Sex trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery affecting men, women, and children worldwide and in all 50 U.S. states. The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that there are 4.5 million people trapped in forced sexual exploitation globally.
The U.S. Federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) defines sex trafficking as:
“The recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for the purpose of a commercial sex act where such an act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age.”
The term “commercial sex act” is defined by the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act as the giving or receiving of anything of value (money, shelter, food, drugs, clothes, etc.) to any person in exchange for a sex act. Sex trafficking can occur in diverse locations, such as in strip clubs, hotels/motels, private residences, brothels, online, in fake business (eg massage parlors) or on the street, and includes prostitution, pornography, and erotic entertainment.
There is no worldwide consensus on the definition of sex trafficking, in large part due to differing opinions about whether women can ever ‘voluntarily’ consent to engage in prostitution. However, the majority of international and domestic laws hold that any adult induced to perform a commercial sex act through force, fraud, or coercion is a victim of sex trafficking, and that all minors involved in commercial sex acts are victims of sex trafficking (there is no burden to prove force, fraud or coercion as minors do not have the capacity to consent.)
Who are the victims?
In Hawaii, victims of sex trafficking include Hawaii residents, mainland residents and foreign nationals, and include both adults and minors. Victims come from all background and socioeconomic groups; however, people with histories of childhood abuse, domestic violence, sex assault, mental and physical disabilities, homelessness, poverty, and social isolation are at higher risk of trafficking, as are runaways (it is estimated that 1 in 3 runaways will be approached by a pimp within 48 hours of leaving home). For internationally trafficked victims, additional risk factors include armed conflict, political corruption, environmental catastrophes, gender discrimination and limited work opportunities.
Who are the perpetrators?
Traffickers range from large-scale international criminal organizations to street corner pimps to friends and relatives of the victim (eg parents, intimate partners and other relatives). Traffickers can be male or female, foreign nationals or U.S. citizens. Traffickers working locally often lure victims by acting as friends or boyfriends, using many of the same psychological tactics utilized in domestic violence to control and coerce. For those trafficked internationally, the perpetrators often come from the same ethnic or cultural background and pose as labor recruiters with offers of lucrative employment overseas.
Sex Trafficking would not exist without the demand of “customers”, also commonly known as “johns”, “clients”, or “tricks”. Customers come from all socioeconomic backgrounds and professions, and some are unaware of the devastating impact their actions have on victims. Lax legislation regarding the “purchasing of sex” in our community translates into minimal if any penalty for those caught. If the fight against sex trafficking is to succeed, states and countries must recognize the critical importance of reducing demand, through both severe penalties for offenders and the changing of social mores.
Many victims who are trafficked internationally are approached by family, friends or strangers who lure them with promises of high-paying jobs. Domestic sex traffickers, on the other hand, often approach the victim with fraudulent romantic interest, offering feigned love, affection, and security, and then becoming increasingly controlling and violent, using isolation from friends and family, threats, beatings and rape to maintain power over them.
Both domestically and internationally, traffickers use some combination of force, fraud, or coercion to control their victims:
Force: Force involves the use of physical harm or restraint. This may involve rape, beatings, and confinement.
Fraud: Fraud includes false promises involving employment, wages, working conditions, and education opportunities. For example, an individual might be promised a nanny or restaurant job overseas but then be forced into prostitution after she arrives at the destination.
Coercion: Coercion involves threats of harm to a person or a loved one. These can be explicit threats against a person or a pattern of behavior intended to cause a person to believe that failure comply would result in harm. For example, a trafficker may suggest to a victim that if she does not have sexual relations with a certain number of ‘customers’ per night, she will be beaten. In another example, a trafficker might take sexually explicit photos of a victim and threaten to post them online or send them to her family if she does not comply.
Sex trafficking can have a devastating impact on medical and mental health.
Victims are at high risk of recurrent sexually transmitted infections, pelvic inflammatory disease, repeated pregnancies and abortions, chronic pelvic pain, and infertility. Physical abuse can lead to traumatic brain injury (TBI), chronic headaches, eye injuries, chronic back pain, neck pain, and broken bones. Victims with chronic illnesses such as asthma or diabetes can go months or years without appropriate medications or medical care, leading to higher rates of complication and early death.
Due to the extreme, repetitive trauma they experience, victims of sex trafficking often suffer from psychological ailments such as from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety, and panic attacks. For those victims lured into the sex trade by men posing as intimate partners, the complexity of their relationship can compound the psychological effects and complicate both her exit from the situation and the healing process.