The worldwide child sex industry has set up shop in the United States. Mary Ann Swissler asked advocates what it would take to stop it.
Rachel Lloyd supervises focus groups made up of commercial sex trafficking survivors in New York City, all girls and young women under the age of 24 and some as young as 12. Tales of mistreatment are common, something Lloyd learned about first-hand before escaping “the life” at age 19 and starting Girls Educational and Mentoring Services, or GEMS. But this day, the children’s stories weren’t of pimps or violent johns.
The participants were asked, “What were your experiences at intervention points like churches and synagogues, police and social service agencies?” Lloyd said, “It was really, really depressing to read what these girls experienced. It was rare for one of them to be told ‘this wasn’t your fault, I’m not judging you and I’m going to help you.’ Peoples’ experiences were of being patronized, stigmatized, made fun of, and judged. All of this makes you go back to what you feel comfortable with,” meaning pimps and other traffickers, no matter how dangerous. She added, “They are made to feel bad about who they are and that they don’t deserve better. The attitudes need to shift.”
Still, compared to just 10 years ago, girls are now far more likely to receive help escaping commercial sex trafficking than a criminal record. Today, arrests and convictions of traffickers are piling up. State and federal laws have teeth. Media stories are now in-depth, complex portraits of the $36 billion, worldwide sex industry, instead of merely a litany of prostitution stings. Trainings of police, prosecutors and social workers take place around the country to instruct them on rescuing, not arresting, commercially exploited children—a function of “Safe Harbor” laws, which are being adopted more and more by states. Overall, says the State Department’s June 2012 “Trafficking in Persons Report,” sex trafficking “is entering the public consciousness in a way that builds not just awareness and concern, but also activism and action, both globally and locally.”
Yet there are factors that make sex trafficking today even more dangerous. Gangs have expanded into the industry. As CNN reported, “Girls are drugged or abducted and simply disappear. Their phones are confiscated. As with international sex-trafficking, they are moved from city to city and state to state, and kept isolated from anyone who may be able to help.” Street kids and runaways have always been targeted by predators—within 48 hours of running away, one in three teens will be approached by someone in the sex trade—but Internet advertising and cell phones have increased visibility and portability. Some taxi drivers contribute to the problem by turning their cabs into “brothels on wheels.”
Based on interviews with those who are working to end it, here’s where we should go from here.
Perceptions need to change. The horror of child sex trafficking is perceived as a problem confined to Asia, parts of Africa and Eastern Europe, but it does happen here in the United States. In her must-read memoir, Girls Like Us, Lloyd explained the twin struggle to stop international and domestic trafficking. When the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) was first passed in 2000, she wrote, “the implementation and funding of the law left domestic victims out in the cold, and for many years we encountered a frustrating two-tiered system of those who were seen as ‘real’ trafficking victims—internationally trafficked children and women—and those who were seen as ‘child/teen prostitutes’—girls and young women from the United States.” Slowly this has changed, she said, with girls controlled by a pimp domestically now seen as victims. To further this progress, two bills introduced in the Senate in 2011 need Congressional action—one to reauthorize the TVPA and the other titled the Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking Deterrence and Victims Support Act of 2011.
Increase support services. Once they escape, trafficking victims need a veritable Red Cross of services: protection from traffickers; basic necessities, including food and clothing; housing; medical and mental health care; legal services, including immigration and criminal justice advocacy; orientation to the local community, public transportation, and life skills. Without support services, better legal protection is just a piece of paper, said Lloyd. “You have to have concrete services available for people to exit the sex industry. You have to have viable alternatives.” Becoming economically independent and emotionally stable, said Lloyd, “involves much more than ‘let’s rescue them and stick them in a house.’ They need to plan what the next three to five years of their lives look like.” Enter GEMS, and other public and private programs dotting the landscape. The Polaris Project operates a 24-hour hotline where victims in crisis can reach out for help.
Increase statistical monitoring. Bradley Myles, executive director of Polaris Project, called for more of an effort to gather statistics. Myles said, “It is clear that only a fraction of these victims are currently being identified and connected with services.” Citing the State Department report he added, “The report rightly calls on the United States to increase data collection, training, and other efforts to better identify and reach survivors.”
The existing statistics surrounding this hell on Earth are staggering. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children said that approximately 100,000 children a year get pulled into the child sex industry. At-risk children run as high as 300,000 a year, according to estimates by a number of agencies. There were 900 investigations of human trafficking by the Department of Justice in 2011, involving 1,350 suspects around the country in 2011. Almost 100 percent were women and girls, and over 80 percent were U.S. citizens, not immigrants without citizenship.
Increase training. Rachel Lloyd explained, “You need training across the board—for law enforcement, prosecutors, and service providers.” And the training needs to be tailored towards individual communities. “Federal participation through the FBI, Homeland Security is crucial, but there’s no one-size-fits-all approach,” she explained. “It’s critical to get local law enforcement and local prosecution on board. We have to own this as local communities and states; we can’t just put this on one federal agency,” she said.
Increase sensitivity. Lloyd blames the culture that springs up around commercial sex trafficking for a lack of empathy with victims. Pimps are glamorized and the “supply side,” or “Johns,” too often escape scrutiny or punishment.
She herself hasn’t been immune to unkind remarks over her 15 years starting and building GEMS, even when invited to the White House. In 2008, while she was standing in the Oval Office with other advocates, a lobbyist remarked, “Long way from the streets, huh?” She confronted the man by saying it was a long way for anyone to make it to an Oval Office appearance, no matter their background.
Hillary Clinton spoke about long-term goals for commercial sex industry survivors that combine sensitivity and practicality. She said, “We should aim not only to put an end to this crime, but also to ensure that survivors can move beyond their exploitation and live the lives they choose for themselves.”
A new TV and online ad, sponsored by FAIR Girls and protesting classified advertising on the Village Voice Media owned website Backpage.com, where children and teens have been offered for sex, debuts this Sunday on ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos.
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