in the West, the exhaustion and indifference with which global problems are met.

    I would warn that using ‘serious issues’ in other countries as a way to ask feminists to be silent, is manipulative. It is appalling the number of times in history the issues of different minority groups are used to silence one another – not too long ago women were often expected to fulfil a certain role for their own ‘protection’ from, merely different, disenfranchised racial groups.

  10. The ultimate goal of feminism is the complete degradation of women, and the absolute suppression of women’s rights top to bottom.

    Rape, and sex slavery are integral to this agenda, and are precise means to the intended end.

    J. Lennon II was made to sing, “woman is the n’…er of the world” as an anthemic build-out of the feminist ruse agenda in 1972.

    K. Harris, is either a shill, or an ostrich.

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