May 19, 2012 (TSR) – Holly Austin Smith was 14 years old when she was forced into prostitution. A stranger approached her at a local shopping mall and said he could help her become a model, meet celebrities and live a glamorous life.
After two weeks of phone conversations, he persuaded her to run away with him. But Instead of making her a star, he took her to Atlantic City, New Jersey and sold her body to multiple men.
“I knew I needed to adapt or die,” Smith told Xinhua in a phone interview. “So I became what I needed to be to survive the night. I played the part that they (her captors) wanted me to play…I just shut my brain down when I needed to, and I worked through the night for them.”
Human trafficking, defined as coercion into sex work or labor, is a problem worldwide, with such scenarios playing out over and over again. In a bid to stem the tide of what some believe to be hundreds of thousands of victims nationwide, U.S. states have passed a flurry of legislation in recent months.
Virginia passed a package of new anti-human trafficking laws earlier this month. Last month, West Virginia became the 49th U.S. state to criminalize human trafficking.
Ohio created an anti-human trafficking task force in March, after a 2010 Trafficking in Persons Study Commission revealed that around 1,000 U.S.-born children are forced into sex trade in the state every year and roughly 800 immigrants are trafficked. Massachusetts passed its first anti-human trafficking legislation in November.
NOT ENOUGH PROGRESS
Anti-trafficking activists applauded many of the laws. But despite those states’ efforts, Bangkok-based EPCAT International published a report in March saying the U.S. is only making “some progress” in protecting children from sex trafficking.
Indeed, a number of states still fail to provide victims — both children and adults — with the full legal protection that activists say they need. According to the Polaris Project, 42 states lack “safe harbor” laws, which recognize that trafficked minors are victims and prevent them from being prosecuted for prostitution.
Activist groups are also pushing more states to implement ” vacating conviction” laws – the majority of states have not yet done so — which ensure that sex trafficking victims are not treated as criminals and be expunged prostitution convictions from their records.
“Trafficked persons are rarely recognized as victims by the police and prosecutors, and are thus pressured into pleading guilty and/or do not understand the consequences of the charges,” according to the website of the Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center.
“Multiple arrests, incarceration, police violence, deportation, employment and housing discrimination related to having a criminal record, and social stigma are just a few of the barriers faced by those who have been forced into prostitution,” it added.
Crystal DeBoise, co-director of the Sex Workers Project, told Xinhua that criminalizing sex work also spurs it to go underground. “The more secret the location, the less likely anyone will be able to assist potential victims of trafficking,” she said.
Others say that stopping demand for commercial sex is the key to halting trafficking. Activists are also pushing for more victim- centered education for law enforcement.
Smith recalled when she was arrested for prostitution after being forced into it. Police lost interest in her case the moment they realized she was a victim, she said. Now an anti-trafficking advocate who blogs about her 1992 ordeal and educates law enforcement, she said she believes such police attitudes are unchanged in some states.
James Dold, policy counsel for the Polaris Project, told Xinhua the precise scope of the problem remains unclear. Nailing down a figure on the number of victims in the U.S. is difficult, as traffickers do their business in the shadows. Many cases also go unreported, particularly among immigrant communities, as undocumented migrants fear deportation if they go to the police.
CONFUSION, MISINFORMATION BY U.S. MEDIA
Despite much recent media attention toward what the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime last month reported as 2.4 million trafficking victims worldwide, there is much confusion in the public sphere about what sex trafficking is.
Many U.S. news outlets have contributed to that misunderstanding by conflicting the issue with consensual sex work.
Some U.S. papers have published stories, for example, on police sting operations at local massage parlors, running sensationalist headlines but providing little evidence that anyone working in the establishment was a victim of human trafficking.
Others commonly quote politicians voicing platitudes on the fight against human trafficking, but stop short of any serious investigation into the matter, activists said.
DeBoise said that TV news has also promoted inaccuracies, adding that many sex workers are willingly engaged in the trade. And when sex trafficking is not clearly defined, it makes it difficult to find the real cases, she said.