“How did it get so late so soon? It's night before it's afternoon.” - Dr. Seuss
by Gina Biber
- The Capitol Hill Times -
This year, 250,000 American youths will be lured into sexual slavery or forced labor. Between 300 and 700 of these girls and boys will be trafficked within King County. That’s more than one person each day. The crime is often invisible, untraceable to the general public, and though the Department of Justice lists Seattle as one of the worst ports of human trafficking in the nation, there are many organizations wrestling to undo it.
In the company of towns like San Francisco, Portland, New York, Las Vegas and Detroit, Seattle is the United States’ third highest offender, and considered both a transit city and a destination of human trafficking. But how and where is the exchange happening? Phillip Martin, the National Director of compassion2one, an organization that works to rescue children from sexual exploitation, told The Capitol Hill Times that the network of criminals is more sophisticated than one would think.
“Really any public venue can be what we call a ‘facilitator’ for sex trafficking,” Martin said. “A lot of the business professionals go to different countries to purchase these girls and go have their way with them, in a sense. But here, within Washington and Seattle, they’re used in strip clubs, massage parlors, nail shops, truck stops, rest areas, hotels, websites like backpage.com and Craigslist, and escort service websites.” Not to mention traditional street prostitution.
Capitol Hill is one of Seattle’s neighborhoods where there is a higher rate of trafficking.
Within the United States, the average victim is between the ages of 11 and 16 (trafficked victims are much younger overseas, since they can be a source of income for their families). The common demographics of at-risk youth include teen runaways, being exposed to pornography at a young age, drug addition, or coming from a background of domestic violence, abuse, neglect or abandonment. But girls from affluent families aren’t immune. When girls enter their teen years and want to exercise independence, their curiosity could lead to their detriment.
Martin explained that a typical pimp, whether belonging to a group involved in organized crime or affiliated with a gang, might be older, between the ages of 35 and 40, and pay off younger, 14- and 15-year-old boys to befriend girls and lure them to a party or unfamiliar situation where the pimp will kidnap the girls. In most cases, the boy isn’t informed of the pimp’s intentions.
“The girls think ‘Well, if I just have my cell phone or if I just have one of my girlfriends go with me, then if I get into trouble, I have my bases covered, and I’ll be okay.’ That’s not the case here,” Martin said.
Some gangs use abduction, luring a girl into a life of prostitution, as a form of gang initiation. Other predators hunt for girls in malls, churches, along the I-5 corridor, at movie theaters and in online chat rooms. Some are slowly initiated via bikini barista shops, strip clubs and porn shoots.
“It’s not usually at random,” Martin said. “He [the pimp] knows what kind of girl he needs. He knows if he’s using her for sex trafficking, labor, or domestic servitude like housekeepers and nannies. He knows who he’s supplying to, and how much money needs to be made.”
Customers, or “Johns,” are average men from all walks of life, from businessmen and attorneys to coaches and counselors – the men who children are entrusted to everyday. According to Martin, a John need not move or pimp a girl; he only needs to buy her. “I go as far as classifying a John as someone who pays a cover charge to go to a strip club, because, whether you know it or not, you’re facilitating a crime.”
Supply strives to meet demand, and so the base problem is men who buy. In the same way that victims usually come from troubled backgrounds, so do the customers. These men are also exposed to pornography at a young age, raised in a family without positive role models, didn’t have access to educational opportunities, have pent-up anger, are divorced, or lack a support system.
In addition to rescuing victims and persecuting offenders, compassion2one’s other goals involve offering alternatives to predators, addressing the issue of demand, and making it unattractive for men to buy commercial sex.
“If a guy is arrested, serves his time, and pays his fines, now what is he going to go do? Hopefully he has learned his lesson, but in most cases, they don’t; they go back to what they’re familiar to because their support system is still there. And, in fact, people despise them more now because of what they have done,” Martin said.
“We have to offer alternatives, so job training is a big thing for men, counseling services for them, a way to apply for a job, give them a support system and offer alternatives so that they can rebuild their lives, just like these women need to rebuild their lives. The hope is that these guys would become protectors of these women, and that they would also be champions to other men, saying, ‘Let’s not buy women, let’s not objectify them.’”
Besides raising awareness, communities can get involved by learning to identify a victim and partnering with law enforcement, social service providers, and first responders. Another essential element to be improved upon is creating more safe homes that offer victims meals, clothing, healthcare evaluations, placement and after-care housing.
“Until we have a safe place for these girls to go, and more of them, they’re just going to end up in the same situation,” Martin said. That’s the Band-Aid. The real panacea is humans learning to respect and value other humans.