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Robin Sax Headshot

Human Trafficking: A Problem of Language?

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Why is that human trafficking is so pervasive and yet so misunderstood? Why do we assume that it's really an "overseas" issue? Why do most people think of Cambodia or Thailand when the words "human trafficking" are uttered?

It's not because it does not exist here in the United States--we know it does. As a matter of fact, the numbers are astounding: the sex trade is a multi-billion-dollar industry worldwide. UNICEF estimates that approximately 1 million children around the world unwillingly become sex slaves every year. The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that there are 200,000 U.S. citizens yearly, mainly children and young women, who are at high risk of being trafficked throughout the U.S for sexual purposes.

The perception of human trafficking as an "overseas" issue has persisted even though the U.S. passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act in October, 2000 to criminalize the issue domestically. It was the first law specifically intended to prevent victimization, to protect victims, and to prosecute perpetrators of human trafficking here in the States.

Added to society's lack of understanding the truly epidemic proportions of human trafficking is a similar lack from law enforcement and prosecutors. Even though we have federal human trafficking laws, many states do not have a version of these laws. Even worse, some prosecutors don't even know these laws exist!

The effect of this lack of awareness is that many prosecutors will file charges only on the "sex act" aspect of this crime. They may omit the crime of human trafficking from the rap sheets, charging documents, and ultimately, from the view of our society.

I am not alone in believing that much of our ignorance of human trafficking and the subsequent lack of prosecutions are because the terminology is vague and confusing. The very phrase, "human trafficking," is a poor description of what really happens.

Human trafficking is not synonymous with moving people overseas. Instead, the U.S. Federal Act of 2000 defines it as the "recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining and person for labor or services through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage or slavery; sex trafficking in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such an act has not attained 18 years of age."

With this definition we see two aspects of trafficking, both highly repugnant: trafficking involves commercial sexual exploitation of women and children (also known as "forced prostitution") AND it involves involuntary servitude (also known as "slavery"). Not surprisingly, most Americans cannot accept the idea that a form of slavery still exists within the United States!

Shared Hope International, founded by former Congresswoman Linda Smith, is a nonprofit leading a worldwide effort to eradicate the marketplaces of sexual slavery. They have coined the term "Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking" (DMST) to refer to what is happening here in the United States. DMST is defined as "commercial sexual exploitation of American children within American borders."

Wake up, folks! It's real, and it's really happening here!

DMST is a term that more accurately describes the nature of the crime, as well as the victim status, by avoiding the vague term, "human trafficking" or the poorly received term, "child prostitution." The organization believes that the status of "victim" will be clarified, as opposed to looking at the child as the delinquent. Child prostitutes are frequently thought of as "bad kids" and therefore they often they do not get the specialized care that they need.

In truth, these kids are a special group of sexual assault victims. They have not chosen this lifestyle, despite what the perception is. Unfortunately, the term "child prostitution" implies to some people that there is some complicity from the victim.

Not true. Instead, more and more children are involved in sex trafficking because that the supply is becoming younger in response to buyers' demands. These perverts want to be with young people so they can be associated with their victims' youth, health, and vulnerability.

It's the commercial aspect that separates the crime of trafficking from other sexual acts children, and it is this aspect where we need to see change. Frequently, law enforcers and prosecutors do not recognize the commercial aspect or are too lazy, understaffed or under-budgeted to investigate. Instead, they rationalize that just getting the "perp" in the process of committing the act is enough. However, they are failing to get to the real source of the traffickers, the pimps, etc. and are not fully utilizing the power of this law.

Trafficking happens right here at home, not just in poor places by "pimps." Surprisingly, it often involves people you would never expect. For example, just last week, Ronald H. Tills, 74, a retired US State Supreme Court Justice, was sentenced to 18 months in prison on a felony charge of transporting prostitutes across state lines.

In this case, Tills was trafficking a young illegal woman to serve as a prostitute at a convention he was attending. A human trafficking task force investigated the case. Its members included investigators from the FBI, U. S. Border Patrol, and U. S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement, as well as the Erie and Niagara County sheriff's offices. But this never really made the news - few people heard about it.

As I pondered the case, I couldn't help wondering why most of us hadn't heard about it. Perhaps there were other pressing news bits, but what is more pressing then protecting children and other victims of sexual assault? Is it more important to know whether Dr. Conrad Murray is going to be charged for manslaughter in Michael Jackson's death? Or is it more likely that human trafficking is a crime we simply don't understand--mostly because of a simple problem with semantics?

If you know someone who is being trafficked or sexually exploited, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-3737-888 or 9-1-1.

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