Here in my Midwestern hometown of Indianapolis, Indiana, a 15-year-old girl responded to a job posting in a Spanish language newspaper for a maid's position at a downtown hotel. Arriving at the hotel for her interview, she was greeted by two men she thought to be hotel personnel. The men spoke with her for a bit, then proceeded to show her to one of the hotel rooms she would be cleaning… that's when her nightmare began.
For 48-hours, she was held against her will and forced to perform sexual acts with a barrage of men, one after the other. Finally, the two men left and she was able to run back to her home. She told her mom what happened and her mom immediately took her to the emergency room. Having been raped multiple times, she was severely injured, both physically and psychologically. At the ER, her concerned doctor promptly notified the police.
The police arrived at the hotel within two hours after the young girl escaped, but these traffickers were experienced and knew what they were doing. Using false names, they paid cash for the room before she arrived and cleaned it thoroughly after her escape, leaving very few clues to their identify or the identities of the multiple ‘johns' who raped her for two days.
Sound like this is a one-off incident that could never happen in your community or to someone you might know? Think again.
What is Commercial Sex Trafficking?
Each year, anywhere from 100,000 to 300,000 children in the United States are victims of commercial sex trafficking. Anyone under the age of 18 who is forced into prostitution is, by definition, a sex trafficking victim. In nearly all cases, victims are forced, defrauded or coerced into performing commercial sex acts. The person compelling them to do this is the trafficker, who profits greatly from the victims' work. Trafficking is sometimes confused with smuggling. Smuggling is illegally transporting someone over an international border and is typically voluntary, where the person is free to leave on their own once they've crossed into a new country. A trafficking victim may, in fact, be transported across borders, but is then exploited for the financial gain of the trafficker and is not permitted to leave the trafficker's control.
A trafficking victim can be ANYBODY, but they all have one thing in common… they are all vulnerable in some way. That vulnerability can come in the form of youth — in fact, the average age for girls to become victims of sex trafficking is only 12 to 14 years old; for boys, the average age is even younger, at 11 to 13 years old. Many victims are desperate for money and are unemployed, impoverished or even immigrants whose work status is unstable. 84% of victims have been or currently are homeless. [pullquote]The sad truth is, within the first 48-hours after running away, 1 in 3 children become commercial sex trafficking victims.[/pullquote]
Children whose family lives are filled with violence, abuse, neglect or conflict may think their problems will be resolved by running away. The sad truth is, within the first 48-hours after running away, 1 in 3 children become commercial sex trafficking victims. Other victims may have a strong need to be loved and find themselves entrapped by traffickers who pray on that need and weave the unsuspecting children into their web. In some cases, victims are actually kidnapped or abducted.
Abuse plays a role in the lives of many child sex trafficking victims. While research data is often hard to come by in sex trafficking, it's been found that of boys and girls recruited into the commercial sex industry:
- 57% had been sexually abused as children
- 49% had been physically assaulted
- 85% were victims of incest as girls
- 90% had been physically abused
Another study found that over half the children surveyed had been “raped or molested as children or teenagers.”
There seems to be a generally accepted myth about commercial sex trafficking that victims are predominantly from other countries. The fact is, 83% of minor sex trafficking victims found here in the United States are U.S. citizens.
Why is it so hard to escape the Traffick Circle?
Would you believe that prostitution is the deadliest form of ‘work' in the U.S.? The American Journal of Epidemiology reported that prostitutes suffer a ‘workplace homicide rate’ 51 times higher than that of the next most dangerous occupation, working in a liquor store. The average age of death for those involved in prostitution is only 34 years old. The leading cause of death for people in the commercial sex industry is homicide (19%). [pullquote]The leading cause of death for people in the commercial sex industry is homicide.[/pullquote] Drug usage/overdoses comes in a close second (18%) followed by accidents (12%), alcohol-related causes (9%) and HIV/immunodeficiency syndrome (8%).
It's a dangerous business. Aside from the ever-present threat of being killed, the majority of commercial sex trafficking victims live under constant threat and fear. A survey of prostitutes (including sex trafficking victims) found that:
- 82% had been physically assaulted
- 83% had been threatened with a weapon
- 68% had been raped while working as prostitutes
Victims' health and lives are in danger if they try to leave. Traffickers maintain both a strong physiological, as well as psychological hold on their victims. Traffickers may threaten to not only harm victims, but also their families and friends, or even threaten to deport those victims who have entered the U.S. illegally. Traffickers keep a tight hold on their victims and don't allow them to have any meaningful social network. They will often move victims around to various locations to keep them from establishing relationships and thus, prevent them from seeking help. A fear of law enforcement and other authorities is instilled in victims; they believe reaching out for help will result in a prostitution arrest… or painful retribution from their trafficker.
Traffickers, also known as “pimps”, take all the money a victim is paid by the consumer (“john”). Women and child victims are forced to make nightly quotas to avoid beatings. Pimps often “brand” or tattoo those under their control as a further demonstration of ‘ownership'. [pullquote]Using a conservative estimate, a victim can be raped by 6,000 johns during the course of his or her victimization.[/pullquote] Using a conservative estimate, a victim can be raped by 6,000 johns during the course of his or her victimization… that figure is based on a formula of 5 johns per night, 5 nights a week for 5 years. Many victims, though, are expected to engage in sex acts with up to 15 different johns per night.
This may seem strange (I have to admit, it does a little to me), but many victims don't view themselves as victims. They often look at their trafficker as someone who is taking care of them by providing food, shelter and clothing. Many victims hold out hope that if they prove their worth to the trafficker, “things will get better.” In addition to being fearful, many are embarrassed and choose to keep their involvement in commercial sex trafficking a secret from those they do know or those with whom they are granted permission to interact.
One pimp is quoted as saying, “It’s impossible to protect all girls from guys….We eat, drink and sleep thinking of ways to trick young girls into doing what we want.”
Identifying a trafficking victim
Victims are all around us… we just need to be aware of the signs, which can include:
- Potential victim is accompanied by another person who seems controlling and/or insists on speaking for the victim
- Chronic runaways/homeless youth
- People who frequently relocate
- Someone demonstrating a lack of knowledge of a given community or whereabouts, beyond just being ‘lost'
- People with numerous inconsistencies in their stories or have restricted or scripted communication with others
- Someone who lies about their age (typically this applies to younger tweens/teens)
- People who are not in control of their own money or have excessive amounts of cash
- People who lack control of their own identification documents or use false IDs
- People who carry hotel room keys
- Victims may have signs of branding (tattoo, jewelry)
There are several questions you can ask yourself to help determine if someone may, in fact, be a victim of sex trafficking:
- Are they being forced to do something they don’t want to do?
- Is the person allowed to leave their place of work?
- Has the person been physically and/or sexually abused?
- Has the person been threatened?
- Does the person have a passport and other documents, or are they taken away?
- Has the person been paid for his/her work or services?
- How many hours does the person work a day?
- What are/were the living conditions?
- How did the person find out about the job?
- Who organized the person’s migration?
- Do they have to ask permission to eat, sleep, or go to the bathroom?
- Do they believe they owe money for their travel or other expenses?
- Has anyone threatened their family?
- Where do they sleep and eat?
- Is there a lock on their door or windows so they cannot get out?
How can trafficking be stopped?
Prevention and education efforts are ramping up around the country to help protect and rescue sex trafficking victims. Thanks to the Victims of Human Trafficking and Violence Prevention Act of 2000, resources and restitution are available to trafficking victims, including T-Visa eligibility to become a lawful resident of the U.S. after three years. Victims can also petition to have spouses and children accompany them. There is a national cap of 5,000 Visas annually, but as of 2012, less than half that allotment was requested. It is believed the reason that number is so low is that many trafficking victims are too frightened or embarrassed to come forward.
Other life resources are available to trafficking victims including housing, food, job placement, employment education, medical care, language interpretation and safety planning. [pullquote]The challenge we face as a society is making victims “trust” the system enough to come forward and ask for help.[/pullquote] The challenge we face as a society is making victims “trust” the system enough to come forward and ask for help.
If you suspect someone is a trafficking victim…
- If they are in immediate danger, call 911.
- If you have questions or want to talk with someone about what you've witnessed and discuss next steps, contact the National Human Trafficking Resource Center Hotline at 1-888-3737-888.
YOU can help!
There are four key things each of us can do to help wipe out commercial sex trafficking and save the lives of millions of victims.
Commit to not participating in the commercial sex industry.
Don't purchase or participate in prostitution or the commercial sex industry.
Do hold friends accountable and demand their respect for women and children.
Take action on behalf of those vulnerable to sex trafficking.
Take part in creating cultural change.
Encourage education for youth on topics such as healthy relationships, self-identity and life skills.
Support local organizations that serve victims of human trafficking.
Talk about it.
Talk to your friends about the fact that there is a direct connection between prostitution, lap dancing and strip clubs and missing and exploited children.
In interviews, johns admit that they would be deterred from buying sex if they were held criminally and socially accountable.
Don’t tolerate or use the lingo. When prostitution is portrayed as a choice or “funny” in movies, talk about the reality. Don’t glorify the “pimp” culture.
Share these facts with others.
My deepest appreciation goes to the Indiana Attorney General's Office under the direction of Attorney General Greg Zoeller for providing the lion's share of this information, research, data and suggestions for how YOU can make a difference and help trafficking victims. This information and other data in this series can be found in several AG public presentations, including (contact the AG's office for details):
- “Human Trafficking: Culture, Demand and Prevention”
- “Human Trafficking: A Demand Problem”
- “Human Trafficking: IPATH”
Special thanks goes to Attorney and Human Trafficking Prevention Project Manager Nicole Baldonado and Intern Kelly Dobkins for their tremendous assistance, guidance and support. Thank you, ladies, for helping make this series a reality and for your dedicated commitment to helping victims of trafficking. You are the best!
Raising awareness of the world-wide epidemic of child abuse has become Ginger’s life mission. An impassioned child advocate, trainer, speaker and child forensic interviewer, Ginger can be contacted via her website, “Ginger Kadlec: 4UrKids” at gingerkadlec.comor find her on Facebook at facebook.com/gingergkadlec.
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