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How to reduce sex trafficking in New York City

How to reduce sex trafficking in New York City

At any given time, according to a 2016 figure from the International Labor Organization, 40.3 million people are victims of modern day slavery, which includes 24.9 million in forced labor and 15.4 million in forced marriages. Of the 24.9 million people entrapped by forced labor, 4.8 million people are in forced sexual exploitation, which disproportionately affects women. 99% of victims of commercial sex are women and girls. These are staggering statistics, and New York City is one of the largest destinations for trafficked women in the entire United States in large part due to high demand and access to ports. Human traffickers exploit victims in all five boroughs and target the majority of victims specifically for sex trade. The sex trade is also a billion-dollar industry with a demand that grows each year. Within the United States, there are large disparities between the organizations that advocate on the part of the victims, law enforcement, and legislation to combat the problem. At risk youth continue to be trafficked disproportionally because of the lack of funding in poor communities and in the foster care system. 

In 2018, there were 5,174 reported cases of human trafficking, while the Human Trafficking Hotline received 14,117 calls from across the U.S. California had the highest number with 706 reported cases, while New York had a reported 206 reported cases. The total number of victims exceeded 17,000 people, with 6,959 of whom at the highest indication of fraud, coercion, or force. An additional 10,976 victims had more moderate indications of the key details and the majority of people who reported trafficking were U.S. nationals. 

In 2017, the Polaris Project, an organization that provides services for the victims of human trafficking in accordance with law enforcement, while decimating information the trafficking industry, reported out of the top five ethnicities reported, Latinx people made up the highest number of victims, followed by Asians and Caucasians. Polaris also determined that the average age at the time the sex trafficking began was 19 and 23 for those involved in labor trafficking. The data from 10,615 individuals provided data on how traffickers used recruitment tactics on an intimate partner or proposed marriage. Another common tactic is the use of familial connections. U.S nationals who are victims of human trafficking are often at risk youth; economically disenfranchised individuals; children in the foster care system; or runaways. Often times, traffickers search for victims using the internet or social media. For law enforcement, the underground demand makes it virtually impossible to shut down all of the websites selling sex. Section 230 of the Communication Decency Act, which was passed to protect children from pornography and has some benefits but has enormous consequences for human trafficking operations based online. The courts interpreted the Section to give websites posting third-party content immunity for criminal activity facilitated via their sites and denied victims of sex trafficking the right to sue the companies that facilitated and profited from their exploitation. As a result, “a special, elite class of sex traffickers—those who provided the organizational superstructure on which most of modern sex trafficking occurs—who could operate with impunity because their operations were Internet-based,” according to National Center of Sexual Exploitation. 

In New York, the Child Sex Trafficking Act was amended to eliminate the need to prove “fraud, coercion, or force.” Supporters of this bill see it as a positive step to encourage survivors to come forward. However, the legislation includes a system that ranks crimes associated with human trafficking on severity. Critics point out that the legislation prevents survivors from reporting their crimes if the crime their trafficker is prosecuted for may rank low on the scale, meaning the sentence is light, or the accused may not serve time at all. Instead survivors attempt to protect themselves by not testifying or coming forward at all for fear of retaliation. 

In recent years, human trafficking surged in New York City. To combat this problem, the NYPD made serious efforts to tackle the recent surge, which includes being part of a special public task force with the Department of Homeland Security. Insp. James P. Klein, commander of the NYPD vice division, reports that the majority of victims working as sex workers in New York City are originally from New York. The way victims are often times lured in are via social media platforms and comes from a background that lends itself for exploitation. “It’s that confluence of a super-young, vulnerable person meeting a predatory individual who is ultimately part of a billion-dollar sex industry,” said Rachel Lloyd, founder of the anti-sex trafficking group Girls Educational & Mentoring Services and a survivor herself. In fact, as many as 90 percent of children who are sexually trafficked were already victims of sexual abuse, according to the National Institute of Justice. Law enforcement acknowledges the difficulty of protecting potential victims from the sex trade because of the wide array of methods deployed to reel in victims. "Each and every person has susceptible vulnerabilities regardless of your origin, sex, culture, income, sexual identity, or appearance," said a spokesman from the NYPD and added, "A trafficker's method of execution is to exploit those very vulnerabilities to the point of complete dependence on them, allowing the traffickers to turn you into their slave." The vast majority of the city’s sex-traffickers are ‘“Romeo pimps’ — pimps who prey on young victims desperate for attention and love, wooing them as a protective ‘boyfriend’ might, even while making the girls have sex with multiple men every night,” law enforcement say.

There are serious gaps in the criminal justice system that could be easily fixed if new legislation is passed. The main issue with the system created in the United States for many years was the criminalization of victims with a harsher penalty than those who bought the sexual favors. While not all commercial sex is the result of human trafficking, the legal system would prevent those who were in fact victims of human trafficking from coming forward, because of the real threat they would be imprisoned. Amnesty International, the World Health Organization, and UN women have all advocated for the decriminalization of sex work as a method to protect the sex workers. Amnesty International stated “we have seen evidence to suggest that the criminalization of sex work leads to social marginalization and an increased risk of human rights abuses against sex workers. The evidence also suggests that decriminalization could be the best means to protect the rights of sex workers and ensure that these individuals receive adequate medical care, legal assistance and police protection.” Whether the United States adopted this model or the Swedish model which focuses on criminalizing demand, the focus has to shift to protecting the victims and putting the social stigma and punishment on those who engage in the sexual exploitation of others. 

Another problem with our current epidemic of human trafficking is the fact that children who are runaways or part of the foster care system are more prone to be trafficked. Federal data shows 50 percent to more than 90 percent of victims have spent time in the child-welfare system. There are ways to protect and reduce the number of children swept up in this market. The National Institute of Justice estimates that community education programs can help reduce the demand, which seems like a reasonable way to protect at risk youths while providing programs that would improve the overall educational levels in communities. The problem with this solution is likely to increase in lieu of the slashes in the federal budget to the Department of Health and Human services and proposals to eliminate programs such the 21stCentury Afterschool Learning Centers, which “supports the creation of community learning centers that provide academic enrichment opportunities during non-school hours for children, particularly students who attend high-poverty and low-performing schools. The program helps students meet state and local student standards in core academic subjects, such as reading and math; offers students a broad array of enrichment activities that can complement their regular academic programs; and offers literacy and other educational services to the families of participating children,” according to the US Department of Education. Programs like these and others which are federally funded provide safety nets to keep at risk youths under supervision and involved in a community that will be less likely to miss crucial signs that a person is being trafficked. 

If the government were to invest more in the social programs that kept youths under the eye of community members and involved in educational incentives thereby making them less at risk, the number of youths trafficked from within their own communities would lessen. Additionally, our legal system must cease penalizing the victims of the sex trade, instead focusing on making sex harder to sell on websites and creating a legal system that disincentives selling sex as a program. Currently, the economy of commercial sex is flourishing and that is because our law enforcement has just begun catching up to the technology and demand of human trafficking. By making basic changes to the way human trafficking is combated, including ideas outlined by Demand Forum consisting of “12 major types of tactics used to deter men from buying sex—auto seizure, cameras, community service, john school, letter, license suspension, neighborhood action, public education, reverse stings, shaming, SOAP orders, and Web stings,” there is potential to upend the system of human trafficking. 

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