Last year, I had the privilege of teaching a class on human trafficking, a subject I have examined for more than 20 years as an attorney representing victims/survivors, as an author of legal articles on human trafficking and serving on the governing boards of national and local nonprofits.
This shocking crime preys on the most vulnerable in our society. Regrettably, we are facing a new threat in the fight against human trafficking.
What does sex trafficking look like in our communities? In Indiana, children as young as seven or eight have been sold into commercial sex and subjected to unspeakable violence and torture for the purpose of satisfying the lusts of men, many of whom are middle aged, married and well to do.
Though federal and state law are slightly different, sex trafficking is defined as occurring when a person knowingly or intentionally uses force, threat of force, coercion or fraud to recruit, entice, harbor or transport an individual with the intent of causing the individual to marry another person; engage in prostitution; or participate in sexual conduct (IC 35-42-3.5-1).
However, when children are used, force, fraud or coercion need not be involved or proved. A child under the age of 18 used in commercial sex is automatically a trafficked victim.
While young boys and girls are sometimes abducted by pimps or sold by their parents or guardians, the more typical scenario in the U.S. is called grooming — where a pimp masquerades as a boyfriend and entices a young teen or child into prostitution. The most vulnerable victim is a young person who has been sexually assaulted at a very young age, prior to being trafficked — usually by a family member or trusted friend.
Enduring that trauma literally changes the child’s brain and causes her to be more susceptible to grooming. Further, children who have endured trauma, sexual, violent or otherwise, are more likely to be a ward in the state Department of Child Services.
Such children typically endure multiple placements and may fail to bond with any of their foster families. Thus, a high number of trafficked children have previously run away from their home or placement.
One of the major Indiana providers of care for trafficked children reports that of the more than 150 children they serve each year, 85% have suffered sexual abuse prior to being used in sex trafficking and over 45% had run away more than 15 times.
While this horrible practice has existed prior to historical record keeping, it has been ignored and tolerated by society, at least in part because commercial sex/prostitution is hidden and the victims are the least in our society — predominately children, low-income, minority and without a voice.
In the U.S., sex trafficking first came to light in many communities with the passage of the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act in year 2000. It is critical that we understand that human trafficking is a commercial market — a market in young lives.
And make no mistake, human trafficking is a very profitable business, garnering some $150 billion per year worldwide. In short, to the trafficker, selling women, young boys and girls to willing men is all about the money, just like any other illegal market such as drugs and guns.
As one of my anti-trafficking colleagues expressed to my class last semester, “No buyer, no market; no market, no exploitation. If men stopped paying for sex, sex trafficking would cease to exist.” Of course it is critical to recover and serve those exploited through trafficking. But we will not put a dent in the number of those being trafficked until we reduce the demand for this sordid market.
Unfortunately, as we speak, there is a well-funded movement in some states that, if successful, will undo much of the progress made in fighting human trafficking. This movement advocates that sex trafficking would be eliminated if commercial sex were legalized.
The most powerful in this movement are those seeking to profit financially if prostitution becomes legal. Others, some well-meaning, mistakenly see prostitution as a choice, failing to understand the horrific violence and exploitation dominating the practice.
In fact, studies of countries where prostitution has been legalized, have documented the opposite — human trafficking increases when prostitution is legalized. This is because legalizing prostitution increases the demand for commercial sex and a consequent expansion of the prostitution market. When legalization occurs, those users who would otherwise be deterred due to fear of arrest and prosecution are no longer deterred, thus an increase in demand is documented. Not surprisingly, an increase in trafficking follows an increase in demand. These conclusions are supported by a number of articles in professional journals around the world.
Nevertheless, despite clear evidence documenting that legalization of prostitution actually increases human trafficking, bills legalizing prostitution have been introduced in Louisiana, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington D.C., New York, Vermont and previously in New Hampshire.
While this is a difficult subject, there is hope. Since 2000, the laws in all 50 states have been strengthened to fight human trafficking and serve survivors. But we must not allow this ill-informed and dangerous effort to legalize prostitution undue all of the progress made.