How to Promote Social Justice Within Your Community – A Spotlight on Human Trafficking
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“We need to really focus on what we can do differently, which is to leverage the laws to our advantage so that more traffickers are actually taken off the street. There is a long judicial process to arrest someone and actually convict them to a point of sentencing for their actual offenses. Most traffickers, even when they are arrested, don’t serve a day in prison for their offenses because it’s really hard to prove human trafficking.”
Dr. Jacquelyn C.A. Meshelemiah, LCSW, Associate Professor at The Ohio State University
Every year, the United Nations recognizes the World Day of Social Justice on February 20. This year, we’re spotlighting an enduring problem within the United States and abroad: sex trafficking.
When you think of sex trafficking in the U.S., what do you imagine? Perhaps it’s a victim from overseas who has been taken from their home by a clandestine organization and now works in a massage parlor at a strip mall. Perhaps it’s the highly televised caucasian girl-next-door that went off the map a while back and was discovered after the exposure of Jeffrey Epstein’s sex trafficking ring.
While these stereotypes are indeed instances of sex trafficking in the U.S., there is a huge demographic of girls being trafficked that few of us ever think about. In recent years, a pipeline from the foster care system to trafficking has gained the attention of organizations like the Human Rights Project for Girls. The group published a report called “The Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline,” highlighting that girls who grew up in the child welfare system, especially those placed in multiple homes, are particularly vulnerable to the exploitation of traffickers, who coerce girls into compliance with promises of love and affection.
And one in seven cases of runaways are most likely victims of child sex trafficking, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which surveyed more than 23,500 cases. These are not girls who have been stolen from their homes and flown overseas or lured away from their middle-class homes by criminal masterminds, but rather they are girls who are often of racial minorities coming from impoverished families who feel they have no other choices in life. Many people would still wrongly classify these victims as prostitutes.
Between 2007 and 2018, 51,919 potential human trafficking cases were reported by the public to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC) hotline—the vast majority of which were cases involving trafficking for sexual exploitation. And almost 9,000 cases in the U.S. were reported to the National Human Trafficking Hotline and BeFree Textline in 2017, a 13 percent increase from the prior year, according to the Polaris Project.
Yet despite the increase in reported cases, the U.S. Department of State’s 2019 Trafficking in Persons Report shows that the Department of Justice has opened significantly fewer human trafficking investigations in recent years, between 2017 and 2018, dropping from 783 to 657. It also reported significantly fewer prosecutions: 230, down from 282. Of sex trafficking prosecutions, specifically, there was a drop from 213 to 266 over the same period.
We talked to a social justice and human rights expert to understand why this issue isn’t spoken about more and how people can be a part of the change.
Meet the Expert: Dr. Jacquelyn C.A. Meshelemiah, LCSW
Dr. Jacquelyn C.A. Meshelemiah is a Licensed Social Worker (LSW), as well as an associate professor and three-time alum of The Ohio State University. She earned her Bachelor of Science in Social Work (BSSW), Master of Social Work (MSW), and Doctorate (PhD) from the College of Social Work. She has been an assistant professor and an associate professor in social work, teaching courses at the BSSW, MSW, and PhD levels She also serves as the Associate Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion at the university.
In 2013, she taught an interactive Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) on Human Trafficking for a global audience of 30,200 students from 187 nations. She is also the former Chair of the Board of Rahab’s Hideaway, a safe-haven for at-risk and/or survivors of human trafficking.
The Difference Between Sex Trafficking and Prostitution
One of the stories that Dr. Meshelemiah often tells in front of audiences is about a sex trafficking survivor she calls Queen, who was a young African-American female, and her pimp, who she calls Marcus.
It was 1995 and Dr. Meshelemiah had just begun working as an assistant professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo (SUNY). Members of a suburban community in the area had started to complain about seeing discarded heroin needles on the streets and a new presence of prostitutes soliciting in the area. Through a government grant, Meshelemiah was commissioned to interview the sex workers, collect data, and get to the bottom of the problem.
That’s when she first heard Queen’s story. When Queen met Marcus, about 10 years her senior, she thought she had fallen in love. “Initially, it was great. But it went from him loving her and giving her somewhere to stay—moving her from her home environment which was very dysfunctional—to making her have sex with one of his boys, to allowing complete strangers to gang-rape her. It was horrible, but it actually got worse,” Dr. Meshelemiah said.
In an emotional recount, Queen conveyed that Marcus had started to film her engaging in bestiality with dogs to humiliate, blackmail, and dehumanize her.
“I said, I don’t know what that’s called, but that’s not called prostitution. There should be a name for what happened to her, but that’s not what it is. Something is very wrong here,” Dr. Meshelemiah said. “I thought, if this is happening in Buffalo, New York, I bet this is happening somewhere else. So when I gave presentations and still do around the country or abroad, I always start with this story about Queen and Marcus. So many survivors have come to me after I tell that story and say, ‘Oh my goodness, I thought I was the only one.’”
Dr. Meshelemiah was right; Queen wasn’t the only one experiencing this kind of abuse, nor was she a prostitute. Rather, she was a victim of sex trafficking.
“People do use the words interchangeably because they both often involved commercialized sex. Commercialized sex is [illegal] for both the woman and the man who picks her up, but human trafficking is illegal for the perpetrator. Human trafficking involves the provision, obtaining, recruitment, harboring, and patronizing someone for the purpose of sex when there are elements of forced fraud and coersion. So they are fundamentally different based on how they are prosecuted in the system,” Dr. Meshelemiah said.
If the victim is less than 18, they do not have to prove elements of force, fraud, or coercion at the federal level in order to be considered the victim of sex trafficking. But if it’s an adult, then they must prove that these elements are at play.
The Trafficking Victims Protection Act and Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act
Over the last 20 years, our language for speaking about these instances has begun to evolve, in part, thanks to the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, which established these parameters.
“With the first version of the Act, it at least gave it a name. Regarding Queen, there wasn’t a name for what happened to her at the time, but clearly, there was a name out there to be made,” Dr. Meshelemiah said.
“[The Act] put some legs on prosecuting criminals and it gave some benefit of the doubt for people who were being trafficked and, for the first time, identified them as victims. The federal law also laid the groundwork for state laws and for other countries to also implement their own laws. It gave us some judicial process to adhere to, to protect victims.”
Then came the 2015 Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act, which amended the definition of the 2000 Trafficking Victims Protection Act, defining sex trafficking as the “recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, obtaining, patronizing, or soliciting of a person for the purpose of a commercial sex act, in which the commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such act has not obtained 18 years of age.”
This was positive news for the movement against sex trafficking, as the amendment better encapsulated the scope of what it means to traffick someone. However, enforcing the law is another beast in itself.
“There is a long judicial process to arrest someone and actually convict them to a point of sentencing for their actual offenses. Most traffickers, even when they are arrested, don’t serve a day in prison for their offenses because it’s really hard to prove human trafficking.”
This process can take one to two years, in which time, the survivor is required to go back and forth to court, facing their perpetrator in person.
“How many women want to go through with that? Especially with someone who has threatened to kill them, kill their children, or kill their siblings? We have this perception that these women are in a witness protection plan, that they’ll be safe or they will have escorts taking them to court. That’s not the real world. It is risky to show up to court again and again to prosecute these men.”
According to the 2007 documentary Very Young Girls, which follows 13- and 14-year-old African-American girls as they are abused and sold on New York’s streets, a significant percentage of girls and women who are victims of sex trafficking go back to selling themselves on the street after getting help from organizations that help girls start over, largely, because they are afraid of their pimps.
Promoting Justice for Victims Within Your Community
So, how can we reduce the number of girls that are sex trafficked? Part of the solution includes erasing the old narrative that sex trafficking victims are prostitutes.
“I think we’re quick to make these victims invisible and to call them junkies, whores, tramps, and all these other pejorative names. We need to get some understanding of what trafficking is and the adverse childhood experiences that many of these women have had, which unfold when you talk to them about what leads them to being vulnerable or subjected or tricked by this trafficker,” Dr. Meshelemiah said.
Greater public awareness of the sheer immensity of the number of girls that are sex trafficked increases the public’s will to prosecute offenders and, in turn, urges law enforcement to combat trafficking.
Statistics about sex trafficking and the factors that make individuals particularly vulnerable to trafficking should be shared with girls from a young age. The average age of child sex trafficking victims is 15, according to numbers of children reported missing to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
In addition to promoting education, action is needed from community members. In order to prosecute traffickers and get more women and girls off the street, there needs to be more collaboration.
“We really need to focus on what we can do differently, which is to leverage the laws to our advantage so that more traffickers are actually taken off the street,” Dr. Meshelemiah said.
“What I find is that this is a very decentralized effort. I think it’s probably going to be more successful if we work together. If we work with social agencies, if we work with the court system, if we work with the survivors directly to really make an impact.”
For instance, there are opportunities to work within prosecutors’ offices to convict the traffickers themselves. “Students can intern that way,” Dr. Meshelemiah said. “We also want to work with people who are trying to divert women out of the system who may be trafficked and have a drug issue. We can work with diversion programs and substance abuse programs and with established organizations and units already doing the work.”
There are a number of social service agencies that actually do outreach and engagement with women, girls, and boys who are on the street. For example, for those that want to work with people who are helping survivors on the street, there are opportunities with the Salvation Army.
“But first and foremost, it’s really important to get educated,” Dr. Meshelemiah said.