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Looking Beneath the Surface
A response to Washington Post's attack on the anti-trafficking movement in the U.S.


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Are there many victims of human trafficking in the U.S.? Has the Bush administration squandered tens of millions of dollars in a futile search for nonexistent victims? Those are the questions raised in Jerry Markon’s Washington Post articles (“Human Trafficking Evokes Outrage, Little Evidence” and “In D.C. Area, Most Cases Involve Prostitution,” Sunday, September 23, 2007). The articles claimed that the estimated numbers of victims in the U.S. were greatly inflated, that few victims had been identified, and that large sums of money had been wasted looking for non-existent victims. The take away message was that the trafficking in the U.S. is a conservative, Republican, Evangelical Christian scam.

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As someone who has done research on trafficking and been active in educating and lobbying for anti-trafficking policies and legislation for 17 years, I’ll share with you my perspective on these stories and on how effective the U.S. campaigns have been on identification of victims and efficient use of funds.

Before I address the specific questions raised, let me point out that the debate is about sex trafficking, not forced labor. Secondly, almost everything said or written about sex trafficking has to be filtered through the debate over legalization of prostitution. The word “legalization” seldom appears anymore; it’s too unpopular, so its supporters find other ways to advance their position or undermine the efforts of those who oppose legalization of prostitution.

These Washington Post articles were published while the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA 2007) is being drafted. In other words, there is quite a lot at stake presently. There are competing groups and bills that fall into two basic perspectives: One that supports the status quo — in other words, makes no significant change in law or policy and hold open the possibility for a future time when legalization of prostitution can be popularized — and another that wants to close that option forever.

The first question of importance is, how many victims of human trafficking are in the U.S.? There have been two government estimates of the number of foreign victims of trafficking in the U.S. (There is no government estimate on the number of U.S. citizen or domestic victims.) In 1999, the estimate was 45,000 to 50,000; in 2004 the estimate was lowered to 14,500 to 17,500. Those estimates vary widely and should raise concerns about the validity of the estimates and the methods used to calculate them.

On Monday, I heard several administration officials respond to the suggestion in the Washington Post articles that the estimates may be grossly exaggerated by saying that the number of victims doesn’t matter, that the crime is so serious that it warrants being made a priority even if there are only a small number of victims. I agree about the seriousness of the crime, but it would be better to have reliable estimates.

We would be on the road to having a baseline for understanding sex trafficking in the U.S. if the Department of Justice (DOJ) had initiated the study authorized in 2005 by Congress on the illegal commercial sex industry in the U.S. To date, I’ve not been able to get an answer from DOJ on why that study was not done. Unlike illegal gambling or drug trafficking, there has never been a study on the illegal sex industry in the U.S. Why?

Instead of conducting the congressionally approved study on the illegal sex industry, the DOJ funded a study on estimating the number of victims of severe forms of trafficking in the U.S., study that in my opinion, as a researcher, cannot be done successfully. Such a study requires the identification of victims coerced into the sex industry. As the Washington Post correctly points out, there have been relatively few victims of trafficking identified. Victims who cannot yet be identified cannot be counted.

Researchers can employ fancy sampling methods, but they still have to rely on people who know a victim of trafficking when they see one. I predict that the funded study will be a waste of money. The study that could have given us a baseline on the scope of illegal sex industry, which recruits and exploits victims of trafficking, sadly still waits to be done. And consequently, anyone who wants to attack the anti-trafficking movement on the basis of the widely varying estimates of the number of victims still has plenty of ammunition.

The Washington Post article says that only 1,362 foreign victims of human trafficking have been identified since 2000. The Post reporter slants the article to imply that relatively few victims have been found because few victims exist. This number represents the number of foreign victims certified as victims of trafficking. There are many more known victims than those who have applied for and been granted certification. First of all, certification requires that the victim be willing to cooperate with a police investigation. Following a police raid, some victims just want to go home, some victims don’t want to cooperate with police and are deported, and some victims are afraid to testify against vicious traffickers. The application for certification requires support from law enforcement. If the victim is not seen as useful for a case, or if they police don’t want to pursue a case, she has no support to stay in the U.S. and be counted as a victim of trafficking.

One cannot discount the fear that victims live under. They usually have been physically and sexually assaulted, and the emotion-battering involved in psychological control is constant. A frequent and effective hold that traffickers have over victims is to threaten to harm family members, sometimes even the children of the victims. Even after a woman or girl is safe herself, her family is still at risk. That prevents many victims from admitting that they are victims and cooperating with police.

A number of law enforcement agents have told me that the women and girls they interview will not admit that they have been victimized. They say that they are in prostitution by their own choice, and that they make a lot of money. Significantly, all the women interviewed usually have the exact same story. As police say, “It’s as if they are all reading from the same script,” suggesting that someone has schooled them on how to respond to police questions.

The slogan created for Health and Human Services campaign to identify victims is: “Look Beneath the Surface.” Good insight and advice. The biggest problem in identifying victims of sex trafficking is the assumption that these women and girls are “just prostitutes.” And even when people know they should be “looking beneath the surface,” they are still profoundly unable to do so. They still base their identification of victims on false assumptions and don’t see potential victims because of myths and stereotypes. And probably most important, they have not learned how to gain the trust of the likely victims they interview.

Also contributing to the lack of identification of victims has been DOJ attitudes: one senior official was advocating for a distinction between “hard” and “light” pimping, and that victims who were only “lightly pimped” could be ignored. Not only is this inconsistent with the law, it reduces the number of victims identified and perpetuates the myth that the women and girls are “just prostitutes.”

There is also some evidence that the Washington Post reporter only used information that supported his slant on the lack of victims. For example, a service provider in California emailed me and told me that Markon called and interviewed her. She told him that they currently are working with 14 foreign and three domestic victims. I know this woman is knowledgeable about trafficking from Mexico and probably told him some hair-raising facts, but that didn’t get into the story.

Over the last few years, I’ve heard countless number of people holding anti-trafficking government jobs or getting government funding say, “I never heard of trafficking until a year ago.” Government agencies gave out tens of millions of dollars in grants and contracts to groups and coalitions that could write good proposals and had the infrastructure to administer grants and contracts. Those groups were not the same ones as those who actually knew something about trafficking victims, how to identify them, and how to assist them.

I’m aware of meetings in which the poorly or non funded experts on sex trafficking, the survivor run service agencies around the U.S., were brought in to tell the highly paid contractors what they needed to know. Of the tens of millions of dollars dispersed, only a fraction went to groups that have daily contact with victims.

Millions of dollars were spent on a hotline that almost no one called, because there was a false assumption that victims would just pick up the phone and call for help. The highly paid contractors didn’t understand that victims are physically and psychologically controlled. When a victim does get access to a phone, she usually calls home, not the police or a hotline.

The Washington Post article exposes its political bias when it only targets conservative, faith-based, or Republican supporters of the anti-trafficking movement or recipients of funds. First of all, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) 2000 was supported by groups from across the political spectrum, as have the subsequent Reauthorization Acts of 2003 and 2005. Immediately after the TVPA was passed, most of the recipients of grants to provide services to victims were liberal/leftist groups that worked with immigrants. They knew nothing about sex trafficking. I talked to one woman who worked on a government funded grant to assist victims of trafficking who was politically opposed to working with law enforcement. I talked to another woman who worked on a Boston-based grant who told me that they hadn’t worked with one victim. When I asked if they were looking for victims, she said that they were not funded for “outreach,” and anyway that would be too dangerous. These liberal/leftist groups are also the most blinded by false perceptions about prostitutes — preferring to see them as “just sex workers” — versus victims of sex trafficking, leading to low identification of victims.

The Washington Post stories were biased hit pieces with an agenda behind them. They selectively held up faith-based and Republican groups to ridicule while ignoring the liberal/leftist groups that are open to criticism. The reporter revealed the “pro-prostitution” bias of the story by featuring quotes from Ronald Weitzer, a long time apologist for the sex industry, who advocates decriminalization of prostitution in indoor venues (and for full disclosure, someone who has written against my work). Supporters of decriminalized or legalized prostitution have known for some time that they must undermine the bi-partisan anti-trafficking movement before it digs too deeply into the sex industry and exposes its myths about satisfied, voluntary sex workers.

The administration does indeed need to clean up its act. It deserves criticism for the many false starts and wasted funds on how to identify and reach victims based on invalid assumptions, and for granting funds to groups that know little or nothing about sex trafficking.

But there is still a broad, bipartisan coalition of groups, including faith-based and conservative groups, and members of Congress, that know there are tens of thousands of foreign and U.S. citizen victims to be assisted, and understand these front page stories are an effort to stop a history-making global human rights movement. Backlash is to be expected, but ultimately, these articles are just bumps in the road.

– Donna M. Hughes is the Professor & Carlson Endowed Chair at the University of Rhode Island.



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