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.
The identified victims of sex trafficking in Immokalee shared a similar story as to how they became a victim of sex trafficking. Many came to the United States under the false pretense of being hired as a nanny or housekeeper. Others believed that they were coming to meet a loved one. Once in the United States, many of the young women were suddenly forced into prostitution, either through a handler who held the victim’s papers and demanded a debt repayment or through family members who used the victim as a payment to get out of their own debt bondage. Police and social service providers generally identified the victims in centralized brothels working day and night shifts. Other times, anonymous tips led the police to victims that had been chained in basements or to the walls of broom closets.
My research has since taken me away from Immokalee and closer to my own backyard as I began to investigate cases of human trafficking in St. Louis and the bi-state area. St. Louis has been identified by the federal government as “one of the top 20 human trafficking jurisdictions.”[ii] One main reason that St. Louis has been identified as a hub for human trafficking is because of its “middle-America location on interstate highways and its constant hosting of big sporting and entertainment events…” both of which provide for a “destination and layover in the sex trafficking trade.”[iii] On the east side of the Mississippi River are various adult entertainment venues that thrive on sexual imagery and fantasy, allowing for traffickers to tap into an already existing pool of potential clients. Additionally, in St. Louis and the bi-state area, there is a large number of runaway youth whom traffickers prey on in order to maintain a profitable group of victims.
What I have found in St. Louis and the bi-state area is that the majority of the sex trafficking victims that have been identified are US citizens. Many of the victims are runaways, homeless, or have been recruited by friends or family members. There is an intense desire for acceptance and love for many of the identified victims, and the traffickers can easily fill whatever piece is missing in the victim’s life; from father figure, to boyfriend, to “sugar daddy.” Traffickers use the major cross country interstates to keep the victims moving, thereby making identification more difficult for social service providers and local law enforcement. Those victims who have been identified have been found in hotels, truck stops, homes, brothels, and clubs. Thus, wherein Immokalee, the victims could generally be found in a centralized location, in St. Louis and the bi-state area, victims are constantly moving and can be located anywhere.
Although the victim demographics and locations of identification differ, victims of sex trafficking share a number of experiences. They are tortured, raped, threatened, drugged, blackmailed, and intimidated. There is self-blame and fear of what will happen if they do escape. From the survivors I have spoken with, there is a sense of guilt and shame as if they had chosen their life of entrapment. For those survivors who do escape, there are years of pain the follow them through their everyday existence. Many are faced with physical reminders that can range from scars to tattoos that are brandings and symbolic of belonging to the trafficker. With limited resources for victim support, many survivors find themselves navigating through the healing process alone. Others are unable to escape their own demons and traffickers use the pain and guilt to pull them back into the trafficking ring as the victim is once again given false promises of love and support.
For many, it is difficult to imagine such atrocities occurring in our own backyard, but I can say without hesitation that sex trafficking is happening here in the Midwest, as well as in almost every other corner of the United States. Boyfriends are selling their girlfriends at parties. Parents are selling their children for drugs. Runaways are drugged and forced into prostitution to maintain the addiction. Undocumented immigrants are found in decrepit brothels or chained to a basement wall. However, there is hope in the torture and pain these victims encounter. As we continue to discuss and accept sex trafficking as a reality in our community, we are also one step closer to understanding the circumstances that drive this underground industry. It is only through education and training that we will be better prepared to identify and protect victims while at the same time punishing offenders for the crimes that they have committed.
[i] Excerpt from Heil, E.C. and A. Nichols (2015) Human Trafficking in the Midwest: A Case Study of St. Louis and the Bi-State Area Carolina Academic Press. Forthcoming
[ii] Raasch, C. (2014) “In offensive against sex trafficking, Ann Wagner steps into controversial realm” St. Louis Post Dispatch May 3