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Overlaps of Prostitution, Migration and Human Trafficking

Ambassador Mark P. Lagon, Director of the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons
Berne, Switzerland
November 12, 2008

Good morning. It is a tremendous pleasure to be with you today as chair of the U.S. inter-ministerial group. Congratulations to the organizers of this conference for boldly offering a provocative topic so important to practical efforts of law enforcement to help victims. The notion of “overlaps” between prostitution, migration, and human trafficking conjures a neat diagram with clear lines demarking prostitution from human trafficking, which relies on force, fraud, or coercion, and is a form of modern-day slavery.

But the picture of prostitution and human trafficking that the U.S. Government sees is not a value-neutral diagram of overlapping circles. Two years after the enactment of the TVPA, the U.S. Government adopted a strong position against prostitution in a December 2002 policy decision, which notes that prostitution is inherently harmful and dehumanizing and fuels trafficking in persons. Turning people into dehumanized commodities creates an enabling environment for human trafficking. The United States Government opposes prostitution and any related activities, including pimping, pandering, or maintaining brothels as contributing to the phenomenon of trafficking in persons. These activities should not be regulated as a legitimate form of work for any human being.

This policy represents a significant paradigm shift. U.S. policy now categorizes prostitution as primarily a harmful phenomenon rather than a neutral work choice or market transaction. Why? Because prostitution fuels human trafficking. Because few activities are as brutal and damaging to people as prostitution. And because organized crime networks do not protect prostituted people.

People in prostitution should not be stigmatized or punished. But those who benefit from human trafficking – both pimps selling and abusing people and any others who share the profits – should indeed be stigmatized and punished. Those who form the clientele of prostitution should at a minimum be made aware of the causes and consequences of trafficking and the possibility that they could be participating in such a horrific crime.

At the local level, more and more law enforcement operations are partnering with non-governmental groups to find ways to formally confront the demand for prostituted people, raising awareness about the phenomenon of human trafficking, while improving techniques for identifying, and caring for, sex trafficking victims.

As many of you know, combating human trafficking is a top priority for the U.S. Government. I have the privilege of leading the State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, which is a focal point for anti-trafficking efforts, across the U.S. government.

One of our primary jobs is to compile the annual Trafficking in Persons Report, first issued 8 years ago. The TIP Report covers sex trafficking and labor trafficking looking at the dimensions of prosecution, protection, and prevention in each country. One of the great benefits of this document is that it draws from hundreds of sources, from all over the world. So the material the office accumulates allows us to discern patterns and practices regarding the modus operandi of traffickers, among other things.

One phenomenon has been clear from the beginning: Under the guise of legal and beneficial migration, traffickers are grossly exploiting the aspirations of thousands of poor women and girls, luring them with promises of jobs as waitresses, or nannies, or models, and delivering them through force, fraud or coercion to brothels worldwide, voracious for new flesh.

The U.S. Government estimates that approximately 800,000 men, women, and children are trafficked across international borders. (This is not to mention the millions more trafficked within countries, especially vast ones.) Two-thirds of these transnational victims are trafficked into commercial sexual exploitation. So trafficking for prostitution is the single biggest category of transnational human trafficking.

And what is that experience like? What does it mean to be prostituted?

The vast majority of women in prostitution don’t want to be there. Few seek it out or choose it, and most are desperate to leave it. A 2003 study first published in the scientific Journal of Trauma Practice found that 89% of women in prostitution wanted to escape but had no other means of survival.[1]

Few activities are as brutal and damaging to people as prostitution. Field research in nine countries concluded that 60-75% of women in prostitution were raped, 70-95% were physically assaulted, and 68% met the criteria for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in the same range as treatment-seeking combat veterans[2] and victims of state-organized torture.[3]

Beyond this shocking abuse, the public health implications of prostitution are devastating and include a myriad of serious and fatal diseases, including HIV/AIDS. One of the first studies of women trafficked during the migration process concluded, 6 years ago, that research on prostitution has overlooked, “The burden of physical injuries and illnesses that women in the sex industry sustain from the violence inflicted on them, or from their significantly higher rates of hepatitis B, higher risks of cervical cancer, fertility complications, and psychological trauma.”[4] There is still too little research on this subject.

So last year, my office funded a groundbreaking study by Dr. Jay Silverman on sex trafficking and HIV within South Asia which was published last summer in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The conclusions are truly disturbing. Among Nepalese women and girls who were repatriated victims of sex trafficking, the Silverman study found that 38% were HIV positive. The majority were trafficked prior to age 18. One in seven were trafficked before age 15, and among these very young girls, over 60% were infected with HIV.

Why? Very young girls were more frequently trafficked to multiple brothels and for longer period of time. Moreover, so-called customers seek out young girls with the purpose of avoiding getting HIV/AIDS, and in a cruel irony give them HIV/AIDS. The children suffer from two traumas: being prostituted and violated, as well as getting a devastating disease.

Prostitution contributes to sex trafficking and badly damages the people who are ensnared. And the criminals engaged in human trafficking will never turn benevolent. Organized crime networks do not register with the government, do not pay taxes, and do not protect prostituted people.

As we will hear from my colleague on the panel, the Swedish Government has found that much of the vast profit generated by the global prostitution industry goes into the pockets of human traffickers. The Swedish Government has said, “International trafficking in human beings could not flourish but for the existence of local prostitution markets where men are willing and able to buy and sell women and children for sexual exploitation.”[5]

Everywhere there is a thriving sex industry exploiters need to generate a supply for the ravenous market to consume fellow human beings as sex commodities. Where do they turn? They turn to vulnerable populations: foreign migrants and minors. Any effort to successfully combat human trafficking, specifically sex trafficking, must confront not only the supply of vulnerable women and children, but the demand which perpetuates this evil.

On the supply side, criminal networks; corruption; lack of education and misinformation about employment opportunities and the degrading nature of work promised; and poverty make people vulnerable to the lures of trafficking. Significant efforts are being made to address these "push" factors, but they alone are not the cause. Importantly, we are increasingly focused on new initiatives to counter the voracious demand which fuels this dark trade in human beings.  While global law enforcement efforts to punish sex traffickers have resulted in significant penalties and jail time, we are still too often seeing thousands of johns walk away without any penalty.

There are things that governments can and should do to counter demand. At a minimum, they should target awareness campaigns at the clients of prostitution to educate them about the causes and consequences of trafficking. An example of how some local authorities in the United States have implemented a variety of measures to deter sex buyers, known as ‘Johns’ is a “Dear John” public education campaign launched in November 2006 by Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin aimed at eliminating commercial sexual exploitation of children and putting “Johns” on notice that there are strict penalties associated with this crime.

Several U.S. cities, including San Francisco, Brooklyn, NY and Tacoma, WA operate “John Schools” that educate first offenders who have been arrested for buying sex. These programs sensitize men to the legal, health and other risks and effects of prostitution, and reinforce the message that prostitution is not victimless. The programs make it clear that prostituted women are often victims not volunteers, caught in a life they want to leave, regularly under duress and subject to violence by pimps and their so-called “clients.”  Therefore, the First Offender programs, or John Schools, provide sex buyers with information from the perspective of women and men who have been prostituted, including how they came into prostitution, histories of sexual abuse, and trauma and addiction problems. I have attended one in San Francisco.

A fascinating recent assessment of commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking demand reduction, commissioned by the U.S. Department of Justice demonstrates that these programs ­– the John Schools – are successful. We are now funding a study to see if we can get a benchmark on whether Johns Schools work elsewhere – namely in South Korea.

Last week, a coalition of San Francisco public officials including a popular left-leaning mayor and the leading district prosecutor, together with feminists, church groups, and businesses, spoke out against a local initiative to relax laws against prostitution. Rather than accept the positive sounding cliché that the law would “decriminalize prostitution,” opponents emphasized that the reality of such laws is to “decriminalize pimping.” Prop K was defeated. One of the major motives for opposing the initiative given by law enforcement was that decriminalization makes it harder to identify sex trafficking victims.

In New York earlier this year, important legislation was approved by the state legislature that provides prostituted minors with services rather than jail time. It was called the Safe Harbor Law, and has been signed by the left-leaning Governor of New York State. This step is striking in rebuffing the opinion voiced by others that even minors 15 years of age and younger should be jailed – treated as criminals rather than solely as victims. Most prostituted women in the U.S. enter “The Life” as minors, under age 18.

Even private business is increasingly wary of how an “Old Think” attitude toward prostitution – that no one gets hurt – facilitates sex trafficking. Pressured by numerous state Attorney Generals, one of the country’s biggest Internet social networking sites – which acts as America’s largest single one-stop-source of “want ads” – recently announced that customers advertising “erotic services” would have to provide identification in order to list their ad. This addressed the hazard that this Web site was a catalyst for sex trafficking of minors and indeed adults.

Finally, local police increasingly have sufficient skills and knowledge about the crime of human trafficking to recognize its characteristics: A few weeks ago, in Baltimore, local police raided a brothel and identified several prostituted women as Mexican victims of human trafficking. As trafficking victims they would qualify for a special visa and for all benefits offered to refugees. This kind of local-level identification of victims was simply not happening often in the United State five to eight years ago.

What a difference knowledge makes…

In conclusion, the United States has endorsed a bipartisan policy that:

  • We need a more and more victim-centered approach.
  • We need to look for sex trafficking victims among vulnerable populations in prostitution and migrant workers being considered for deportation.
  • Yet importantly, we need to realize that prostitution is not victimless.
  • State regulated prostitution is not a solution to sex trafficking, but by providing a guise behind which the traffickers can hide, can be a contributing factor to it.
  • Where prostitution is criminalized, victims must not be blamed or punished; those who traffic or buy them should be.

The United States is steadily increasing our success in demanding justice for the victims – seeing they deserve help, getting them access to their rights, and punishing their exploiters as part of what society owes them.

[1] Farley, Melissa et al. 2003. "Prostitution and Trafficking in Nine Countries: An Update on Violence and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder." Journal of Trauma Practice, Vol. 2, No. 3/4: 33-74; and Farley, Melissa. ed. 2003. Prostitution, Trafficking, and Traumatic Stress. Haworth Press, New York.
[2] Farley, et al.
[3] Ramsay, R. et. al. 1993. "Psychiatric morbidity in survivors of organized state violence including torture." British Journal of Psychiatry. 162:55-59.
[4] Raymond, J. et al. 2002. A Comparative Study of Women Trafficked in the Migration Process. Ford Foundation, New York.
[5] Swedish Ministry of Industry, Employment, and Communications. 2004. Fact Sheet: Prostitution and Trafficking in Women. http://www.sweden.gov.se/content/1/c6/01/87/74/6bc6c972.pdf

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