In today’s enlightened America, slavery is a practice relegated to one of two faraway regions: the past or distant, impoverished countries. But a growing coalition of organizations, both public and nonprofit, are refocusing attention on the largely unknown problem of sex trafficking here in the states.
What Is Sex Trafficking?
Sex trafficking, according to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC), is “a form of modern slavery,” and it occurs in every state of the US.
Laws on the crime vary from state to state, but most define sex trafficking as the use of force, coercion or fraud in causing a commercial sex act to occur. Victims are often minors, and the NHTRC says it’s most common for children to become victims between the ages of 14 and 16, but adults male, female and LGBTQ are also victimized by sex traffickers.
The word “commercial” is the key to understanding this from a legal standpoint. Prostitution stands as the most recognizable form of commercial sex act, but the production and distribution of illegal pornography is also covered by most state laws. Any exchange of valuable goods counts as the “commercial” bit, including money, clothing, drugs or food and shelter. Under federal law, minors under the age of 18 who have been “induced” into a commercial sex act has become the victim of sex trafficking, whether or not force or coercion were used to induce it.
Sex trafficking isn’t necessarily about physical movement or transportation, although movement often creates an opportunity for sex traffickers, with runaway youths and undocumented migrants frequently targeted as victims.
Is The Problem Growing?
Yes, although finding reliable estimates on the prevalence of sex trafficking is extremely difficult, in large part because it’s a criminal act.
The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children estimates that 1 out of every 6 endangered runaways reported to their social workers in 2014 was likely the victim of sex trafficking. That estimate is up from 2013, when the government agency reported 1 out 7 reported runaways as sex trafficking victims.
Similar increases have been observed world-wide. 4.2 million people are currently the victims of commercial sex exploitation, according to the International Labour Organization, around half of them children. Despite strong legal penalties, sex trafficking is increasing, not decreasing, both around the globe and in the US. Equality Now, a nonprofit dedicated to expanding human rights for women and girls, considers sex trafficking “the fastest growing criminal enterprise in the world.”
That’s crucial to understand: sex trafficking is an industry, and like any commercial enterprise, licit or illicit, the industry is governed by supply and demand. In a recent study, researchers at the Urban Institute valued the underground criminal sex economies in 8 major US cities, including Dallas, Miami, Seattle and Washington, D.C., between $39.9 and $290 million in 2007.
Can It Be Stopped?
All of this economic activity is built on the horrific exploitation of children, women and men who suffer constant fear, physical and emotional abuse.
Many victims are coerced into performing sex acts out of sheer need, for shelter, food and the other prerequisites of existence. Some are exploited by the very people they count as loved ones. It’s not enough, however, to point out that some people are vulnerable to exploitation of this kind. Again, this is a commercial industry, driven by “customer” demand.
Ending sex trafficking is thus a matter of eliminating that demand, perhaps by increasing penalties for offenders. But we should also look to instituting laws that raise women out of poverty, like demanding pay equity regardless of a worker’s gender, and increasing support for impoverished communities where residents are at a higher risk of being victimized.
Broad social changes are necessary, too. Sex trafficking is ratified by societies, including the current United States, in which misogyny is systemic, in which female bodies are commodified, seen as objects to be valued, bought and sold.