Today’s post comes from Criminal Justice professor Erin Heil. She began studying domestic human trafficking in 2008 and has since published numerous articles on the subject, as well as the book, Sex Slaves and Serfs: The Dynamics of Human Trafficking in a Small Florida Town. She shares this post with us in anticipation of the upcoming panel, “Sex Trafficking and Exploitation,” co-sponsored by the SIUE Women’s Studies and Peace Studies Programs on Oct. 21 at 12:30 in the Morris University Center. At this event Prof. Heil will be joined by Congressman John Shimkus, FBI Intelligence Analyst Derek Velazco, Rescue and Restore Coordinator Kristen Eng, and Covering House representatives Deidre Lhamon and Lindsay Ellis. The event is free and open to the community.
“I was taken from my doorstep…I was sold for sex with men in exchange for money and drugs. I was forced to work out of motels, brothels, prostitution houses, and massage parlors. I tried to run so many times but I never seemed to be able to escape without getting caught and beat up. I have had chains wrapped around my ankles, wrists, and neck like a dog. I got beat up with baseball bats, crow bars, basically anything that they [could] get their hands on.” These words were spoken by a brave survivor in front of hundreds of listeners attending an anti-human trafficking event. Although her voice shook and she read from her hand written script, she stood strong in the face of her victimization. She wanted her story to be heard, and more importantly, she wanted to be seen. She looked up from her small piece of paper, looked the audience in the eyes, and proudly stated, “I refuse to believe what the world labels me as. I refuse to believe that I am trash. I refuse to believe I’m good for one thing only. I refuse to believe that nobody loves me. I refuse to believe that I’m not beautiful. I refuse to believe that I am nothing.” Although these were the words of emotional torture she was told while she was being sold for sex, she had survived, and she was able to victoriously tell her story.[i]
Trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation is one of the many forms of human trafficking evident in the United States. Legally defined as the act of recruiting, harboring, transporting, providing, or obtaining a person for compelled labor or commercial sex acts through the use of force, fraud, or coercion, human trafficking can entail a number of forced activities including, but not limited to: agricultural labor, domestic servitude, servile marriage, begging and panhandling, prostitution, construction work, sweatshops, and restaurant work. However, many of these activities remain hidden behind concrete or landscaped walls, thereby limiting the potential of identifying victims. Sex trafficking, however, requires some amount of visibility in that the traffickers must advertise the victims in order to recruit potential buyers. Given that, social service providers and law enforcement officials have been more able to identify victims of sex trafficking versus victims of labor trafficking.
Researching sex trafficking is an extremely complex process with each layer revealing another layer that needs to be examined. Therefore, I am only going to scratch the surface by providing some general information that has been identified in my own research. First of all, I have found that the victim demographics associated with sex trafficking vary greatly with geography. When I first began researching human trafficking, I was led to Immokalee, Florida; “ground zero” for human trafficking. The victims that had been identified were generally foreign nationals, most of whom had been smuggled into the United States from Mexico or Guatemala. In contrast to other areas of the United States, the majority of the research conducted in Immokalee discussed the slavery evident in the tomato fields. However, as with most cases of human trafficking, labor trafficking in Immokalee was occurring in conjunction with sex trafficking. In other words, where labor trafficking is evident, there is generally sex trafficking occurring in the same area. This symbiotic relationship occurs partly due to similar demands; the demand for underground cheap (or unpaid) labor coincides with a demand for prostitution.