Sex Trafficking, A Growing Epidemic in the United States
Sex trafficking is one of the world’s most profitable crimes and is a form of modern day slavery. Throughout the world human trafficking including sex trafficking is a known international problem, but most believe it is contained to poorer nations or a third-world problem. With so much focus on this being a problem outside of the wealthiest nation in the world the lack of awareness in the United States is alarming and improves those in the illegal trade ability to continue in their actions. This paper will examine some of the growing statistics of sex trafficking, as it pertains to what is happening in the United States. It will also attempt to identify those groups that are at the greatest risk of becoming victims of this crime and the tactics used by traffickers when victimizing these groups. Theories that attempt to bring understanding behind why the global and local sex trafficking victim’s will also be examined. Finally, it is important to understand the issues that law enforcement face when trying to combat human trafficking within the United States.
Sex Trafficking, A Growing Epidemic in the United States
The international crime of human trafficking has been on the rise over the past few decades and has become second on the list only behind illicit drug smuggling worldwide with a total profit of $152 Billion in 2018 (U.S. State Department, 2018). In the United States most view this as a third world problem that does not affect the world’s most prosperous country, but in reality the number of sex trafficking reports in the country is on the rise (Fedina, Williamson, Perdue, & Fedina, 2016). Human trafficking is a modern day form of slavery that includes several forms of theft of another’s life including forcing individuals to perform sex and labor to survive. Domestic sex trafficking dealers in the United States has placed emphasis on specific targets within the country, especially in females under the age of sixteen that come from broken homes or have family members that are involved with the commercial sex industry. These victim are trapped by coercion, fear, or force into performing horrible acts by human traffickers. With vast majority of the population throughout the world and in the United States thinking of slavery being a crime of the past, trafficking of individuals at young ages into the sex industry out of and into the country continues to become apparent that it is a growing epidemic.
Who is at Risk?
There is no specific group of people that are immune to human or sex trafficking although females make up over ninety percent of those sold into the commercial sex trafficking industry worldwide (Hepburn & Simon, 2010). One of the leading countries in receiving those trafficked through South American and Caribbean countries the United States has become a hub for the commercial sex trade. This is due to a lack of regulations on things like pornography and adult strip clubs that are rampant throughout the United States or simple at the flip of a phone to view. With the immigration issue becoming more apparent as an issue in the United States southern border sex trafficking has become one of the most difficult crimes to identify because of the promise of a better life by those smugglers bringing them into the country. Smugglers or traffickers will promise a victim a way out of a poorer country in South America and then use things like debt coercion to force them to work in the commercial sex industry to pay off the debt (Fedina, Williamson, Perdue, & Fedina, 2016). These debts to transport and house the victims during their escape to the United States can reach in the tens of thousands of dollars, which makes the victims have to work off their debts by force. The United States is a hub for the influx of countries from South America based on immigration and the promise of a better life for those individuals, but in the past few decades it has become a recruiting ground for sex traffickers.
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Those who are most at risk in the United States for becoming victims of human traffickers are individuals that live in poverty, those involved with substance abuse, and people with mental issues. This is especially prevalent in domestic children in the country creating a sense of survival instincts which traffickers will exploit these children into becoming a part of the commercial or noncommercial sex industry to survive. Homeless and runaway youth have the highest rate of being exposed to sex traffickers and the sex industry (U.S. State Department, 2018). One of the main problems researchers struggle with when studying domestic sex trafficking in the United States is the lack of standard data collecting on those victims that are exposed to the sex industry (Hartinger-Saunders, Trouteaud, & Matos Johnson, 2017). Mostly women victims make up over seventy percent of those arrests involving prostitution in the country and are twice as likely to be involved in the commercial sex industry between the ages of fourteen to sixteen (Fedina, Williamson, Perdue, & Fedina, 2016). While male victims make up a small portion of those exploited to sex trafficking it is still prevalent and a risk to young males who are living in poverty.
Child sex trafficking in the United States is a large problem that shows that females under the age of sixteen are highly vulnerable to the illegal human trafficking crime. As of 2009, researchers and law enforcement estimated that there were over 300, 000 affected or involved in a sex trafficking ring (Cecchet & Thoburn, 2014). With the lack of solid measurement or statistics of those who had been interviewed after escaping the commercial sex industry and most victims were involved at the early age of thirteen there is a lack of full understanding of the techniques. The trauma experienced by those that have been involved in a sex trafficking ring through forced rape, assault, and abortions leads to a lower number of these victims to reach adulthood, based on high numbers of suicides. These types of acts on the young children into older ages makes those exposed to sex trafficking almost eighteen more times likely to be murdered or commit suicide than that of the national average before reaching adulthood (Hepburn & Simon, 2010).
Techniques used to by Traffickers.
The techniques used by sex and human traffickers in the multi-billion dollar criminal trade of humans are done so to keep from easy detection or even reporting of those that have become victims of the crime. By targeting those that seem to be less likely to be searched for in the homeless communities or runaways this helps them make promises to take care of their captives while transporting them through their networks for profit (Nichols & Heil, 2015). Many times sex traffickers will seem to be initially trying to become close to the victims and gaining their trust, this makes them seem more trustworthy and keep the victims from reporting their captors to law enforcement. Once the victim has been placed in the trafficking network they are constantly moved from city to city in an attempt to keep them from identification, many times making them change their appearance not only to avoid detection, but also to make them more appealing to the clients many times because of the young ages they become active in the commercial sex industry (Logan, Walker, & Hunt, 2009). The sex trafficking victims will develop a trust for their captors through the promises to take care of them when they felt they had nothing to gain and when these victims are illegally brought into the United States the threats of reporting for deportation constantly is used against them ever reporting. When most people think of trafficking, whether for sex or labor, the first thought is a forceful taking of an individual against their will, but in reality many of these victims are targeted by people that have gained their trust. This is why law enforcement investigators and other agencies have such a difficult time identifying victims of sex trafficking victims because of their relentlessness to expose their captors and the lack of training by law enforcement to detect them (Hartinger-Saunders, Trouteaud, & Matos Johnson, 2017).
Theories on Sex Trafficking.
There are two main theories behind why sex trafficking numbers fluctuate within a country and what the reasons are for this change. Socioeconomic theory to sex trafficking is a theory that explains high numbers of victims that is based off of the economic poverty of a country or it is directly related to the economic success of a country (Cecchet & Thoburn, 2014). The other leading theory is the feminist theory that theorizes that based on the standing of the female population within a country and how there are perceived by that society is a factor into sex trafficking success within that society (Hartinger-Saunders, Trouteaud, & Matos Johnson, 2017). Each theory provide insights to the previously discussed individuals at risk for becoming sex trafficking victims, especially the poverty rates and homelessness based on the economic value of the individual.
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The socioeconomic theory focuses on the simple assertion of supply and demand when it comes to sex trafficking victims or if there is a high demand from a more prosperous nation like the United States that has high migration rates into the country giving traffickers targets through that migration (Hepburn & Simon, 2010). When those from poorer nations like those that are south of the United States attempt to migrate to a better opportunity many times those individuals, especially women, will place themselves in situations that will make victimization easier to human traffickers. The migration of these groups of people to the United States will likely cost them more than they would normally make within a year and with high unemployment rates in their countries will put them at the mercy of those trafficking them illegally into a country (Cecchet & Thoburn, 2014). Not only looking at the victims but focusing on the profit that those traffickers can make during these attempts will create the opportunity coerce or force these unsuspecting individuals right into the demanders control for sell into the commercial sex industry within the United States.
While the feminist theory utilizes the societal value that are placed on females within a society and base those values that they are less likely to rise out of poverty making them targets for sex trafficking victims (Nichols & Heil, 2015). In the United States the society value of women is probably the best in the entire world, but there is still a separation between the economic hierarchy of men and women within society. Other countries throughout the world value the economic status of females lower than that of males and many times women are more likely to be involved in a poverty level status. With these statuses women can become easy targets for sex traffickers based on their economic value as a female with the likelihood of receiving lower wages than men (Cecchet & Thoburn, 2014).
Problem with Identifying and Prosecuting Sex Trafficking Crimes.
While there has been an increased awareness within the United States when it comes to the international crimes of human and sex trafficking there has been some slow responses on policies at the state and federal levels (Nichols & Heil, 2015). This has also lead to less statistical data available for researchers to utilize to compile actual numbers within the country. Local law enforcement officers are usually the first responders when responding to possible sex trafficking or prostitution claims and with a lack of training in the workings of a human trafficking ring can greatly reduce reports of the crime. These law enforcement officers lack training and on top of that the victims are less likely to report themselves as being a part of a sex trafficking scheme based solely on the fear of the traffickers or the lack of understanding based on their age (Fedina, Williamson, Perdue, & Fedina, 2016). Victims involved in sex trafficking may develop a sense of reliability on their captors and develop a sense of belonging to them which makes detection along with reporting statistics within the government programs lower than actual numbers.
Another problem with the actual detection and reporting of a sex trafficking case by law enforcement is the way human trafficking is defined as per the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) signed into law in 2000. With the lack of training by local law enforcement officers and the wording within the TVPA of illegal immigrant most law enforcement will quickly move to the violation of illegally crossing the border instead of being forced to become a part of a commercial sex trafficking ring (Hepburn & Simon, 2010). When in reality citizens within this country are being trafficked into the commercial sex industry at alarming rates. It is also important to note that most states have different laws, policies, and definitions when it comes to the trafficking of humans, thus, greatly reducing the connections made to stop sex traffickers from state to state. This lack of interpretation of laws from state to state leads to misconceptions of the actual number of sex trafficking or human trafficking cases in the United States (Nichols & Heil, 2015).
The human trafficking trade has been a profitable and relatively low risk crime up until the last decade or so because of the difficulty of detecting the criminal scheme (Logan, Walker, & Hunt, 2009). This is mainly because of the targets of the traffickers target and how quickly they are utilized or sold within the confines of the network, this is especially true in the sex trafficking world. Within the United States those targeted are quickly removed and transported throughout the country or out to other foreign nations sometimes without a trace making detection more difficult on law enforcement investigators (Nichols & Heil, 2015). Another looming problem for law enforcement officers in detection of sex traffickers and used against the those exposed to it are the forcing of them to commit criminal acts themselves making them feel they need to elude law enforcement hurting their chances of escaping detection. Victims seem to become intertwined within an underground society of other trafficked individuals because of the feeling of belonging to some type of society.
Combating Sex Trafficking.
To combat the issue of sex trafficking and human trafficking in general the most important thing needed within the United States is to start with updating policies and laws that are already in existence. Removing some of the labeling that are on the books that focus on the status of illegal and change it to any individual who is forced whether illegally or a citizen within the country (Still, 2017). A better training of law enforcement to be better equipped to recognize and enforce laws that effect those victims of this horrible crime. Within the American society and politics there seems to be a focus on fighting the war on illegal drugs that enter our country that contribute to our opioid epidemic, but there needs to be some shift to educate those in power to focus their attention to a growing epidemic of sex trafficking inside our borders (Cunningham & Cromer, 2016). A more broaden focus on those that are targeted or are more accustomed to targeting by traffickers and education on how to avoid them. With so much focus within our politics for stronger border security this is something needed in many ways to stop the flow of illegally vulnerable individuals that are paying a lot of money to be moved across the border making themselves very vulnerable to becoming victims of human trafficking (Still, 2017).
The growing sex trafficking epidemic within the United States when faced with awareness, law enforcement ability to combat, and policy development must improve in each area to slow the number of victims in the country and those being brought into the country. In the 2018 U.S. State Department Trafficking in Persons Report the estimated number of individuals illegally transported into the United States ranges for 50,000 to 70,000 people annually (U.S. State Department, 2018). Until awareness improves on those potential victims that are at risk and policies are in place to protect those that are illegally trafficked into the country then the number of sex trafficking victims will continue to rise much like it has over the past few decades. Law enforcement awareness of detecting sex trafficking and human trafficking victims during normal operations within the country has to improve through awareness, training, and intervention (Hepburn & Simon, 2010). Policy changes, especially wording, within the laws like Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) to remove specific language that takes the focus from illegal immigration to protection of the possible victims by law enforcement officers when coming into contact with them (Logan, Walker, & Hunt, 2009). As this multi-million dollar illegal trade of people or modern day slavery continues to grow in monetary value and ease of transportation across international lines becomes easier traffickers will continue to exploit their victims. With the United States being one of the most prosperous countries in the world and those within this country providing a industry for sex traffickers providing victims it is imperative to understand in all aspects how to combat these horrible crimes against the victims.
- Cecchet, S. J., & Thoburn, J. (2014). The psychological experience of child and adolescent sex trafficking in the United States: Trauma and resilience in survivors. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 6(5), 482-493. doi:http://dx.doi.org.ezproxy2.apus.edu/10.1037/a0035763
- Cunningham, K. C., & Cromer, L. D. (2016). Attitudes about human trafficking: Individual differences related to belief and victim blame. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 31(2), 228-244. doi:https://doi.org/10.1177/0886260514555369
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- Nichols, A. J., & Heil, E. C. (2015). Challenges to Identifying and prosecuting sex trafficking cases in the m7-35idwest United States. Feminist Criminology, 10(1), 7-35. doi:https://doi.org/10.1177/1557085113519490
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- U.S. State Department. (2018). TRAFFICKING IN PERSONS REPORT. Retrieved from https://www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/2018/
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