The United States joined much of the world in eradicating slavery over a hundred years ago. We view ourselves as a land of freedom and have turned our attention to reducing slavery and forced labor that exist outside our borders. But the United States is harboring a not-so-secret world of human trafficking for sex and labor right underneath our noses. Those trafficked are not just immigrants coming across borders to the United States and falling victim to their smugglers. Both foreign nationals and American citizens find themselves in job situations with coerced power structures that result in domestic servitude.
In the sex-trafficking world, boys and girls as young as 6, but at an average age of 13, find themselves recruited by traffickers, commonly referred to as pimps, who often pose as protectors, either from a romantic or parental standpoint. Most pimps recruit their victims by portraying qualities that a child or young adult is lacking in their lives — a stable home, love, shelter or support. The boys and girls join the pimp’s “families” and through force, fraud, and coercion, the victim is forced into a system of sexual exploitation, all with the appearance of consent to please the buyer (also called a John).
It is estimated as many as 300,000 American children are at the whim of commercial sexual exploitation every year. Despite common conceptions, child sex-trafficking victims come from many different socio-economic and racial backgrounds. Many do have pasts that contain sexual, emotional, or physical abuse. Pimps may be family members, neighbors, or complete strangers who approach and develop relationships with their targets. Once they enter the system it is very difficult to get out, even once children are adults. Not only are pimps threatening if their victims try to leave, many victims do not know a life outside of their sex-trafficking constructs.
A less well-known, but equally pervasive version of the pimp relationship occurs among transgender boys. These children end up on the streets, often because they are kicked out of their houses for being trans*, where they are picked up by “families” led by transgender men who refer to themselves as the children’s “mommas.” These youth are then encouraged to bring home money to support the “family,” most often by providing sexual services on the streets. The New Yorker ran an article in late 2012 about the fate of homeless LGBTQ youth on the streets of New York and referred to this system of “gay families” on the streets, without mentioning or alluding to their manipulative, coercive nature.
Human trafficking, especially sexually and of minors, is a pervasive problem in the United States, and being a developed liberal democracy does not prevent us from having slavery within our borders. So what is being done and why does it still exist?
On the Ground
Public service groups, beginning with evangelical Christians, have been working directly with trafficked people by handing out support at night while they are working on the street. This type of direct contact is often vital in giving the victims a support system that exists outside of the manipulation and power structure the pimp has built around them. Although these supporters may have good intentions, many of them do not understand the intricacies of the sex-trafficking system and will approach those working the streets when they are being watched, or are unable to accept help. Interaction with people trying to hand out help can result in beatings, being unable to eat, or rape.
Courtney’s House in Washington, D.C. operates a victim hotline and provides on-the-ground resources for trafficked victims. The organization also provides long-term support for victims through therapy, case management, support groups, and educational assistance. Since Tina Frundt, a victim of sex trafficking herself, founded the organization, its practices are knowledgeable about what kind of resources can be offered at what times and where without endangering victims by approaching them while they are being watched by the pimps eyes, often called the bottom. Resources often involve the hotline or other connective services passed out in the form of trinkets that don’t call attention to themselves. By proving that they understand the depth of the control pimps have over “their girls,” staff at Courtney’s House prove that they aren’t going to get the trafficked people in trouble and that they can be trusted to keep them safe. The development of this rapport makes victims more likely to ultimately get help.
Legality and Prosecution
For a long time, trafficked victims were the ones prosecuted under the law, leaving the traffickers or buyers without punishment. Even underage victims of trafficking were jailed under the term “child prostitution,” despite the fact that no minor can legally consent to sex with an adult. Beginning with New York in 2008, states across the US have begun passing Safe Harbor Laws that decriminalize underage victims of sexual exploitation but there are still many states that continue to inflict the trauma of detention centers on sex-trafficking victims. The biggest problem for police and legal forces is the semblance of consent that often exists in sex-trafficking paradigms. Simply put, legal forces don’t know how to ask the right questions to get victims to express their situations outside of the traffickers culture many of them have grown up in.
Worldwide, human trafficking is the second-fastest growing criminal industry, bringing in over $32 billion every year. In the United States, it is more of a problem, especially for children, than anyone wants to admit. In the last decade, the US government has upped its attention to human trafficking with task forces and reports by the Department of State and the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act was passed in 2000. But it’s not enough. As a society, we need to act. We need to stand up and help those who are unable to help themselves. We have eradicated the most conspicuous forms of slavery, but we are far from finished.
Written by Ariela Schnyer