– By Megan O’Malley. Michelle Marshall, former Girls Inc. Intern, shakes her head in dismay when recollecting her findings on sex trafficking in the United States. She remembers feeling shocked that victims of domestic sex trafficking were considered prostitutes and being arrested time and time again. Many of these victims were children who had their innocence stripped from them and who were subjected to tactics of manipulation. One story that has stuck with Marshall is that of a 14-year-old girl who was sex trafficked in the DC area. After being abducted and traded for sex, the girl grew to distrust anyone whom she did not know. When police raided the house looking to rescue her, the girl hid in a dresser drawer and it took many officers to coerce her to come with them.
“People don’t realize that this issue is very real and taking place everyday in the United States,” says Marshall, now a post-grad with high hopes of a career battling this pressing issue, “I’m upset that the focus on this issue has been international for the most part.”
The Merriam-Webster definition of sex trafficking is, “organized criminal activity in which human beings are treated as possessions to be forced into prostitution.” The definition’s first known usage was in 1988.
According to many organizations combating the issue, such as the Polaris Project, many people don’t view prostitutes or subjects of pornography as being under the age of 18. The sad reality is that more and more children are being exploited in this manner. On Shared Hope International’s website it is stated that 100,000 American children are exploited through the commercial sex industry each year. The average age a child is first exploited is 13 years old.
In Washington DC the rate of sex trafficking has increased over the years, according to the Rebecca Project (a nationally recognized organization for women’s rights). It is believed that the Internet is to blame for this spike in the sex trade. Sites such as backpage.com and craigslist.com have made it possible for pimps to sell young girls online in exchange for money.
In 2010, Craigslist was subject to large-scale scrutiny when it was discovered that its ‘Adult Services’ section assisted in the sex trafficking of minors. As word spread of this issue nationally, a campaign to shut down this section of the website took place. Initially Craigslist argued that they did not hold liability for third party content reflected on the site.
The House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security held a hearing on September 15, 2010 to discuss this issue. There it was announced that Craigslist shut down the ‘Adult Services’ section in the United States. In December 2010, the section was closed internationally as well.
“The activity taking place on myredbook.com, eros.com and backpage.com is equally as horrific,” said U.S. Representative Jackie Speier (D-CA) at the hearing, “These sites are facilitating crimes.”
Backpage.com and other websites have made it difficult for authorities to shut them down. They comply with regulations and whenever a case of underage trafficking is presented to them, they allow courts to subpoena their records. Owners of the site have claimed time and time again that nothing they do is illegal and that they do not condone sex trafficking either. This is difficult to believe because majority of revenue that the site gains comes from prostitution, often of minors.
There are many movements against these websites and sex trafficking of minors in general. Change.org has an ongoing petition to shut down trafficking on backpage.com and 262,994 people have signed.
One group that is actively working to free and provide a safe environment to minors who are victims of sex trafficking is Courtney’s House. The non-profit organization is located in the Washington D.C. Metro Area.
Most victims are referred to the organization by a family member. Social workers, law enforcement and tips through the survivor hotline also help victims find refuge at Courtney’s House.
“The most striking thing about interning at Courtney’s House is the being a part of the ceaseless push to change lives for the better,” says Angela Gale, the Communications Intern at Courtney’s House and an eager participant in the fight against child sex trafficking, “Every minute of every day, the staff members have one goal in mind: how to rescue as many boys and girls from traffickers as they can.”
Upon arrival victims take an initial assessment, which indicates what will help them most through their healing process. They are provided with many direct services, such as individual therapy, mentoring, tutoring, support groups and group activities.
In September, Courtney’s House reached its maximum caseload capacity of 21 clients. Luckily, there are other organizations in the area much like this one that are dedicated to helping victims, such as Turn Around Inc. located in Baltimore.
“Sex trafficking is a huge crisis all over the United States. DC is a major hub because of its prime location and endless supply of eager buyers,” says Gale, when asked about the prevalence of trafficking in DC, “I wish I could say it was more than I expected it to be, but unfortunately the reality is that domestic minor sex-trafficking (DMST) is so rampant, it is not unexpected at all.”
Before 2000, the issue of sex trafficking in the United States was barely recorded. The Urban Institute conducted a study in 2008 based on court cases from 1998 – 2004. Researchers found that 58% of those cases brought to prosecutors were tossed out over a year.
Prosecutors threw out this cases due to lack of sufficient information. When it comes to cases of sex trafficking, it is difficult to find people that are willing to testify. Victims are often afraid of shedding light on their identity and law enforcement often found out about these cases through anonymous tips. In 1998, majority of the defendants received a sentence of probation.
In 2000, the issue of human trafficking in the United States was more widely recognized. The Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) was passed, becoming the first federal law to address human trafficking. TVPA took a three-pronged approach – protection, prevention and prosecution. It was a good start, but did not specify the types of trafficking taking place, such as sex trafficking; it referred to human trafficking as a unit.
In 2003, 2005 and 2008 provisions were made to the TVPA and it became newly referred to as the TVPRA. These provisions enacted new human trafficking crimes and allowed for the greater protection of victims.
On February 12, Senate passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA). If passed through the House of Representatives, the act will work on a federal and state level to assist children who are victims of sex trafficking. TVPRA will allow for grant programs that help these victims get out and stay out of sex slavery. The act will also strengthen the ability to prosecute the pimps and those who advertise sex online.
When asked what students can do to prevent sex trafficking, Ambassador in the office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking, Luis CdeBaca says, “raise your voices and start the issue at the grassroots. Nonprofits and other organizations can only do so much. Students need to bring awareness and demand something to be done.”
Statistics have shown that from 1998 to 2013, the issue of sex trafficking in the United States has become more widely recognized. Due to the increase of the trade there is still a long way to go. Anybody can help in spreading the importance of this issue. Every voice counts. Organizations like the Polaris Project and Courtney’s House are always looking for volunteers to help in the fight.
“You can hear it in their voices and see it in their eyes, but more than that it’s evident in the copious amount of energy they expend daily to reach one more child, to train one more pair of arms. It’s very grounded, but at the same time, it’s very triumphant,” says Gale of the feeling staff members get when seeing victims who have been saved.