Q Los Angeles 2013
Arts + Entertainment
Science + Tech
Sex Trafficking is Closer Than You Think
A common misbelief about sex trafficking is that the United States is
a destination country, that all of the victims of sex slavery within the U.S. have been carried across international borders. The truth is that
literally untold numbers of U.S. citizens are trafficked within our own borders and in our neighborhoods every year.
“Trafficking” can be a misleading term. Under U.S. and international law, a person doesn’t have to be carried across a border against their will for them to be legally trafficked. Coercion into commercial sexual exploitation is enough. It is far too difficult in this country to physically kidnap, chain, and force someone to have sex with strangers (difficult but not impossible); so, sex trafficking within our borders looks different than it does internationally. Because the demand for commercial sex within the U.S. continues to exceed the willing supply, pimps and traffickers have to be more creative and audacious in how they cultivate their supply to meet this demand, however unwilling the “resources” may be. To be as efficient as possible, traffickers prey on the vulnerable in our society; usually, poor women of color are targeted the most.
President Obama declared January to be National Human Trafficking Awareness Month. There are many NGO’s focused on this issue who are finally being given the spotlight they’ve needed to increase awareness about this epidemic injustice. The President’s declaration is a good sign that the “developed” world is recognizing their important role in eradication. But knowing about international trafficking, as most of us do, is not enough.
, for example, was commercially sexually exploited while living with her parents in an upper-middle class suburb of Detroit. While her story of captivity is not very common, it happens more than you’d like.
The typical domestic trafficking narrative happens like this: a young woman grows up amid varying levels of sexual, emotional, and physical abuse from family members, foster parents, or others. She begins to look around for love, comfort, affirmation, and attention. Sometimes she runs away in pursuit of a better life and a place of belonging. Often, this is when a pimp enters her story and begins to woo her with doting attention, promises of love, extravagant and sentimental gifts—all actions that promise her happiness, meaning, and belonging for what is often the first time in her life. After the pimp sleeps with this young girl, he usually introduces her to commercial sex slowly by saying things like: “We need the money, please just do it this once!” or “I love you. Show me you love me, too!” or even, angrily, “After all I’ve given you, you at least owe me this!” When he approaches her about having sex with some of his “friends” for “a little cash,” she feels indebted to him and may think that he is the best she is going to get. “At least he says he loves me.” If she refuses, he becomes insistent and may get violent, intimidating or physically forcing her into it. Her mindset is very similar to that of a person experiencing domestic abuse. Asking, “Why didn’t she fight back or just leave?” ignores her emotional complexity, initial vulnerability, and the manipulative nature of a pimp.
, a woman who was sexually exploited as a teen, came to NYC and started
Girls Educational and Mentoring Services (GEMS)
, a safe house with a vision to “empower girls and young women, ages 12-24, who have experienced commercial sexual exploitation and domestic trafficking.” In 2007, GEMS released the documentary
Very Young Girls
that shares the stories of young girls who have stayed at GEMS and have been commercially sexually exploited.
The Department of Justice estimates that between 100,000–300,000 American children are at risk to enter an industry where the most frequent age of entry is between 12 and 14 years of age. As a result of these findings, federal law automatically assumes that children in prostitution (under the age of 18) have been trafficked. Anyone over 18 must present evidence of “force, fraud, or coercion” to prove they have been trafficked. Under the
Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA)
, traffickers can be prosecuted and sued.
While prostitution is not a federal crime, nearly every state and local government criminalizes it in some form. Most of these local laws principally criminalize the prostituted person, not those who solicit the sex or organize its sale. Thanks to dedicated research and advocacy,
lawmakers and police are beginning to crack down
on those who solicit and purchase sex. Sweden has seen a sizable decrease in the instances of trafficking by punishing the men who buy sex. This
is gaining traction around the world and is beginning to be implemented in our states.
While you cannot equate prostitution and sex trafficking, there is definitely a link, particularly found in those who have been arrested. And, while there is a very small—but very vocal—minority of men and women who willingly choose prostitution as a lifestyle, the demand for commercial sex far outweighs the willing supply, a disparity that will necessitate the unwilling supply to meet the demand. Very few studies have calculated what percentage of people arrested for prostitution were willing and what percentage were, in reality, trafficked. The main evidence linking prostitution to trafficking is anecdotal and comes from social workers, NGO’s, and people like Rachel Lloyd. Under a recent New York law—the first of its kind in the U.S.—those convicted of prostitution are able to vacate these convictions by proving they were trafficked, which will erase it from their records and allow them access to jobs, housing and more. There has been much success in these early cases as we recognize the plight of these victims and sympathize with them instead of blame or judge them.
Eradicating sex trafficking both domestically and internationally will be an arduous task, but these legal strategies are necessary and will go a long way to restoring the victims. A broader strategy, however, is needed to decrease the overall demand for commercial sex and to prevent more victims from being snared by pimps. To decrease our society’s demand for commercial sex, we must also change the way sex is viewed in culture. To have any say beyond our churches, we must live a compelling sexuality; one that neither objectifies others nor commodifies sex.
Without a swollen demand, sex trafficking will be a less profitable venture and fresh, coerced supply will be unnecessary. The way to end sex trafficking for good is to end the demand for it through legal, cultural, and social efforts. We think the best place for this sexual revolution to start is in the Church.
We must pursue sexual holiness and boldly teach our children that the threshold for healthy sexuality only begins at sex within marriage. We are called to be God’s light in the world and this starts with prayer.
We must recognize that our fight is not against the traffickers or the johns, but the powers and principalities over this present darkness. If we combat these forces in the spiritual realm, bonds will break and we will have access to the brokenness of the commercial sex industry.
We must stop idolizing straight, married sex. We must pursue sexual holiness as something more than meeting these biblical standards; sexuality must of course be pursued within Biblical boundaries, but it is so much more than the boundaries themselves. If we live in the land of sexual holiness instead of on the boundary markers, we can show the beauty of mutual respect and love in intimate relationships and compel the world toward a higher calling.
We must value those in prostitution as beloved children in a world that so quickly condemns them (John 8:3-11).
If you are interested in learning more about commercial sexual exploitation in the United States, please read the following:
The Girls Next Door
, NY MAG 2004
Sex Trafficking of Americans, The Girls Next Door,
Vanity Fair 2011
On International Trafficking
, Nicolas Kristof in NY Times 2011
On Domestic Trafficking
, Kristof in NY Times 2012
Resources for Human Trafficking Victims in the U.S.
From the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
What are some organizations in your area that confront commercial sexual exploitation (sex trafficking)?
How can you model sexual holiness in your community?
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