“For every 10 women rescued, there are 50 to 100 more women are brought in by the traffickers. Unfortunately, they’re not 18- or 20-year-olds anymore. They’re minors as young as 13 who are being trafficked. They’re little girls.”—25-year-old victim of trafficking
“Children are being targeted and sold for sex in America every day.”—John Ryan, National Center for Missing & Exploited Children
The mysterious disappearance of 18-year-old Hannah Graham on September 13, 2014, has become easy fodder for the media at a time when the news cycle is lagging. After all, how does a young woman just vanish without a trace, in the middle of the night, in a town that is routinely lauded for being the happiest place in America, not to mention one of the most beautiful?
Yet Graham is not the first girl to vanish in America without a trace—my hometown of Charlottesville, Va., has had five women go missing over the span of five years—and it is doubtful she will be the last. I say doubtful because America is in the grip of a highly profitable, highly organized and highly sophisticated sex trafficking business that operates in towns large and small, raking in upwards of $9.5 billion a year in the U.S. alone by abducting and selling young girls for sex.
It is estimated that there are 100,000 to 150,000 under-aged sex workers in the U.S. The average age of girls who enter into street prostitution is between 12 and 14 years old, with some as young as 9 years old. This doesn’t include those who entered the “trade” as minors and have since come of age. Rarely do these girls enter into prostitution voluntarily. As one rescue organization estimated, an underaged prostitute might be raped by 6,000 men during a five-year period of servitude.
This is America’s dirty little secret.
You don’t hear much about domestic sex trafficking from the media or government officials, and yet it infects suburbs, cities and towns across the nation. According to the FBI, sex trafficking is the fastest growing business in organized crime, the second most-lucrative commodity traded illegally after drugs and guns. It’s an industry that revolves around cheap sex on the fly, with young girls and women who are sold to 50 men each day for $25 apiece, while their handlers make $150,000 to $200,000 per child each year.
In order to avoid detection by police and cater to male buyers’ demand for sex with different women, pimps and the gangs and crime syndicates they work for have turned sex trafficking into a highly mobile enterprise, with trafficked girls, boys and women constantly being moved from city to city, state to state, and country to country. The Baltimore-Washington area, referred to as The Circuit, with its I-95 corridor dotted with rest stops, bus stations and truck stops, is a hub for the sex trade.
Photo via Felix Krohn/Flickr
With a growing demand for sexual slavery and an endless supply of girls and women who can be targeted for abduction, this is not a problem that’s going away anytime soon. Young girls are particularly vulnerable, with 13 being the average age of those being trafficked. Yet as the head of a group that combats trafficking pointed out, “Let’s think about what average means. That means there are children younger than 13. That means 8-, 9-, 10-year-olds.”
Consider this: every two minutes, a child is exploited in the sex industry. In Georgia alone, it is estimated that 7,200 men (half of them in their 30s) seek to purchase sex with adolescent girls each month, averaging roughly 300 a day. It is estimated that at least 100,000 children—girls and boys—are bought and sold for sex in the U.S. every year, with as many as 300,000 children in danger of being trafficked each year. Some of these children are forcefully abducted, others are runaways, and still others are sold into the system by relatives and acquaintances.
As one news center reported, “Finding girls is easy for pimps. They look on MySpace, Facebook, and other social networks. They and their assistants cruise malls, high schools and middle schools. They pick them up at bus stops. On the trolley. Girl-to-girl recruitment sometimes happens.” Foster homes and youth shelters have also become prime targets for traffickers.
With such numbers, why don’t we hear more about this? Especially if, as Ernie Allen of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children insists, “this is not a problem that only happens in New York and Los Angeles and San Francisco. This happens in smaller communities. The only way not to find this in any American city is simply not to look for it.”
Unfortunately, Americans have become good at turning away from things that make us uncomfortable or stray too far from our picture-perfect images of ourselves. In this regard, we’re all complicit in contributing to this growing evil which, for all intents and purposes, is out in the open: advertising on the internet, commuting on the interstate, operating in swanky hotels, taking advantage of a system in which the police, the courts and the legislatures are more interested with fattening their coffers by targeting Americans for petty violations than actually breaking up crime syndicates.
Writing for the Herald-Tribune, reporter J. David McSwane has put together one of the most chilling and insightful investigative reports into sex trafficking in America. “The Stolen Ones” should be mandatory reading for every American, especially those who still believe it can’t happen in their communities or to their children because it’s mainly a concern for lower income communities or immigrants.
As McSwane makes clear, no community is safe from this danger, and yet very little is being done to combat it. Indeed, although police agencies across the country receive billions of dollars’ worth of military equipment, weapons and training that keeps them busy fighting a losing battle against marijuana, among other less pressing concerns, very little time and money is being invested in the fight against sex trafficking except for the FBI’s annual sex trafficking sting, which inevitably makes national headlines for the numbers of missing girls recovered.
For those trafficked, it’s a nightmare from beginning to end. Those being sold for sex have an average life expectancy of seven years, and those years are a living nightmare of endless rape, forced drugging, humiliation, degradation, threats, disease, pregnancies, abortions, miscarriages, torture, pain, and always the constant fear of being killed or, worse, having those you love hurt or killed. A common thread woven through most survivors’ experiences is being forced to go without sleep or food until they have met their sex quota of at least 40 men. One woman recounts how her trafficker made her lie face down on the floor when she was pregnant and then literally jumped on her back, forcing her to miscarry.
Holly Austin Smith was abducted when she was 14 years old, raped, and then forced to prostitute herself. Her pimp, when brought to trial, was only made to serve a year in prison. Barbara Amaya was repeatedly sold between traffickers, abused, shot, stabbed, raped, kidnapped, trafficked, beaten, and jailed all before she was 18 years old. “I had a quota that I was supposed to fill every night. And if I didn’t have that amount of money, I would get beat, thrown down the stairs. He beat me once with wire coat hangers, the kind you hang up clothes, he straightened it out and my whole back was bleeding.”
As McSwane recounts: “In Oakland Park, an industrial Fort Lauderdale suburb, federal agents in 2011 encountered a brothel operated by a married couple. Inside ‘The Boom Boom Room,’ as it was known, customers paid a fee and were given a condom and a timer and left alone with one of the brothel’s eight teenagers, children as young as 13. A 16-year-old foster child testified that he acted as security, while a 17-year-old girl told a federal judge she was forced to have sex with as many as 20 men a night.”
One particular sex trafficking ring that was busted earlier in 2014 caters specifically to migrant workers employed seasonally on farms throughout the southeastern states, especially the Carolinas and Georgia, although it’s a flourishing business in every state in the country. Traffickers transport the women from farm to farm, where migrant workers would line up outside shacks, as many as 30 at a time, to have sex with them before they were transported to yet another farm where the process would begin all over again.
What can you do?
Call on your city councils, elected officials and police departments to make the battle against sex trafficking a top priority, more so even than the so-called war on terror and drugs and the militarization of law enforcement.
Insist that law enforcement agencies in the country at all levels, local, state and federal, funnel their resources into fighting the crime of sex trafficking. Stop prosecuting adults for victimless “crimes” such as growing lettuce in their front yard and focus on putting away the pimps and buyers who victimize these young women.
Educate yourselves and your children about this growing menace in our communities. The future of America is at stake. As YouthSpark, a group that advocates for young people points out, sex trafficking is part of a larger continuum in America that runs the gamut from homelessness, poverty, and self-esteem issues to sexualized television, the glorification of a pimp/ho culture—what is often referred to as the pornification of America—and a billion dollar sex industry built on the back of pornography, music, entertainment, etc.
Stop feeding the monster. This epidemic is largely one of our own making, especially in a corporate age where the value placed on human life takes a backseat to profit. The U.S. is a huge consumer of trafficked “goods,” with national sporting events such as the Super Bowl serving as backdrops for the sex industry’s most lucrative seasons. Each year, for instance, the Super Bowl serves as a “windfall” for sex traffickers selling minors as young as 13 years old. As one sex trafficking survivor explained, “They’re coming to the Super Bowl not even to watch football. They’re coming to the Super Bowl to have sex with women and/or men or children.”
Finally, as the Abell Foundation’s report on trafficking advises: the police need to do a better job of training on, identifying and responding to these issues; communities and social services need to do a better job of protecting runaways, who are the primary targets of traffickers; legislators need to pass legislation aimed at prosecuting traffickers and “johns,” the buyers who drive the demand for sex slaves; hotels need to stop enabling these traffickers, by providing them with rooms and cover for their dirty deeds; and “we the people” need to stop hiding our heads in the sand and acting as if there are other matters more pressing.
Those concerned about the police state in America, which I document in my book A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State, should be equally concerned about the sex trafficking trade in America. It is only made possible by the police state’s complicity in turning average Americans into suspects for minor violations while letting the real criminals wreak havoc on our communities. No doubt about it, these are two sides of the same coin.