In Robert Kraft’s name, a professor wrestles with sex and slavery

Bernadette Brooten is a Brandeis University professor. She is the Myra and Robert Kraft and Jacob Hiatt Professor of Christian Studies at Brandeis.
Bernadette Brooten is a Brandeis University professor. She is the Myra and Robert Kraft and Jacob Hiatt Professor of Christian Studies at Brandeis.Globe Photo/File

As a professor at Brandeis University, Bernadette Brooten has studied the long, intertwined history of sex and slavery.

One of the names on her endowed chair? Bob Kraft.

Brooten, the founder and director of the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project at Brandeis, found out Friday that Kraft was accused of soliciting a prostitute connected to an alleged human trafficking ring that sounds a lot like the kind of sexual slavery she’s spent years studying.

“I was just really shocked,” said Brooten, a former MacArthur and Fulbright fellow and the editor of a book on the sexual legacy of slavery. She is also the Myra and Robert Kraft and Jacob Hiatt Professor of Christian Studies at Brandeis.


“I think disturbing would be the word I would use,” she said. “Given the dehumanization that occurs within any form of forced labor, I find this allegation to be deeply disturbing.”

Investigators in Florida say Kraft was one of many men caught on camera paying for a sex act at a Jupiter day spa where women were apparently coerced into living and working as prostitutes, sleeping on massage tables and cooking meals on the back steps.

Kraft has denied the allegations, and Brooten, of course, had nothing to do with whatever allegedly happened. Her job just happens to be one of many things with Kraft’s name on it, and her particular expertise makes for an especially bitter irony.

She’s met Kraft a few times, she said, and he was always interested in her work. The chair she holds was originally the idea of Hiatt — Kraft’s father-in-law — a bookend of sorts for the Kraft-Hiatt Professor in Judaic Studies at College of the Holy Cross, created at the same time. Both professorships work toward mutual understanding across religious divides.

“It is very painful. And I think when people look at the name, they will associate it with these acts,” Brooten said of the allegations. “I think that people are going to notice it. They may ask me about it. I don’t know what I will say.”


You might call Brooten collateral damage, except that the damage to the real victims is so profound.

Brooten is the least of it, as she well knows: The men who pay a pittance for sex acts from trafficked people whose stories they’ll never know don’t care about collateral damage.

They don’t concern themselves with the circumstances that made their $79-per-hour good time possible, or with whatever hell exists behind the plastic curtain. They’re content to fork over a few dollars, pull up their pants, and walk away -- a luxury the people left behind don’t have. That mostly means women and girls, but boys and men, too.

There is room for reasonable debate about what consenting adults should be able to do, free of leverage or collusion, behind closed doors for money. But there is no space for slavery or trafficking or servitude. And to solicit sex at a place like Orchids of Asia, as Kraft allegedly did, is to ignore the very real possibility that the person you’re paying for your pleasure is not there willingly.

“Slavery never really ended. De facto slavery never really ended. Working in the sex trade has long been a feature of slavery,” Brooten said.

Once the frenzy over a local celebrity’s alleged involvement fades, that reality is something anyone eager to minimize these allegations must reckon with.


Brooten, still reeling on Friday, said she would continue her work, and didn’t expect the Kraft name to be a major hindrance.

“I just feel very badly that this pallor has been cast over the name,” Brooten said.

If the allegations prove true — and investigators say they have video evidence — then it’s a pallor that should linger for a very long time.

Nestor Ramos can be reached at nestor.ramos@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @NestorARamos.