“For Katia I was paid $1,000 US, by Angela, the middle person. That’s how they priced [her] at the time. Later the price went up, as Angela had to make her own profit. I don’t know how much, since this information is not advertised. Everyone gets their share and does not look at somebody else’s pocket.“
~Vlad, trafficker interviewed on PBS Frontline story “Sex Slaves”
A major proportion of Human Trafficking is for sexual purposes, with the victims overwhelmingly women and young girls. According to one frequently cited study, the average age of entry into prostitution in the U.S. among prostituted minors, is just thirteen! An overwhelming majority of these children have been victims of sexual abuse and violence preceding their commercial exploitation. This shocking fact belies the notion that prostitution is a reasonable choice made rationally by a woman of her own free will.
Often called “sexual slavery”, this may include not only prostitution, but also other roles in the ’sexploitation’ industry such as massage parlors, fetish clubs, strip clubs, phone sex operations, exotic dancing establishments, the production of pornography for the photo, video, and film markets, and even the marketing of child ‘brides’. In all of these instances victims are often coerced, cajoled, threatened, tricked, or simply forced… and end up in a situation where they are no longer in control. In 2006 the FBI estimated that 100,000 children and young women were trafficked for sexual purposes within the US, and that the majority of them were not runaways but people coerced by predators.
The manner in which women are initially induced and finally forced to resign themselves to being used by others, is a rigorously time tested method that relies on a host of techniques for breaking people. This is coldly known as the ’seasoning process’. It may involve any combination of humiliation, privation, isolation, and violence or the threat of it, both to the victim and to her family.
The Coalition Against Trafficking in Women calls prostitution “the world’s oldest oppression!” and proposes that all forms of prostitution are necessarily exploitative. Some have suggested that prostitution is tantamount to ‘pay to rape’. While other views may differ, no one denies the clear connection between sex trafficking and prostitution.
The Local Model
While anyone may become victimized, there are many factors that can put a person at risk such as: poverty; low levels of education; lack of employment opportunities; socio-cultural norms and circumstances including discrimination due to gender, race or class. Other factors include: harmful traditional practices and cultural values which fuel child sexual exploitation or push children and young people into labor or survival migration; volatile family environments, such as domestic violence or parents with drug or alcohol addictions; separation from families, perhaps because of family breakdown, natural disaster, armed conflict or migration. The common denominator is that these children, typically girls, have low self-esteem and desperately seek validation from outside sources.
Traffickers know this, and artfully search for prey among the throngs of students around schoolyards and malls. They may approach them in any number of ways. One common method is to ingratiate themselves as a boyfriend and shower the girls with praise, attention, and gifts. They earn the girls’ trust over a period of time, slowly persuading them to turn away from family and friends. Girls may be flattered to be offered jobs as models or actresses. The trafficker may pose as a ‘producer’ or someone with connections in a glamorous industry willing to help them pursue a career. They may buy clothes for the girls or offer to pay for photography sessions to establish a portfolio. Invariably these photos will end up on a website for an escort service.
Ultimately they convince the girl to run away, sometimes to a location within a few miles of their home. Once totally isolated, however, they then coerce the girls into “working”. A single trafficker, also known as a pimp, may have numerous girlfriends, and while they know about one another, he knows how to play their jealousies off one another and keep them loyal to him. Through a mixture of intimidation and persuasion he keeps them in line just as an abusive spouse keeps the other one from leaving.
Once they’ve committed their first act of prostitution, the girls are led to believe that they are criminals, that the courts will only seek to lock them up and that their pimp is their protector. Underage girls are given false IDs and it is much easier for an overburdened court system to churn them back out onto the street than to investigate each and every case of prostitution. Sadly in many cases, judges, prosecutors and police may indeed treat these children as criminals rather than victims.
The International Model
In foreign countries, regions afflicted by poverty, civil strife, or natural disaster become hunting grounds for traffickers. They promise jobs in other cities or scholarships to boarding schools, assuring the parents and victim that they will be well provided for. In some cases, they simply buy the child from the desperate parents who don’t know where their next meal will come from. Once smuggled across an international border, their papers are taken away from them and they are convinced they will be prosecuted for illegal immigration.
Whether from California or Cambodia, victims are taken to places alien to them where they don’t know anyone. They have no idea which city they are actually in, and if they cross international borders its likely they don’t speak the local language. They are raped and beaten into submission, forced to endure endless humiliation and taught to fear the police. They may be given alcohol and drugs to keep them disoriented and pliant, as well as to keep them dependent on their traffickers for a steady supply. They are told that their families and friends would look upon them with shame if they were to return, and it’s better everyone think they ran away or were dead. If the trafficker knows the girl has a younger sister, they may threaten to go after the sibling if the girl runs away. Worse yet, they actually may.
There have been cases abroad where girls who were sold to traffickers by their parents, have bravely escaped, only to be returned to bondage by the parents who fear retaliation for haboring the trafficker’s ‘property’. In rural areas where purity and virginity is highly prized, the girl has little hope for a future within her own community.
The Business Model
In all of these circumstances, a common feature is that of exploitation for profit. This suggests a possible avenue for disrupting these enterprises: make it less profitable. There are many ways in which this may be done, and what is most effective may vary from place to place. For instance in many Asian brothels, selling virgins is a huge profit center. Young girls who are kidnapped or bought are subject to extreme abuse. After being raped for extended periods, they are “sewn up” and re-sold as virgins again. It has been demonstrated that by focusing enforcement efforts on places that engage in this practice exerts economic pressure that can bring down these businesses. In other places, vigorous anti-corruption efforts led those police still offering protection to demand higher bribes. As a result at least some brothel owners were motivated to seek more profitable and less risky sources of income. Focusing on decreasing the demand is yet another way the profit stream may be impacted.
New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristof has been an eloquent and tireless advocate for victims of sex trafficking. One of his columns, Striking the Brothel’s Bottom Line, specifically advocates this approach. He concludes there:
Sexual slavery is like any other business: raise the operating costs, create a risk of jail, and the human traffickers will quite sensibly shift to some other trade. If the Obama administration treats 21st-century slavery as a top priority, we can push many of the traffickers to quit in disgust and switch to stealing motorcycles instead.