The crime of human trafficking is one of the most egregious human rights violations, and it is happening in our own communities. Its victims are individuals lured into this country under false promises of legitimate work, only to be forced into the sex industry on arrival. They are domestic runaways taken in by traffickers and forced to trade sex for a place to sleep. They are also girls being baited into “the life” by a presumed boyfriend who later reveals himself as a pimp. Much like victims of domestic violence, human trafficking victims are trapped by fear, isolation and brutality at the hands of their traffickers and those who purchase them for sex.
An estimated 1 million children worldwide are sexually exploited annually. The average age of girls forced into the sex trade is 12 to 14. Within the United States alone, it is estimated that nearly 300,000 children are trafficked for sex every year. The cases involve tremendous violence, such as a recent case where the victim was beaten, forced naked into a cold shower, covered with ice and then made to stand in front of an air conditioner for 30 minutes.
What can be done to prevent other children and teens from being victimized? A first step is addressing the truth about trafficking. Put simply, human trafficking is the selling of human beings for profit through forced labor, sexual exploitation or involuntary domestic servitude. Experts estimate 27 million people are trafficked worldwide annually, reaping $32 billion in illegal profits, which makes it the second-largest and fastest-growing black market in the world.
Human trafficking is a crime that can be difficult to identify and track. The Internet and websites such as Backpage.com have only exacerbated this problem, by taking the sex trade off our streets and into hotel rooms — out of sight of law enforcement and social services. Our computers provide access to a variety of sites that promote prostitution, which make millions of dollars by offering anonymity to traffickers, further facilitating the victimization of children.
The Trafficking Victims Protection Act passed in 2000 became the first federal law to emphasize the need to protect victims and offer legal protection for victims of trafficking. States have responded by passing comprehensive human trafficking statutes and updating existing statutes. Today, all but one state have some form of anti-trafficking law. While momentum against trafficking is increasing, however, more must be done. Our work to reduce the demand for commercial sex is built on a simple, solid foundation: Societal change requires information. Just as a movement against drunken driving helped the public understand the danger of drinking and driving through a concerted campaign of public awareness and powerful testimonials to reduce deadly accidents, our work seeks to spark positive change. Moreover, just as domestic violence all too recently was a topic broached only behind closed doors, bringing the tragedy of human trafficking to the public eye is the first step of many.
Those who receive messages from popular music, movies and television that selling sex is just another career choice should know that most prostitutes are, at the very best, selling themselves for the lack of other means to support themselves. In fact, those used in commercial sex lead an extremely dangerous and often violent existence. Epidemiologists report that individuals used in commercial sex live only to an average age of 34. Many aren’t willing participants. The stark reality is that many aren’t even old enough to consent to sex. If apprehended, johns increasingly face serious criminal prosecution. These basic facts, if widely understood, should reduce the demand for commercial sex and thus lessen the number of human trafficking victims.
Is the effort to reduce demand for human trafficking a misguided moral crusade or an imperative to protect young people and others from those who profit from illegal, often involuntary, servitude? Decide for yourself. The answer seems pretty clear.
If you wish to join the effort, consider offering your time and financial support to charities that provide services to victims. Men can speak out against johns who purchase individuals for sex. Parents, parent-teacher organizations and schools can help educate children about how to protect themselves online. Doctors, nurses and hospitality and travel industry workers can seek training to identify victims and help them access services.
The fight to end the exploitation of human trafficking victims continues.
Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II is the attorney general of Virginia.