Politics & Policy

Enslaved in the U.S.A.

American victims need our help.

A hypothetical, but realistic case: Eighteen-year-old Tammy is tired, broke, and desperate. Originally from a town in the midwest, Tammy left home with a man she thought was her boyfriend. He turned out to be a pimp. He put her on the street in a city in another state and ordered her to sell sex and make money. He takes every dime she gets. She’s been humiliated and hurt by johns. The pimp is even meaner, beating her up and threatening her every day with what will happen to her if she disobeys or holds back any money. Tammy is a victim of sex trafficking. If tonight, Tammy decides to break free and accept the offer of assistance from a street-outreach worker, will she be eligible for federal funds for food and shelter? No. Why not? Because Tammy is a U.S. citizen.

As public awareness has grown about global sex trafficking, Americans were shocked to learn that victims from places such as Mexico, Korea, and Ukraine were sexually enslaved in their towns and cities. In communities across the country, concerned citizens voiced calls for zero tolerance for modern-day slavery.

President Bush made combating human trafficking a priority. Both Attorney Generals Ashcroft and Gonzales have spoken out against trafficking in the U.S. and made the investigation and prosecution of trafficking a priority. Most of the focus on identifying and assisting victims and prosecuting offenders has been on foreign nationals trafficked into the U.S.

There are more American citizens than foreign nationals victimized by sex traffickers in the U.S., yet there are no federally funded services for them, particularly if they are over age 17.

Service providers who have requested funds from the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) to assist American victims have been turned down repeatedly by government agencies. The recent attorney general’s report states that TVPA funds are dedicated to non-U.S. citizen victims. Therefore, if you are a victim of sex trafficking in the U.S. from Mexico or Ukraine, there is money for immediate services ($1300 a month), but there are no funds similarly available for an American victim.

This denial of services to U.S. victims has real consequences. An FBI agent recently told me he found a 12-year-old American girl while investigating a sex-trafficking case. Because of lack of resources, he had nowhere to put her and had to send her home. (The biggest reason girls run away and get picked up by pimps is because they are abused or neglected at home.)

The neglect of U.S. citizen victims has occurred for several reasons.

First is the lack of identification of victims. Sex traffickers have avoided scrutiny of their criminal activities by operating under the social stigma of prostitution. Few people realize the brutal control these predators exert over their victims; instead, people believe myths popularized by Hollywood movies and TV documentaries about empowered sex workers, or they condemn women and girls for their “immoral” behavior and have little sympathy or understanding for the conditions of their lives. Identification of domestic victims is not included in federally funded training on human trafficking. As one services advocate explained it to me: “It would make no sense to talk about domestic victims when there are no federal funds to help them.”

How many women and girls perceived to be “just prostitutes” are actually victims of sex trafficking is unknown. I tried to figure out how many women and girls would qualify as victims of sex trafficking under the TVPA by looking at existing studies of women and girls in prostitution in the U.S.

According to the TVPA, any minor used for a commercial sex act is a victim of trafficking. According to two studies, 70 percent of these women or girls entered prostitution before the age of 18. Therefore, at least a majority of these girls are, or were initially, victims of sex trafficking.

According to the TVPA, adult women are victims of trafficking if they are induced to perform a commercial sex act by “force, fraud, or coercion.” I reviewed studies done in the U.S. (one of which I co-authored) and found that women in prostitution suffered the following: 86 percent were physically abused by pimps; 80 percent were sexually assaulted by pimps; 90 percent were verbally threatened by pimps; 71 percent had pimps use drugs to control them; 79 percent had money withheld from them by pimps; 75 percent of them who gave money to a pimp feared being harmed if they did not; and 52 percent were forcibly returned (kidnapped), stalked, physically abused, and threatened when they tried to leave. Again, by definition, roughly 80 percent of these adult women had experiences that met the definition of sex trafficking in the TVPA.

Second, there are no reliable estimates of how many children and adults are caught in prostitution in the U.S. today. The Department of Justice has failed to make efforts to determine the scope of victimization in the U.S. In the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA) of 2005, Congress authorized a nationwide study on the illegal commercial-sex industry in the U.S. — the kind of study that has been done for illegal gambling and drug trafficking. The Department of Justice never requested funds to conduct the study. If this study had been initiated promptly, we might now be close to having the first estimate ever of the size of the illegal commercial-sex industry in the U.S. and the number of women and children victimized in it.

Here is what little we do know. According to one estimate, from a University of Pennsylvania study, there are 300,000 juveniles vulnerable to commercial sexual exploitation. Compare this to the Department of Justice estimate of 15,000 foreign nationals trafficked into the U.S. each year for sexual slavery and forced labor. Even by rough estimates, many more U.S. citizens than foreign nationals are victims of sex trafficking, yet U.S. citizens are categorically denied treatment equal to that accorded foreign victims.

Third, in the TVPRA 2005, Congress authorized a grant program for local and state authorities to crack down on sex trafficking by focusing on the demand for victims and provide services to mostly U.S. citizen victims. But these funds were never requested by the Department of Justice, and subsequently no programs have been funded.

This lack of assistance for American victims is especially egregious considering that Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) monies are not available for victims of sex trafficking, who desperately need this assistance. Each year, approximately $400 million is appropriated for victims of domestic violence, stalking, and sexual assault, but victims who are beat up and sexually assaulted by pimps and johns are excluded from assistance from these funds. U.S. citizen victims usually cannot get assistance from-state funded programs either. They are usually trafficked from state to state and do not meet state-residency requirements. In addition, pimps confiscate identification documents from U.S. citizens, just as they do from foreign victims, and it takes months to replace those documents so they can use them to apply for assistance.

In fact, the only way for some women and girls to get services is to be arrested for prostitution! In some cities, there are locally funded diversion programs that give women and girls an opportunity to get assistance and get out of prostitution instead of going to jail. However, this is hardly the solution to assisting domestic-trafficking victims. During federal investigations, foreign victims are not treated as criminals. It is not right that U.S.-citizen victims are treated as criminals, while foreign victims are entitled to service equivalent to that of an asylum-seeker.

Kristy Childs, the director of Veronica’s Voice, an agency in Kansas City that provides services to women and girls trying to leave prostitution, said this about the lack of services for U.S. citizen victims: “I can hardly stand what I see happening for American women used in prostitution. Foreign nationals once certified as a victim can have America send for their whole family to relocate here and get all types of benefits, where it is hard to get our own victimized and broken American women bus tickets!”

Ms. Childs is referring to the use of federal anti-trafficking funds to bring a foreign victim’s family to the U.S. Often, traffickers control foreign victims by threatening to harm relatives at home. Bringing their families here is a way to protect them and enable victims to testify against traffickers without fear of threats to family members back home. Compare that to the resources available to assist U.S. victims: They buy the victim a bus pass so she can get out of town and out of the reach of the pimp.

These policies and practices of discrimination against U.S. citizens must be reversed immediately. This is not a call to reduce funds and services to foreign victims of trafficking in the U.S., because there are many foreign victims who are not receiving services. This is a call for equal treatment — for better treatment — of U.S. victims.

To reverse this situation, we need the following: The Department of Justice must carry out the study on the illegal commercial sex industry as authorized by Congress in 2005. We need to have a baseline study of the problem so we can begin to understand the scope of the problem and find solutions. And the Department of Justice must initiate the grant program for local and state law-enforcement agencies and service-providers so that U.S.-citizen victims, particularly those over the age of 17, are assisted and perpetrators punished.

Next, Congress needs to make federal anti-trafficking funds available to U.S. citizens and make VAWA funds available to victims of sex trafficking. The brutal treatment of women and girls by these sexual predators has been ignored for too long.

Americans have zero tolerance for all forms of modern-day slavery in their communities, not just when foreign nationals are involved. Once awakened to the existence of trafficking, concerned citizens have created the most successful human-rights movement of our time.

As the injustice to American trafficking victims has been uncovered, the same human-rights coalition — composed of individuals and organizations from the political right and left, secular and faith based — that passed the TVPA is mobilizing to secure equal treatment for all — foreign and domestic, child and adult. They will be pressing the Department of Justice to initiate previously authorized programs and lobbying Congress to rectify this discrimination against U.S. citizens.

Donna M. Hughes holds the Carlson Endowed Chair in women’s studies at the University of Rhode Island.

Donna M. HughesDonna M. Hughes is a University of Rhode Island professor of women’s studies and an activist against prostitution, human trafficking, and pornography. Hughes has written extensively on the prevalence of ...


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