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Essay: Uncovering Human Trafficking In the US: Modern-Day Slavery’s Sinister Reality

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Darryl Molina

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Human Trafficking, Today's Modern Slavery?

When we think of human trafficking, we think women and girls being trafficked through Japan, India, Cambodia, Bangladesh and other neighboring countries.  Huge red light districts offering thousands of women and children; some as young as 9 and 10 years old. We think of children getting abducted and sometimes even sold by their own parents in third world countries. We think men in Cambodia paying a large sum of money for virgin girls. Some of us might think back to the 2008 blockbuster “Taken” starring Liam Neeson, and the horrors we saw there, from the brothel in France to the prostitutes being sedated with narcotics through an IV so they would be complacent when they had a client.   

Unfortunately, many of these common beliefs are accurate. Not only are they accurate but they are also happening in the United States. Could we be too naïve or just too terrified to believe that these things are happening right in our neighborhoods?

According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, there are currently an estimated 293,000 American children at risk of being exploited and trafficked for sex. Forty percent of all human trafficking cases investigated between January 2008 and June 2010 were for the sexual trafficking of a child. And while the term trafficking may invoke images of desperate illegal immigrants being forced into prostitution by human smugglers, 83 percent of victims in confirmed sex trafficking cases in this country are American citizens (Federal Bureau of Investigation).   

Let’s start off by discussing what exactly is human trafficking and what differentiates it from prostitution. Article 3, paragraph (a) of the “Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons” defines trafficking in persons as the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons, by means of threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, abduction, fraud, deception, the abuse of power or a position of vulnerability or the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation includes, the exploitation of prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation. On the other hand, sex workers include people who offer sexual services in exchange for money. The services may include sexual intercourse and other services such as oral or phone sex. Sex workers engage in this for many reasons, but the one thing that differentiates them from trafficking victims is that they do it voluntarily; they are not forced or tricked into staying in the business but have chosen this for themselves.

One thing many people have trouble differentiating is the specific role and lingo of the people in the human trafficking industry. “Pimps” are the men who controls and financially benefits from the commercial sexual exploitation of another person. A pimp could be classified as a “romeo pimp” or a “gorilla pimp”. A romeo pimp psychologically manipulates his victims, he might shower his girls with gifts and affection especially when he is first “winning them over” but the presence of violence is there when they do not comply with his demands. A gorilla pimp controls his victims almost entirely through physical violence and force, this type of pimp is most commonly seen with those victims that have a debt bondage or that have been abducted. We like to think of these traffickers as males but the reality is that there are many women also running their own brothels, the females who take on this role are referred to as madams. And lastly, “Johns” are the individuals that pay for sexual acts from the women and children that have been trafficked.  

Trafficking is not just an issue that happens to people in other countries. The United States is also a source for human trafficking. Cases of human trafficking have been reported all across the United States; prior to common belief anyone can be trafficked regardless of their race, class, education, gender, age, or citizenship when forced or enticed by false promises. As long as the individual is able to work for a particular labor, for sex, or even for organs, people all over the world are falling victim to these pimps.

There were many conditions that indirectly facilitated recruitment of women into the sex industry, making women vulnerable to trafficking and sexual exploitation. Advocates Janice Raymond and Donna Hughes report how “many respondents reported circumstances of poverty, economic desperation and disadvantage, and the lack of a sustainable income” (51) as the main causes of why traffickers prayed on them.

Throughout their research Raymond and Hughes discovered that in Minnesota the Mall of America, the largest shopping mall in the United States, was one of the largest pimping grounds in the state where recruiters prey on young, suburban and rural teens who hang out there, and describe how  “pimps can smell vulnerability”(52).  Pimps also recruit women in night clubs; they befriend women, create emotional or alcohol/drug dependencies, and then convince them to earn money for the pimp in prostitution. Drug and alcohol dependencies are tools that pimps use commonly to manipulate and maintain control over women.

Sex trafficking is found hidden in a variety of places the most common being in the sex industries including strip clubs, fake massage parlors, escort services, and the most popular, street prostitution. For example, massage parlors operate as legitimate business where they claim to offer a variety of services like massages or acupuncture etc. but instead offer commercial sex to customers. These “massage parlors” are found all across the United States from cities with a high sex industry like Las Vegas to even a local shopping center in the middle of a residential area.   *

The demand for commercial sex has increased as it shows a “steady and profitable market”, the United States alone generates $9.5 billion from illegal prostitution (United Nations). On average a pimp can make $150,000-$200,000 per child each year and each pimp has about 4 to 6 girls. (U.S. Justice Department, National Center for Missing and Exploited Children).

The Internet has dramatically changed the way human trafficking operates in the United States. No longer are traffickers making back alley transactions with johns for these girls, since the internet boom, traffickers, pimps, and johns have moved online for their buying and selling of women and children for sex.  Online classified services are the key for advertising the victims of the sex trade to the world.  Pimps and traffickers unashamedly advertise their victim’s sexual services with provocative photographs and blunt messages complete with hourly pricing.  The traffickers pay online classified websites to display their messages and these websites accordingly reap enormous profits at the expense of the victims of sex trafficking. Since moving business to online channels, traffickers have developed their own lingo to disguise the child’s age and avoid detection from authorities. Some traffickers and pimps have fake adult pictures online and on the description write key phrases letting the johns know that what they are buying is really an underage child. Instagram, Facebook, Twitter are the main source of social media that everyone one has nowadays, allowing traffickers to offer their services to to multiple servers for the world to see.

One of the most infamous classified websites that has been accused of letting users post ads selling trafficked women and children is backpage.com. This website gained popularity in the trafficking industry after the shutdown of the “adult” section on craigslist.com. Backpage.com contains a section for “adult entertainment”, where you can browse through hundreds of suggestive and illicit photos of half-naked women and girls all claiming to be over the age of 18.  While it officially prohibits prostitution of women and children it is said to be responsible for 80% of prostitution online ads (Feyerick, Steffen). Fifty known incidences of child sexual services being sold on the backpage.com have been recorded as of May 2011 (Feyerick, Steffen). Over 230,000 people including religious leaders, attorneys general, U.S. senators, and even some musician like Alicia Keys have petitioned the website to remove its sexual content (Feyerick, Steffen).

Numerous factors make the United States a mecca for sex trafficking, including the presence of pre-existing adult prostitution markets, poverty, the presence of large number of transient males in communities, the promotion of juvenile prostitution by parents or boyfriends, the recruitment of children by organized crime units, and the illegal trafficking of children for sexual purposes in the United States (Finklea, Fernandes-Alcantra 3). According to the Department of Justice, Houston, Miami, Los Angeles, Chicago, Charlotte, Atlanta, and Las Vegas are some of the top human trafficking jurisdictions in the country. The large population and accessible transit such as trains, busses, cars etc., makes it easy to smuggle and sell girls on the streets without drawing attention and hide sex rings behind strip clubs and massage parlors.

Arguably, the biggest weekend for U.S. prostitution occurs during one of America’s favorite pass time, the Super Bowl. According to Forbes Magazine over 10,000 trafficked women were brought to Miami, Florida for the 2010 Super Bowl to be sold, many of these women were under the age of 18 (Casserly). Likewise, there were 133 arrest made for sex with minors in the 2011 Super Bowl in Dallas, Texas (National Center for Missing and Exploited Children). The large crowd of men that the Super Bowl attracts makes it the ideal selling ground for a trafficker. The day before the Super Bowl, 100 arrest were made based on Backpage.com ads that advertised “Super Bowl Specials!” and “young,” “curvy” women (Casserly).

To finalize, prior to common belief women and children are being abducted from coast to coast in the United States and trafficked throughout. This is happening in every city, 24/7, 365 days a year. Whether it is for sex or for any other source of labor, this mordern slavery continues to occur vigorously and exponentially. Wherever there’s a computer, strip club, or massage parlor, trust that people being sold to those who demand it. If sex is being sold, human trafficking is going on as well.


Work Cited

Alvarez, M. B., and E. J. Alessi. "Human Trafficking Is More Than Sex Trafficking and Prostitution: Implications for Social Work." Affilia: 142-52. Print.

Casserly, Meghan. "Sex And The Super Bowl: Indianapolis Spotlight On Teen Sex Trafficking." Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 2 Feb. 2012. Web. 13 Sept. 2015.

Finklea, Kristin M., Adrienne L. Fernandes-Alcantra, and Alison Siskin. Sex Trafficking of Children in the United States: Overview and Issues for Congress. DIANE, 2012. 1-43. Print.

Feyerick, Deborah, and Sheila Steffen. "A Lurid Journey through Backpage.com." The CNN Freedom Project Ending ModernDay Slavery RSS. CNN, 10 May 2012. Web. 13 Sept. 2015.

Raymond, Janice G., and Donna M. Hughes. "International and Domestic Trends in Sex Trafficking of Women in the United States, 1999-2000." ICPSR Data Holdings (2003). Print.

“Human Trafficking Prosecution Unit (HTPU)." Human Trafficking Prosecution Unit (HTPU). Web. 13 Sept. 2015.

"United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime." United Nations Launches Global Plan of

Action against Human Trafficking. 1 Sept. 2010. Web. 13 Sept. 2015.

"Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000." U.S. Department of State. U.S. Department of State, 28 Oct. 2000. Web. 8 Sept. 2015.

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