The numbers surprised me. Several thousands of women and girls each year routinely forced to have sex multiple times per day? 1 official and many unofficial trafficking circuits spanning the country? Over 5,000 brothels disguised as massage parlors? 13 as the average age of entrance into the trade? $200,000 in profit per girl per year? The land of the free? Yes, I’m talking about America.
Human trafficking is the fastest growing criminal industry in the United States (and the world). As of one year ago, I didn’t even know that sex trafficking happened on our streets. Prostitution, yes- Nevada still has legal brothels- but not trafficking. Not the luring, kidnapping, drugging, routinized raping, and killing (homicide is the leading cause of death in prostituted girls) of young girls for money. Sadly, I was blinded by a Western paternalism that points fingers at the rest while quietly committing homegrown crimes against humanity in every single state and every major city in the country. Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, I’m shocked.
The United States is one of the top trafficking destinations in the world, with girls coming mainly from East and South Asia, Central America, and internally from US neighborhoods. Girls that are trafficked internally are often from abusive homes and have stories similar to Gwen. In a very informative interview with a current staff member of an anti-trafficking organization in D.C., a look at how the industry works from the inside is gruesome.
The largely controversial semantic arguments between what constitutes sex work and sexual slavery only entrap more girls. I will staunchly argue that no human being would choose to endure what these girls do on a daily basis for any amount of money. There is psychological imprisonment. There is moral degradation. There is physical torture. There is drug addiction. When this leaves a person with the perception that they only have one option, they have been denied the right to choose. Sex work may stand for the rare scenario in which there is a choice- maybe in a legal brothel in Nevada. Sexual slavery is everything else.
The United States’ “Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act” was passed in 2000 and reauthorized in subsequent years to define protocol for intervention in trafficking and prosecution of traffickers. Unfortunately, this legislation has not been adequately expanded on. Substantial follow-up by our federal and state governments is lacking (10 states have yet to adopt sex trafficking laws), with much of the brunt being handled by a growing network of non-governmental groups around the country who are attempting to improve healthcare, rehabilitation, and reintegration services.
Since 2001, the U.S. Department of State has released an annual Trafficking in Persons Report, only recently (and finally…) ranking itself within the system. The U.S. was placed in Tier 1-the highest level of compliance with the standards of the Protection Act- which gives one an idea of the trafficking situations in some of the several lower-tiered countries. Estimates from anti-trafficking expert Melissa Farley indicate that in the US, for every 50 girls arrested for prostitution, only 1 john (customer) is arrested. In short, the policies are flawed and must change.
Sweden’s decision to only criminalize the customer was extremely successful in reducing legal prostitution (which also protected the girls from being punished by the law) and it did not result in more illegal sex trafficking as was originally a concern. However, Sweden’s market was easily replaced by the plethora of wealthy Western European countries that could serve as alternative destination points due to their geographic proximity, poorer anti-prostitution laws, and similarly well-off clientele. This is not the case with the U.S. as trafficking girls to Mexico or Central America obviously wouldn’t be as profitable for traffickers.Thus, increased efforts to criminalize johns may not drive trafficking out of America as it did in Sweden, perhaps contrarily driving it further underground and rendering criminalization an ambiguously useful strategy. However, what is clear is that our laws must refrain from criminalizing the girls. It is an ethical duty to recognize the complex social, physical, and psychological abuses that led them to the street corner in the first place and to not further exploit this vulnerability. The 50:1 ratio must be reversed.
With the Washington Times recently calling sex trafficking in the US an “epidemic,” we need to act. There are hundreds of anti-trafficking NGOs which are growing along with the industry and welcome help, including the Polaris Project and Free the Slaves. News stations such as CNN and MSNBC have even devoted entire sections of their websites to publicizing human trafficking. Abolishing modern day slavery globally is the challenge of this century, and I urge that we start at home.