The Human Trafficking Epidemic
Human trafficking is, unfortunately, one of the most profitable and popular crimes in the world. Globally, it equals arms trafficking as the second-largest criminal industry—behind only drug trafficking. Unlike drugs, humans are renewable resources, capable of being used and abused repeatedly, so it is an attractive criminal enterprise for those with little regard for others’ suffering.
Human trafficking is a $150 billion a year industry with as many as 40 million people around the world living in slavery, either as sex slaves or forced laborers. These numbers are merely estimates. That’s more people living in slavery in 2020 than ever before in human history. That number does not include survivors. While trafficking comes in many forms—from child soldiers to sex tourism, most experts agree that most of the global human trafficking involves sex trafficking. Around two-thirds of the worldwide trafficking industry—or about $100 billion—is from sexual exploitation, with the remaining $50 billion from labor trafficking, debt bondage, and other trafficking. You can find trafficking in every country around the globe. The US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report from June 2019 ranked the United States in the top three for nations of origin for victims—alongside Mexico and the Philippines.
In the United States, according to the Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs, more than 80 percent of the documented human-trafficking incidents involve sex trafficking. It is difficult to estimate the number of victims. Still, the International Labor Organization reports that hundreds of thousands of people are being trafficked for sex in the United States today. Yet, in 2018, only 3,218 individual victims or survivors contacted the National Human Trafficking Hotline run by the Polaris Project, a nonprofit dedicated to fighting human trafficking in the United States. That average of more than 11 callers a day pales in comparison to the nearly 274 victims per day there would be in this country if there were only 100,000 victims a year.
While we see more female victims of sex trafficking than males, a 2016 US Department of Justice commissioned study found that up to 36 percent of sex trafficking victims are male. Some believe the percentage is even higher.
What Sex Trafficking Looks Like in the United States
Sex trafficking and sex slavery are federal crimes in the United States, and they have been prohibited under section 1591 of title 18 of the US Code since 2000. Section 1591 makes it a felony to cause anyone under 18 years old or anyone else by means of force, fraud, or coercion to engage in a commercial sex act. Before that, the federal Mann Act from 1910, sections 2421–2424 title 18 of the US Code, made it a felony to transport a victim in interstate commerce for illegal sexual activity. In addition to a federal crime, it is also a state crime, typically prosecuted under sex trafficking, sex slavery, prostitution, and pimping statutes.
Sex trafficking crimes come in many forms.
The illicit massage industry, for example, is one type of domestic sex trafficking, and it has global origins. According to the Polaris Project, there are more than 9,000 IMBs currently operating in the United States. Many of the women working in those IMBs are current or former trafficking victims, ranging in age from younger girls in larger markets to older women in more rural areas, where some work into their 70s. Almost all were born overseas. Polaris’ research has found that these businesses are often part of global criminal networks, with revenues estimated to be around $2.5 billion per year.
IMBs that are not part of criminal networks typically connect to one or more other IMBs to exchange victims. Many advertise in Mandarin and Korean language magazines in China, Korea, and large US cities like LA and New York. The ads suggest women can make money, get their massage therapy licenses, and have a better life in a new community by coming to work in a spa. IMBs are also lucrative in small markets. In rural states like Montana, for example, law enforcement officials estimate that one woman working at any given IMB will generate up to $18,000 per month in earnings for the owner.
Escort services, another type of trafficking, are more prevalent than IMBs in the United States. Escort services are any commercial sex services arranged in advance, often by a pimp, and predominantly online. Those working as escorts are often young, with the average age of entry into sex trafficking estimated as young as 12–14 years. Escorts offer services at a temporary location, usually indoors, on an out-call basis (e.g., the escort goes to a location supplied by a buyer) or on an in-call basis (e.g., the buyer comes to a site provided by a victim or a pimp). In 2017, the US Justice Department shut down backpage.com, which was the most popular website for commercial sex ads. Since then, some domestic traffickers have begun utilizing websites hosted in other countries, and traffickers also use the same sites, dating apps, and social media apps that the rest of us use, like Facebook, MeetMe, and PlentyofFish.
Sex trafficking or sex slavery comes in other forms too, including the outdoor solicitation you used to see at night: personal sexual servitude, services performed in strip clubs or other night clubs, and survival sex, to name a few. Survival sex involves victims, usually teens, runaways, or other particularly vulnerable victims, trading sex for a place to sleep, a meal, or drugs. Additionally, law enforcement officers are continuing to find sex trafficking involved in some cases of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW). Some young women who have gone missing from reservations have been trafficked from their homes by someone they know. Still, others wind up working for a pimp after they have run away from home. While data is scarce, the National Congress of American Indians estimated in 2015 that as many as 40 percent of sex trafficking victims identified as American Indian or Native Americans.
Whatever its form, sex trafficking is a brutal crime. Most victims have lasting physical injuries, and all have experienced psychological trauma. Indeed, sex trafficking may not be the most prevalent crime in your community, but it is one of the worst.
What Can We Do to Help Fight Sex Trafficking?
Many say that sex trafficking will always be with us. Prostitution is often considered the world’s oldest profession, but advocates point out that it is the oldest form of oppression. We, as a society, do not have to accept sex trafficking any more than any other violent crime. There are many things we can do, especially as attorneys, to help fight sex trafficking, protect victims and those vulnerable to being trafficked, and support survivors.
Spread Education and Awareness of Trafficking and Report Suspected Trafficking
We can educate ourselves and others, and we can help to increase awareness of the problem in our communities. It is essential to understand what makes a person vulnerable. Regardless of where you live, anyone can be a trafficking victim. Those at most risk include immigrant women, runaways, people who are homeless, those with drug or alcohol addictions, kids in the foster system, those with mental health issues, LGBTQ youth (especially boys), and physical and sexual assault victims. Interviews with pimps reveal one targeted quality—a lack of confidence. One pimp explained that he would approach a young girl and tell her she was beautiful, and if she looked him in the eye and responded confidently, he moved on to another victim. If she blushed, said she wasn’t beautiful, or seemed overly flattered, he would continue to talk to her.
Be on the lookout for potential sex trafficking around you and report anything suspicious to law enforcement. Trafficking is a vastly underreported crime, especially among male victims. Not only do victims fear retribution from their traffickers, but they also feel shame, and many deny what has happened to them. Family, friends, hotel employees, and even strangers should report potential trafficking to the police, by calling a local trafficking hotline, or by texting or calling Polaris’s National Human Trafficking Hotline, both of which are available 24-7 (text “Help” or “Info” to 233733 or call 888-373-7888).
These reports can help law enforcement corroborate other tips, follow traffickers’ and pimps’ whereabouts, and help increase arrests. Despite there being hundreds of thousands of sex trafficking victims in the United States, the number of arrests is abysmally low. The FBI made 2,453 trafficking arrests in the fiscal year 2018, and according to the FBI’s Crime in the United States report, there were only 1,242 sex trafficking arrests in all 50 states in 2018. In that same year, the FBI estimates there were 31,147 state prostitution and commercialized vice arrests, some of which would fit under the definition of sex trafficking as well. Advocacy groups have made great strides in educating law enforcement officers about the potential harm from arresting victims. However, arrests have traditionally been one of the only options to protect victims in the short-term from their pimps. We need to push our local, state, and federal law enforcement to investigate trafficking crimes, make more arrests of pimps and traffickers, and provide victim support.
Strengthen State Laws and Local Regulations
We can use our legal training to draft and lobby for legislation and local ordinances that will help fight global trafficking.
All states need laws and regulatory schemes that identify, prohibit, deter, and prevent sex trafficking while also creating an environment where this kind of illegal activity cannot flourish. States need sufficient appropriations in their budgets to give law enforcement, regulators, and prosecutors the ability to investigate and prosecute these cases. We can have the most comprehensive laws in the world. Still, without money to investigate and prosecute violators, states will be hamstrung in their efforts to combat trafficking and protect victims. Finally, states need programs and resources to support victims and survivors of sex trafficking and sex slavery.
As lawyers and advocates, we can work with our state legislators and governors to improve our state’s trafficking laws. During the 2019 legislative session in Montana, the local volunteer anti-trafficking Task Force heard from law enforcement members that there were a couple of significant loopholes in Montana’s prostitution and pimping laws. These laws hindered the ability of law enforcement to prosecute IMBs in Montana and investigate their national and international networks. In response, the Task Force worked with two state legislators and local and state prosecutors’ offices on drafting bills that closed those loopholes, gave law enforcement the tools they needed to investigate, and added previously nonexistent resources to the state Department of Justice’s budget to fight trafficking.
Protect Those Vulnerable to Trafficking and Support Survivors
As attorneys, we can work directly with those fighting trafficking and supporting victims and survivors, such as direct service providers, nonprofits, advocacy groups, churches, safe houses, and other community organizations. There are thousands of organizations helping victims and survivors every day, from international relief organizations like Save the Children and World Hope International to national groups like Polaris Project and the YWCA, to local nonprofits in your community. Safehouses and rehabilitative programs exist across the country, such as Courtney’s House in Washington, DC, Freedom Place in Texas, and Courage House in California. We can provide pro bono services to victims, many of whom have been arrested on prostitution, drug, or other charges, arising out of their conduct when they were under their pimps’ control.
Task Forces exist in every state across the country, like the one we started in Montana, and they are good places to get connected to the various groups fighting trafficking in your area. They are generally led by or include the involvement of the US Attorney’s Office or FBI. Typically, they link together those working in the areas of protection and victim services, prevention and community awareness, and prosecution and law enforcement. For example, our local task force is divided into those three committees, represents more than 100 organizational members, and has more than 800 people on its listserv.
Culture Change Is Necessary for Long-Term Prevention
Ultimately, the way we can fight sex trafficking around the globe, in our country, and our local communities is to do our part to bring about culture change. We can prosecute traffickers and protect victims, reducing the supply side of human trafficking. However, we must also reduce demand. Cultural change is critical. For example, there is no excuse for glorifying and glamorizing the pimp lifestyle in 2020. Bantering around phrases like “happy endings” only portrays sexual acts from the perspective of buyers and further victimizes those performing the “services.” Calling women “whores” or other forms of “slut-shaming” only reinforces pimp-sex worker and customer-sex worker power dynamics. We can help reduce the demand by educating ourselves and any would-be buyers about the signs of trafficking, the ways most young people enter the industry (including many even before puberty), and the lives of those working in the commercial sex industry.
Sex trafficking is booming around the world, including in our communities, and the 40 million people living in slavery today are counting on us to lead the abolitionist movements in our states and countries to help set them free. Working together, we could change our laws and our culture, and we could help to bring about the ultimate emancipation of all those living in sex slavery in 2020.