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(Editor’s note: This is Part 2 of a series on human sex trafficking in the U.S. Read Part 1 here.)
The FBI reports on its website, “Not only is human sex trafficking slavery but it is big business. It is the fastest-growing business of organized crime and the third-largest criminal enterprise in the world.”
I noted in Part 1 of my series on human trafficking that ABC News reported in July on a National Geographic undercover investigation about sexual slavery that “it’s actually 10 times more likely for an American girl to be trafficked inside the U.S.” than it is for a foreigner. According to the FBI, “They range in age from 9 to 19, with the average age being 11.”
Each year roughly 300,000 American children are at risk for trafficking into the sex industry compared to 14,500 to 17,500 girls smuggled in from other countries, according to U.S. Department of State statistics.
And what lures these kids into sexual slavery? Sure, there are the darker elements of abduction and smuggling. But there are also many of the same enticements into legitimate organizations and careers: security, self-worth, belonging, fame, fortune, etc.
We often think of the sex trade as being run by nothing but controlling hoodlums who second as drug lords – and many are – but the truth is that sexual slavery has turned into a billion-dollar industry run by many “average Americans” who are businessmen and women.
The National Geographic undercover investigation highlighted how it’s not just career criminals in red-light districts that are luring down-and-out minors to sexual slavery. There is a growing swell of U.S. traffickers who are wealthy and “upstanding citizens” in suburban and rural America.
Natalie Jesionka, the director of Human Rights Programs at the Center for the Study of Genocide, Conflict Resolution and Human Rights, and is the founder of the The Prizm Project – the first human rights education for young women – explained in 2012: “Trafficking occurs in a wide range of socioeconomic classes, and the people involved could be anyone – there’s no one type of trafficker. In some villages I visited [abroad], the traffickers were politicians and local law enforcement. In other parts of the world, they’re businessmen or restaurateurs.”
And how do these “upstanding citizens” entice their victims? By offering them love and protection, a little adventure and even a career jump into stardom. And many use any reputable bait – on and off the Internet – to lure prospective prey into their nets, including careers as models, masseuses or actors. Once their victims are snared by charm and emotional tactics, traffickers then crank up their coercion and control by money, drugs, bondage and blackmail.
The Honorable Linda Smith, founder and president of Shared Hope International, explained to the Christian Post: “The way that traffickers often gain their victims … is to first gain the friendship of their target. Sometimes they will pretend to be their boyfriend. After capturing them, they will videotape them getting raped. Then, they may threaten to post the video on the Internet, or may threaten to harm their family if they do not cooperate.”
Sex-trafficking victim Jillian Mourning told investigative journalist Mariana van Zeller, “Every single person that walks the face of the Earth has an aspect of vulnerability. We all have something that can make us vulnerable. Traffickers and pimps and anybody that is in that industry knows how to find that weak spot.”
The FBI further elaborates, “These perpetrators may promise marriage and a lifestyle the youths often did not have in their previous familial relationships. They claim they ‘love’ and ‘need’ the victim and that any sex acts are for their future together. In cases where the children have few or no positive male role models in their lives, the traffickers take advantage of this fact and, in many cases, demand that the victims refer to them as ‘daddy,’ making it tougher for the youths to break the hold the perpetrator has on them.”
Chong Kim, whose sexual trafficking story is at the heart of the award-winning film “Eden,” explained how subtly she was coerced into the trafficking world that led to two long years of torture before she could escape: “Well, actually I met this guy who I thought was my boyfriend, and unlike a lot of fictional human trafficking stories where it happens in one day, this guy, I was convinced that he was my boyfriend. And so when you’re that in love, you don’t think about, ‘OK, he’s going to traffic me,’ if that makes sense. So we were living in Dallas, Texas, and he told me about after two or three weeks of us dating, and he said to me, ‘I want to take you out of state to go meet my parents.’ And my girlfriend said that if a guy says that to you that he likes you, so there was no ‘be careful’ – none of that. I was real excited. I call it the Cinderella syndrome, where we write our names with their last names and future kids’ names. But what happened was instead of ending up in Florida where he said he was going to take me, I ended up in Oklahoma handcuffed to a doorknob in an abandoned house, and from that point on, he contacted the traffickers to come pick me up. So I was transported to Nevada.”
Tragically, the FBI also explained, in many cases the parents themselves actually peddle or sell their children: “Other young people are recruited into prostitution through forced abduction, pressure from parents, or through deceptive agreements between parents and traffickers. Once these children become involved in prostitution, they often are forced to travel far from their homes and, as a result, are isolated from their friends and family. Few children in this situation can develop new relationships with peers or adults other than the person victimizing them. The lifestyle of such youths revolves around violence, forced drug use, and constant threats.”
According to the FBI, the truth about family origins is this: “These children generally come from homes where they have been abused or from families who have abandoned them. Often, they become involved in prostitution to support themselves financially or to get the things they feel they need or want (like drugs).”
Shared Hope International, whose mission is to eradicate sex trafficking, has a helpful website with many great resources to help you help others caught in the webs of sexual slavery, including a section where you can view report cards for how your state is doing in response to human trafficking.
The website for the Polaris Project, a nonprofit, nongovernmental organization working exclusively on the issue of human trafficking, also has a state-by-state map that you can click on and access in-depth local information and resources in your area.
The Polaris Project also provides the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, which is a national, toll-free hotline, available to answer calls and texts from anywhere in the country – 24 hours a day, seven days a week, every day of the year. Call them at 1-888-373-7888 or text HELP or INFO to BeFree (233733).
- To report a tip, click here.
- To connect with anti-trafficking services in your area, click here.
- To request training and technical assistance, click here.
- To obtain specific anti-trafficking resources, click here.
You can also contact the Cyber Tip Line for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children or call its hotline at 1-800-THE-LOST (1-800-843-5678).
(In Part 3, I will discuss one of the more controversial aspects of sexual slavery: Is the legal porn industry a perpetrator of trafficking, too?)