Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Sex trafficking strikes closer to home than thought 

By S.M. Berg

A bed, a teddy bear, and a roll of paper towels are the only contents of a closet-sized room where a trafficked 13-year-old girl was sold for sex by pimps to 20-30 men a day.

On Nov. 5, 2003, a woman taken from the Lloyd Center shopping mall was found to have been drugged awake for three straight days of sexual slavery by traffickers in Vancouver, Canada.

Traffickers forced three dozen Mexican men and boys recruited in Arizona to work 60 hours a week on farms near Buffalo, N.Y. for $30 a week.

These are a small sampling of stories relayed Oct. 4 during an educational forum on human trafficking convened by The Department of Health and Human Services [HHS] and The Protection Project of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. About 70 local social service, healthcare, law enforcement, and human rights professionals attended the daylong conference at the Benson Hotel to launch the new HHS Rescue and Restore anti-trafficking program.

The Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 [TVPA] was the first comprehensive federal U.S. law addressing human trafficking with a plan for ending what is often referred to as modern slavery. Part of TVPA charged federal health service providers with finding victims and offering them benefits provided by the new law, but despite their outreach efforts it’s estimated less than one percent of victims came forward for assistance. In 2003, TVPA was reauthorized with more extensive amendments, and the Rescue and Restore program was created to increase public awareness about the horrors of human trafficking, a factor which posed a serious barrier to successfully identifying and assisting victims. With CIA estimates that 500,000 victims of trafficking are brought into the United States and the United Nations claiming 4 million people are trafficked worldwide annually, most of us have likely encountered a trafficked person at some point and not known it.

So where are these women, men and children who have been forced to endure slave-like conditions and where can we find them in Portland? Despite 33 percent of the opening anecdotes being about men and boys trafficked for labor, only 20 percent of trafficking is of males and less than half of all trafficking is for labor. Considering 75 percent of female victims are trafficked for commercial sexual exploitation, a boom industry in Portland, it was rightly stated by speaker Mohamed Y. Mattar that, “too many people in this country do not understand the link between prostitution and crime, between prostitution and AIDS, between prostitution and trafficking.”

Mattar is an Adjunct Professor of Law and Co-Director of The Protection Project of the Foreign Policy Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and he is quick to implicate sexually oriented businesses in the multiple human rights offenses that surround human trafficking. “In fact, in most cases women are trafficked in this country to work in strip clubs, massage parlors and other sexually oriented establishments that are used as fronts for prostitution and rely on public misconceptions that such activities are harmless expressions of adult sexuality.”

When Mattar recounted that Portland’s Broadway Massage was closed for sexual exploitation and prostitution, Officer Greg Duvic of the Portland Police Vice Division offered, “Every escort agency, every massage business we have ever investigated has turned out to be a front for prostitution.” Duvic assisted with an undercover effort to expose the so-called “escort” ads in the back of Portland’s alternative weekly papers for the illegal prostitution they obviously are. The sting operation definitively identified at least 80 percent of escort ads were for prostitution, and as Duvic, a seven-year veteran of the vice division, added, “The other 20 percent just took the money and left.” He mentioned what it took to dislodge his own misconceptions about the harmlessness of sexual capitalism, “When I first started as a cop many years ago I thought prostitution was not a big deal, that the girls were making good money and chose to be there. Now I know it’s an evil, horrible crime, the worst destruction that can happen to a person.” He estimates there are at least 2,000 adult women currently being prostituted in Portland, a destination stop on an organized crime circuit that moves women and children up and down the west coast.

The prevalence of interstate trafficking as evidenced by large networks of organized crime underscores that the term trafficking does not only apply to foreign citizens coerced, forced or frauded into prostitution but also to U.S. citizens similarly exploited. Most U.S. state prostitution laws treat prostituted people as criminals. They are arrested more often than the pimps and johns who demand sexual servitude from these vulnerable populations, despite the Department of Justice’s 2003 finding that the average age of entry into the U.S. sex industry is 13. New amendments in the reauthorized TVPA reclassify prostituted people as victims of sexual exploitation and provide an outline for administering assistance, but meeting the conditions for assistance can still let many sexually brutalized victims fall through the cracks.

Brian Willis of ECPAT-USA (Ending Child Prostitution, Child Pornography, and trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes-USA) gave the following example of how the best laws against sexual slavery are inadequate if public perception of prostitution doesn’t change. A brothel in Queens could be raided and a 10-year-old prostituted child from Honduras can be given federal assistance while a 10-year-old prostituted child from Brooklyn is sent to jail.

It sounds too unbelievable to be true, but as New York Times writer Leslie Kaufman revealed in a Sept. 15 article, a 12-year-old prostituted child was sentenced to a secure juvenile detention center by a Bronx Family Court judge who said she needed to get “proper moral principles.’’ Well-intentioned laws are not enough, and changing pervasive public myths that maintain prostitution is a choice and is driven by willing sex workers is crucial to ending the abuses of sex trafficking. The sex industry deliberately hides the truth that the true cause of sex trafficking is not the free choice of prostitutes but men’s demand for and sense of entitlement to prostituted bodies, usually those of young girls and women.

Says Willis, “Decreasing men’s demand for bodies to sexually abuse needs to become a larger part of the Rescue and Restore strategy.”

Focusing on demand reduction is a position Patricia Barrera feels adamant about. As an advocate for prostituted people for more than a decade and Director of Community Education for the Lola Greene Baldwin Foundation, a Portland nonprofit organization assisting survivors of the sex industry, Barrera couldn’t agree more. “For far too long, men have gotten away with believing they could buy women and children with impunity. Those days must come to a close. We need incarceration, certainly, and we also need intensive and extensive diversion programs and treatment programs for this population of sex offenders. And we better do it quick, because people are literally dying from their behavior.”

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