Sex Trafficking: A Widespread Problem Affecting the Capital Region

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Activists Diary

Activists’ Diary is a new space in the Co-op Voice for local activists to share their experiences and insights. Honest Weight Food Co-op members are involved and concerned participants not only in co-op, food safety and nutrition matters, but also in significant issues of concern in the wider community. The views expressed in this column are those of the authors and are not intended to reflect the views of the Co-op Voice team or HWFC.

This month we hear two member-owners describe their passionate interest in health and justice issues affecting the Capitol District. Jessica Rae describes sex trafficking and sheds light on situations one might not otherwise understand. Grace Nichols describes some of the issues surrounding the Sheridan Ave. steam station and how the Capitol District should be generating its power [click here to read it!]. Please send us your thoughts on the Activists’ Diary and on the work of these committed member-owners.


On February 22, I attended a screening of Very Young Girls (Schisgall & Alvarez, 2007), a film about sex trafficking in the United States. The Capital District Women’s Bar Association (CDWBA) sponsored the event held at Albany Law School.

Trafficking Overview

Human trafficking is a multi-billion dollar industry. In the United States alone, an estimated 50,000 girls and women are trafficked (Burn, 2011, p. 166). According to 22 U.S. Code § 7101 (2000), “Human trafficking is the largest manifestation of slavery today and involves the exploitation and commoditization of sexual and physical servitude through force, fraud, and coercion” (Ruscito, R., 2017, pp. 34, 35). As a woman, a sexual abuse survivor, and a believer in protecting and caring for children, it is upsetting to learn just how widespread and harmful human trafficking—especially sex trafficking—is.

Despite widespread stereotypes, trafficking affects more than economically vulnerable foreigners smuggled over borders. Although Ruscito (2017) noted the common misperception that physical transportation of a victim is necessary for trafficking, the 2017 Department of State Trafficking in Persons Report states “a victim need not be physically transported from one location to another for the crime to fall within this definition [of human trafficking].” Notably, New York State has the fourth worst sex trafficking problem in the country. Furthermore, socio-economic status alone does not determine vulnerability to trafficking; traffickers are found in low-income, suburban, and higher income communities.

Malangone and Crank (n.d.) observe that traffickers manipulate their victims regardless of the relationship (Ruscito, 2017, p. 35) and use “revenge porn,” which is “nonconsensual pornography, defined as the distribution of sexually graphic images of individuals without their consent,” to force victims into the sex trade. The internet has made it easier for traffickers to target victims, who are predominantly 13-year-old girls, but young boys and women are also at risk. More problematic is that “the “dark web” [has] driven the sex trade even further underground, virtually eliminating most street solicitations” (Ruscito, 2017, p.35). Some people speculate that the recently passed law, Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA), will drive the industry even further underground.

Very Young Girls: The Film and Its Maker

One of the producers of the film Very Young Girls is Rachel Lloyd, who founded Girls Educational & Mentoring Services (GEMS), an organization located in New York City that helps girls and young women who are victims of commercial sexual exploitation and domestic trafficking exit the industry and improve their lives. Rachel’s advocacy ensured the passage of New York State’s Safe Harbor for Sexually Exploited Children Act in 2008. It is the first law in the country to protect instead of punish trafficked and exploited youth. In addition, she has won many awards, such as the Reebok Human Rights Award, and has published the book Girls Like Us and various articles.

The film features scenes inside the GEMS supportive housing facility, on the streets, and footage acquired from pimps filming their victims. In it, Rachel herself mentors the girls at GEMS. She attempts to track down and help a girl who was previously in the GEM program and went back into the industry, but this time in Florida. The film shows that it is difficult for the girls to get out of the industry, commonly known as “the life.”

The trafficked girls featured in the film are mostly 13-years-old and African American, a demographic sadly over-represented among victims of sex trafficking. As the GEMS site states, “commercial sexual exploitation is intrinsically linked to racism, poverty, gender-based violence, and the criminalization of youth.”

Pimps typically seduce girls by treating them like girlfriends in the beginning. Later, they abuse and sell their bodies. Much of what keeps the girls from leaving is that the pimps do not allow them to have money; they use psychological manipulation, isolate them, and track their phones. The footage from Very Young Girls that demonstrates this is heartbreaking. It shows pimps forcing girls to work long hours while providing them little food. There were several clearly exhausted girls. When one said she couldn’t do the work anymore, her pimp told her no one would want her if she tried to leave.

A large part of raising awareness about sex trafficking is to correct the misconception that trafficking is voluntary prostitution. The film demonstrated the fallacy of this way of thinking when the mother of a girl who is only 13 blames her child for being trafficked.

Sex Trafficking, In the Capital Region and Beyond

A discussion with Melanie Puorto Conte, former Schenectady County Safe Harbour Coordinator and Jennifer Abrams, Program Manager for Victim Advocacy Services of Planned Parenthood followed the film screening at the Albany Law School. Both shared a great deal of information about the state of sex trafficking in the Capital region, who it affects, how it is done, and what can be done to help those who are trafficked.

According to Puorto, many trafficked cases in the Capital region are intra-familial, in which a family member engages in commercial sexual exploitation with the child. Child porn charges have increased in the area and 49% of all trafficked are children. Massage parlors, motels, and other ubiquitous establishments are common places for trafficking locally.

Abrams noted the tendency to treat victimization as a criminal matter, because there is confusion between a trafficking survivor and a prostitute. Typically, these young victims have up to 20 buyers per night and bring in up to $1,000 per night. That $365k goes directly to the pimp, tax-free. It is not a career choice for the trafficked survivor. Oddly, the victims are arrested and charged exponentially more than the pimps (Ruscito, 2017), and this can lead to stigma for the victim. Out of every 1,000 victims, only 1% of them are documented as such. Abrams therefore emphasized the need for understanding in police treatment of victims, in hospitals, and in court.

Puorto and Abrams discussed the treatment of women in hospitals at length, presumably because this is the best access an advocate has to currently victimized girls. Abrams pointed out the need for sensitivity and training in hospitals, and the need for cooperation from hospitals to move the victim to a safe place. Additionally, there are difficulties when police withhold a victim’s ID and personal affects, or when medical professionals use rape kits insensitively or not at all. Puorto called this subtle criminalization, another result of stigma. Hospitals sometimes send victims away with no food, clean clothes, or bus fare. Abrams expressed concern that the high turnover in hospitals creates a need for consistent training and for advocates to be present at all times.

The laws in place have not alleviated the problem. Jennifer Abrams said there is a better way than secure detention, which punishes the trafficked individual. She described how authorities wouldn’t permit her to visit a 19-year-old incarcerated victim. These restrictions make it more difficult to help victims and charge traffickers. The Trafficking Survivors Relief Act of 2017 is in the introductory phase. It aims to “expunge [or dismiss] arrests for criminal offenses committed by trafficking victims that directly result from or relate to having been a trafficking victim.”

Trafficking Awareness and Prevention

The main take-away from the Albany Law School event is that raising awareness will increase prevention. It is important to know the signs of a trafficked person, to know who is vulnerable to being trafficked, to understand how traffickers trap and keep their victims. Trafficking is a problem in the Capital region and there are multiple ways to help.

Signs of a Trafficked Victim:

  • Multiple girls returning to the same man
  • Lack of eye contact
  • Odd work hours
  • Bruises/injuries
  • Suddenly have a lot of money or expensive clothes
  • Starvation, malnourished
  • Assaulted, but won’t give a reason for it
  • Tattoos, branding, cutting (used to show ownership of victims)
  • Gang involvement

Who is Vulnerable?

  • Children: Boys and Girls (especially ages 12-14), of all social strata
  • Victims of sex abuse
  • Victims of domestic violence
  • Foster children
  • Children who had a mother who was commercially exploited
  • Runaways
  • LGBTQA, especially children
  • Those staying in motels because of lack of affordable housing — predators seek out families living in motels
  • Those with an incarcerated parent
  • Those with low self-esteem
  • The hungry
  • The homeless
  • Those with a language barrier
  • People affected by social or natural disasters
  • Undocumented or ostracized individuals (no social services, poverty, economic insecurity)
  • Girls and adult women enticed by modeling careers; or, in the Capital Region case of trafficker Keith Raniere (aka NXIVM), self-improvement and spiritual growth
  • Inmates
  • Developmentally-delayed individuals

How do traffickers trap their victims?

  • They prey on addicts or get them addicted.
  • They use sextortion, “private control and the abuse of power stemming from unauthorized possession of a personal image or video.”
  • Cyberenticement (child enticement using the internet) through social media, which is true for the Capital region.

How do traffickers do business?

  • Through sites such as Craigslist, Facebook, Twitter, kik, Reddit, and Backpage
  • Texting images
  • Using bitcoin for currency, which can’t be traced
  • Using psychological terrorism
  • Using legitimate businesses such as motels, nail salons and restaurants
  • Some truckers help traffickers, although there is an anti-trafficker trucker organization called Truckers Against Trafficking.

Why Victims Stay Trafficked:

  • Worries that trafficker will find her. Pimps use GPS to track the girls.
  • They have no place to go
  • They are addicted
  • They need the income to care for their family

How to Help:

Safety Tips for Young People:

  • Never give your phone to a stranger. Predators can track you with GPS.
  • Be cautious of posting YouTube videos. Predators search for young people to victimize on YouTube.
  • Never send nude pictures or videos over the phone or internet.

Other Sex Trafficking Awareness-Raising Work

The CDWBA Committee on Sex Trafficking, which sponsored the Albany Law School event, is the only one of its kind in New York State. For more information about the committee, contact Alyssa Talanker at ‘trafficking@cdwba.org‘.

Annu Subramanian is an educator and a strong advocate for human trafficking awareness. Her novel, Another Heaven, covers human rights abuse, fanatical religious beliefs (fundamentalism), and the psychological fraud of terrorism. Through publicizing her novel, Annu is raising awareness about these issues to colleges, secondary schools, book clubs, and support groups. “Jaagrata,” interpreted her work in a dance production, which has raised funds for women’s shelters. Stay tuned for her campaign on body shaming, called “I Am Enough.”

National Human Trafficking
Resource Center
Call 1.888.373.7888 / Text HELP or
INFO to BeFree (233733)

References:

Burn, S.M. (2011). Women across cultures: A global perspective. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Ruscito, R., (2017). Human trafficking: National problem, local solution. NYCOM Municipal Bulletin: Frame of Reference, Summer, 34-37.

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Jessica Rae, Member-Owner since 2008, attended this Board meeting and provided notes for this report. Her focus is on completing her English degree in Brockport. Jessica maintains connections to the Co-op because she loves the food, community, and believes that a Co-op like ours is essential local infrastructure needed for the community to thrive well into the future.