Sex Trafficking: Myths, Signs, and Connections to Utah

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[Ed Note: This is a guest post from the indomitable feminist activist, and animal liberator, Natalie Blanton.]

Last week, I had the chance to go to the University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law’s event “The Invisible Crime: Human Trafficking in Utah” and hear from Captain Fernando Rivero, MPH, EMT-P of the Utah Trafficking in Persons Task Force.

I was definitely intrigued by the topic as we often hear of sex and human trafficking as a far and away issue – but, what with recent news like Arizona’s proactive Super Bowl sting operations– the issue is suddenly, and finally, visible in our own back yard. The idea that sex trafficking is a “developing world” problem is a myth that Rivero set out to dispel early in his talk. Sex trafficking is a $36 billion a year industry, second only to the illegal drug trade. It is $9.8 billion industry here in the United States. Every year, between 100,000-300,000 underage girls (average age 12-14 years old) are sold for sex in the US. In fact, on the Global Slavery Index of 2014, the USA ranks 145/160. The Polaris Project has recently cited Utah as the “most improved” state on this front – but we still have a long way to go.

Rivero encouraged his audience to think critically about human trafficking and cultural contributors to this problem – this question becomes much more complex and intricate in the conservative Utah setting, and it is closely linked to Utah’s problem with sexual assault more generally because 80-90% of human trafficking victims have been sexually assaulted. As we know, 1 in 3 women in Utah will be sexually assaulted, and 20% of women will be sexually assaulted on college campuses, which is finally of great emphasis on the University of Utah campus as the student government just rolled out their rendition of the It’s On Us movement this week. This issue should certainly matter to anyone and everyone, because it infringes on our basic human right: freedom.

Another myth that Rivero spoke to was that trafficking victims are mainly “undocumented immigrants.” False. Victims could be any of us – anyone who has been oppressed or marginalized in any vein of their identity. We also need to do away with the caricature of “pimps” that we have – rarely do they don fur coats and gold chains — the recruiters are anybody and exist anywhere and everywhere (52% of recruiters are men and 48% are women) and they are typically nationals of the country were the trafficking is occurring.

Where is human trafficking happening?

Housekeepers, nannies, agriculture sector, nail salons, restaurants, construction sites, mall kiosks, traveling sales crews. Rivero says that these are all common avenues for trafficking victims to travel upon.

Where is sex trafficking happening?

In Salt Lake City, Rivero cites these spaces as notorious for keeping sex-trafficked victims in their confines: shady motels, Asian and Reike massage parlors, truck stops, escort services, exotic dance clubs, internet services.

Who are the “Johns”?

Anyone and everyone, butt typically male. Penalties for buyers are mere misdemeanors – while it is the sex trafficked victims who get in trouble for this “solicitation of sex.” Rivero mentioned, briefly, the New Zealand model – a decriminalizing of the sex workers, themselves, but more criminalizing those who make the profit and the business of this, the pimps and the John’s. Which I am all for.

Rivero went on to talk about child prostitution—which he contested, saying,

“Children are not prostitutes. It is a mislabeling because no little boy or girl grows up saying I want to be a prostitute. Calling a trafficked minor a child prostitute implies they have a choice.”

He threw out a startling statistic: 1 in 5 pornographic images is of a child. And that oftentimes, children within sex trafficking will bring in up to $400 an hour, whereby adult female prostitutes in SLC, anecdotally, Rivero said, bring in $25-40 per sexual encounter. The most upsetting of all of this? Because of the lack of data, enforcement, and underground nature of child sex trafficking, only 1-2% of child victims will ever be rescued.

Ending with a call to action:

Rivero said to keep watch for these specific risk factors for sex trafficking victims:

  • History of abuse–sexual assault or domestic violence
  • Homelessness–vulnerability is heightened when a person’s basic needs aren’t being met
  • Runaways–within the first 48 hours, 1 in 3 youth will be lured into prostitution
  • The “throwaway” kids–individuals who have been kicked out of their parent’s home, oftentimes LGBTQ identifying individuals
  • Substance abuse
  • Kids in foster care

Red flags to keep an eye out for:

  • Older partners [and traveling with that older partner]
  • Signs of trauma, fear, substance abuse
  • Branding or tattooing
  • Sexually explicit online profiles. Rivero says that recruiters are turning to social media seeking vulnerable individuals, they also utilize websites like backpage.com, malls, or music and modeling scams.

Rivero does great work on this front, there is no doubt about that. However, I want to employ a more critical lens of this “invisible crime,” as so often throughout this presentation, the term “throwaway women” was utilized. Rivero stated that this is what society thinks of prostitutes in general, never giving much weight or thought to their background. I will agree with Rivero in his statement, “We need to change the way we think about prostitution” and take it a step further, instead of the “save-them” narrative, and abolition approach, what about an empowerment and sex-positive culture? Where would that take us? What about decriminalizing all sex workers, especially if Rivero and his team cite that so many of them have been sex trafficking victims themselves? What about sex worker unions?

Rivero stated that pornography is a gateway to sex trafficking – which I have to contest as this, yet again, falls into the sex-negative culture. It is the lack of sex positivity and education that allows for these horrors to continue. We do need to rethink prostitution, but I think we need to start with rethinking sex and gender – and begin raising all youth to be confident and stop slut shaming before it starts.

You can find the link to the talk and I believe a full recording here.

Update: This article previously cited the Swedish Model, but was changed to include the New Zealand model. 

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