by Margaret Fox
Earlier this summer, Governor John Kasich signed into law Ohio’s new human trafficking bill. It has been widely hailed as a ‘tough on crime’ victory for the anti-trafficking movement, in no small part due to its steep sentencing for convicted traffickers: it nails offenders with a ten year prison sentence.
In the past, commercial sex laws have largely targeted prostituted women and children, without severe penalties for pimps and handlers. That’s what made trafficking such a high-profit, low-risk business for those willing to get their hands dirty. But thankfully, increased public awareness has prompted a slow but steady shift in the nature of legislation; now, most American laws to combat sex trafficking involve rescue and rehabilitation for victims, and prosecution of those profiting from their exploitation.
So who are these people? Who finds their way into trafficking and pimping women and children, and how?
Last year two researchers at DePaul University College of Law, Jody Raphael and Brenda Myers-Powell, conducted interviews of ex-pimps in the city of Chicago. Some of the common denominators among their subjects, including racial distribution and income, are likely unique to Chicago or the United States. But the study does offer valuable insights into trafficking, some of which may apply globally.
For instance, 100% of women involved in trafficking others had once been trafficked themselves. Almost 90% of traffickers, male and female, had suffered physical abuse as children, and 76% had suffered sexual abuse. And as for the question, “how does one get involved in sale of human flesh”? Family connections may have a good deal to do with it: over half of those interviewed said they had family members involved in trafficking.
According to a University of Rhode Island study, there are diverse ways to enter and run a trafficking operation. There are small-scale, local operators who might deal with fewer than three girls at once, and these make up at least half of all offenders worldwide. However, about a quarter of the industry is dominated by large-scale crime rings, which constantly coordinate recruitment efforts. For these organizations, sex trafficking is likely just one of many illegal ventures; along with drug dealing, it may provide the bulk of the group’s income. The study reports that many of these organizations use bars, strip clubs, and escort services as fronts.
The connection between organized crime and trafficking has been the subject of significant study over the past few years, particularly in regard to national security. Like other criminal operations, Al Qaeda and other international terrorist groups use trafficking to help fund their organizations. And even inner city gangs without a history of sex trafficking, may be jumping on the bandwagon. In 2008, a newspaper in Seattle published an article on street gangs increasingly entering the commercial sex trade, and NPR reported on the disturbing trend as recently as last November.
So, who are the people being groomed to become pimps and traffickers? In some sense, the same people at risk of becoming the trafficked: many are individuals in difficult circumstances, likely abused or neglected in childhood, looking for a sense of power and a quick profit in one of the few “careers” accessible to them. Those who have left pimping and trafficking repentant testify to the darkness they encountered and were ensnared by. The fact is, sex trafficking robs individuals of human dignity on both sides of the equation. As legislatures across the U.S. and the world continue to put traffickers behind bars, ministries should not neglect the responsibility of following them there with a message of forgiveness and redemption. At the same time, there is ample opportunity to find and rescue the young men and women most vulnerable to this industry, long before they fall into it. Inner city outreaches have a great part to play in this work.
As Christians, we need to seek justice, not only in the world as a whole but in the hearts of its people. We need to pray for the freedom of the exploited, but also redemption of the exploiters. After all, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8). We know from precious experience that God is in the business of transforming hearts.