Who’s a victim of human sex trafficking?
Cops in the Chicago area call it a “track,” a stretch of street known for its steady sex trade.
Women in tight, scant clothing stand in high heels on street corners along an industrial strip in suburban Cicero. Customers, usually men, slow their cars and roll down a window.
“How much?” they ask.
Some might see these interludes as exchanges between consenting adults, or at the very least, consenting criminals, if the prostitute is, indeed, an adult and seemingly free to come and go as she pleases. They may call it a victimless crime, seeing domestic prostitution as something very different from human sex trafficking – with its cross-border abductions and brutal coercion – a scourge that’s come to the forefront of news in recent years.
But are they so different, after all? Increasingly, experts in the field are saying no, and applying the label human trafficking to homegrown prostitution. And now more lawmakers, police and prosecutors across the country are starting to shift their view on this, too. Increasingly, they are focusing on arresting traffickers and customers (pimps and johns, as it were) and on getting help for prostitutes.
It’s being looked at as more of a domestic violence issue, as it’s not so easy to get out of the trade.
Near Chicago, Cook County Sheriff’s police run regular sting operations to ticket customers who proposition undercover female police officers or who use popular escort websites. The johns must pay a fine. Police also impound their cars.
“Dear John,” read billboards the department has posted near various tracks: “If You’re Here To Solicit Sex, It Could Cost You $2,150. We’re Teaming Up To Bust You.”
The money funds a rehabilitation program for prostitutes.
Elsewhere, a law passed in New York state in 2010 allows women who can prove they were coerced to have prostitution convictions wiped from their records – a move that advocates say allows them more options for housing and employment.
And in California, voters recently passed Proposition 35, which increases prison terms for human traffickers, as well as fines, which also are to be used to pay for services for victims.
It’s progress, experts say. Yet a question often persists: Who is really a victim?
Can people be “victims” if they sell their bodies for sex – and keep some of that money or trade it for drugs? Are they victims if a pimp provides cellphones, buys them clothes, or even cars, or places to stay? In some instances, a prostitute might even have children with her pimp.
Often the public – and the people who are supposed to enforce these new laws – have a difficult time seeing prostitutes as victims, even when they’re young.
When determining who’s a victim of trafficking, officers are trained to look for signs of coercion. They might ask a hotel clerk if the prostitute was not allowed to speak, or seemed frightened, when checking into a room. They look for bruises and other signs of abuse and bring in former prostitutes to do the interviews.
More departments are being encouraged to focus on screening prostitutes, female and male, and training officers to recognize the signs of trafficking.
But even when officers determine that help is needed, there’s often not much they can do.
“Victims assistance is the weakest link in the chain,” says Mark Ensalaco, a trafficking expert who’s director of the human rights studies program at the University of Dayton.
He recalls one case, in recent years, when a young woman was rescued after an Ohio state trooper stopped a car on the interstate and recognized that she was a victim of sex trafficking. Beyond abuse, those signs can include malnourishment, having few possessions, avoiding eye contact and not having control of personal identification, such as a driver’s license or a passport.
This woman, too, was addicted to drugs, Ensalaco says, but never got the help she needed. Eventually, she committed suicide.
The Salvation Army, as it does in other cities, also helps for victims of human trafficking through its STOP-IT initiative. Those services might include giving victims cellphones, clothing and food, items traffickers may have provided to keep them dependent.
The victims also have access to counseling, but aren’t required to attend.
Brenda Myers-Powell – a former prostitute who now works as a peer specialist and counselor at the Cook County jail – agrees that independence should be the goal.
Early in the process, it’s good for the public to understand that victims are victims, she says.
“But you can’t stay a victim forever,” she says. “At some point, you become a survivor.”
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