The idea that sex trafficking is an urgent social problem has been woven into American media stories, from reports by Republican Rep. Matt Gaetzs suspected trafficking of teenage girls to unmask the QAnon conspiracy theories about a sex bondage ring goes through the online Wayfair retailer.
Common perceptions of sex trafficking include a young, passive woman caught by an aggressive trafficker. The woman is in hiding and waiting to be rescued by law enforcement. It is probably white because, as legal scholar Jayashri Srikantiah writes, iconic victims trafficking is usually described in this way.
This is basically the plot of take movies, in which American teens are kidnapped abroad and sold into sexual slavery. Such concerns drive fuel viral posts AND Video TikTok in connection with alleged but unproven trafficking in IKEA parking lots, shopping malls and pizza shops.
This is not how sexual trafficking usually happens.
Since 2013, I have EXPLORING trafficking in human beings in the Middle West. In interviews with law enforcement, medical providers, case managers, victim advocates, and immigration attorneys, I found that even these front-line employees define and implement inconsistently label victim of trafficking especially when it comes to sex trafficking. This makes it more difficult for these professionals to get the help they need.
So here are the facts and the law.
What is sex trafficking?
E Trafficking Victims and Violence Protection Act 2000 provides the official legal definition of sex and labor trafficking in the United States.
It commits trafficking in which a commercial sexual act is instigated by force, deception or coercion, or in which the person instigated to commit such an act has not reached the age of 18 a federal crime.
In short, to legally qualify as sex trafficking, a sexual act involving an adult must involve force, deception, and coercion. This may seem like someone a family member, a romantic partner or a market facilitator colloquially described as a puppet or lady who physically abuses or threatens another adult for sex for money or resources.
With minors, any and all sexual exchanges, that is, trading sex for something of value like money or food are considered sex trafficking.
How common is sex trafficking?
Data on trafficking in human beings are infamous messy AND difficult to measure. Survivors may be hesitant to discover their exploitation for fear of deportation if they are not documented, or arrested. This leads to under-reporting.
One way to approximate how many people are being trafficked to the United States is to consult federal grant reports, as suggested by the anti-trafficking nonprofit US Freedom Network.
For example, federal Office for Crime Victims served a total of 9,854 clients, some of whom identified as trafficked, others who showed strong indicators of trafficking victimization between July 2019 and June 2020. Department of Health and Human Services Office for Trafficking in Persons served 2,398 trafficking survivors during fiscal year 2019.
Data from the same office also show that 25,597 potential victims of sex and labor trafficking were identified through calls to the National Human Trafficking Line.
Again, this data is incomplete if survivors did not access these specific sources or call these specific hotlines, they are not represented here.
What does sex trafficking look like?
A study by New York Covenant House, a nonprofit organization focused on homeless youth, found that 36% of 22 trafficking survivors in their survey were trafficked by a close family member, as a parent. Only four reported being abducted and held against his or her will.
Often, victims of trafficking are younger transgender people or adolescents experiencing homelessness who exchange sex with others to meet their basic needs: housing, economic stability, food and health care. Trafficking often looks like vulnerable people trying to survive in one violent, exploitative world.
They are creating sexual solutions to asexual problems, says the San Francisco-based researcher Alexandra Lutnick.
Under U.S. law, these young people are victims of trafficking because of their age. But they can reject the label, preferring terms like sex survival work or prostitution to describe their experiences.
Victims of trafficking engaged in survival sex can be arrested instead of offering help as well housing or health care. If they cannot prove force, fraud or coercion, or if they refuse to agree to a criminal investigation, they risk changing victim of the criminal in the eyes of law enforcement. This could mean prostitution charges, criminal offenses or deportation.
Such penalties are most often used against Black, Indigenous, weird, transgender, undocumented sex trafficking survivors. Black youth are disproportionately arrested for prostitution offenses, for example, even though legally any commercial sex of a minor is sex trafficking.
What is the difference between sex work and sex trafficking?
Legally and in other meaningful ways, sex work and sex trafficking are different.
Sex trafficking is non-consensual and is generally treated as a more serious crime.
Most groups of sex workers agree that sex work is not inherent sex trafficking, but that sex workers may face force, deception, and coercion. because they work in a criminalized, stigmatized profession. Sex workers whose experiences meet the legal standards of trafficking, however, may fear revealing this to the police and risking arrest for prostitution.
Conversely, sex workers can be mistakenly labeled by police and lawyers as trafficked and find themselves in law enforcement custody or social service agencies.
What can be done?
Based on my research, reducing sex trafficking requires changes that can prevent it from happening in the first place. That means reconstruction a stronger and more supportive US social security network to protect against poverty and housing insecurity.
Victims of trafficking, meanwhile, would benefit from the efforts of front-line workers to combat the racism, sexism and transphobia that stigmatizes and criminalizes victims who do not look as people expect and are struggling to survive.
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