Human trafficking for the sex industry is a lot more common than you think, and the victims are often minors. This is an unimaginable horror that plagues our society, and thanks to a shortage of mainstream, national reporting, stays in the shadows.

“Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

“Sec. 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”… 

Now, therefore, be it known, that I, William H. Seward, Secretary of State of the United States…do hereby certify that the amendment aforesaid has become valid, to all intents and purposes, as a part of the Constitution of the United States.

In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand, and caused the seal of the Department of State to be affixed.

Done at the city of Washington, this eighteenth day of December, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-five, and of the Independence of the United States of America the ninetieth.

– Proclamation of the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, December 18, 1865.

Today, in the closing days of the two hundred and thirty-seventh year of American Independence, less than one hundred and fifty years since the constitutional abolition of slavery in the United States, we take that abolition completely for granted. That’s a bold statement, I know, but I believe it completely justified.

“Slavery” brings up a definite mental image in the minds of Americans, which more likely than not is that of black slaves, predominately forced agricultural labor, prior to the end of the American Civil War that resulted ultimately in emancipation and abolition. The term gets thrown around a lot in different circles too. I’ve used it as a shock term in describing what I see as our overall decline in condition from citizens of a republic to subjects of a State. It’s been used to describe conditions under which some aliens in the United States today exist because of their presence here in violation of immigration laws. Both are valid, but both also serve to perpetuate visions that keep a real slavery crisis in the shadows.

Just this past week, we heard the sensational story out of Cleveland, Ohio about the three women rescued from captivity at the hands of a sexual predator for a decade. The victims have been referred to, properly, as “slaves”. The story is front page news on a large proportion of print and online media, and among the top stories on broadcast media.

Yesterday afternoon (May 10, 2013), there was another horrific story reported out of the Cleveland area. It hasn’t been reported by CNN. Or Fox News. Or…well, hardly anywhere. I believe that this story isn’t being widely reported because it’s a societal problem so incredible in the breadth and depth of its horrors that many people just can’t process or accept that it could happen here, in the United States.

This story is one of the real faces of slavery in America: young women, many still girls, children, forced into into sexual slavery as prostitutes. There are also cases simply involving forced labor, but I find coerced sex-for-service inflicted upon a victim of any age particularly barbaric. And want to know what’s really scary? It’s probably also going on right now, close to you, within minutes of travel time from where you’re sitting and reading this.

James McCarty writes in the Cleveland Plain Dealer:

Federal prosecutors accused an Elyria man Friday of getting young women — most in their teens — hooked on drugs, forcing them to work as prostitutes, and holding them as “virtual prisoners” in his home.

Jeremy Mack, 37, appeared in U.S. District Court in Cleveland, where he was charged with sex-trafficking of children. He is being held in federal custody without bond pending a detention hearing next week.

Federal prosecutors also charged a co-defendant, Ashley Onysko, 23, of Avon Lake, with recruiting more than a dozen girls and women for Mack, providing them with free heroin, and driving them to motel rooms where they would engage in sex with men.

After the young women became addicted, Onysko would turn them over to Mack, who would compel them to work off their drug debts as prostitutes, according to a 10-page charging document penned by FBI agent Kelly Liberti.

One of the victims rescued from Mack and Onysko’s alleged sexual slave operation is just sixteen years old. The arrests in the case were made about a month ago, and if convicted, the pair face lengthy prison sentences on both narcotics and human trafficking charges.

“Human trafficking” – you probably think that the term requires some smuggling of humans clandestinely between jurisdictions or national borders. I kind of thought that too, before yesterday when I first had occasion to do a little research in preparation for a guest spot on an Internet radio show.

Chapter 77 of Title 18 of the United States Code is entitled “Peonage, Slavery, and Trafficking in Persons”. I’ll highlight just two statutes enacted under Congress’ enumerated power under Section 2 of Amendment XIII to enforce Section 1 of the same:

18 USC § 1590 – Trafficking with respect to peonage, slavery, involuntary servitude, or forced labor

(a) Whoever knowingly recruits, harbors, transports, provides, or obtains by any means, any person for labor or services in violation of this chapter shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 20 years, or both. If death results from the violation of this section, or if the violation includes kidnapping or an attempt to kidnap, aggravated sexual abuse, or the attempt to commit aggravated sexual abuse, or an attempt to kill, the defendant shall be fined under this title or imprisoned for any term of years or life, or both.

18 USC § 1591 – Sex trafficking of children or by force, fraud, or coercion

(a) Whoever knowingly—

(1) in or affecting interstate or foreign commerce, or within the special maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the United States, recruits, entices, harbors, transports, provides, obtains, or maintains by any means a person; or

(2) benefits, financially or by receiving anything of value, from participation in a venture which has engaged in an act described in violation of paragraph (1),

knowing, or in reckless disregard of the fact, that means of force, threats of force, fraud, coercion described in subsection (e)(2), or any combination of such means will be used to cause the person to engage in a commercial sex act, or that the person has not attained the age of 18 years and will be caused to engage in a commercial sex act, shall be punished as provided in subsection (b).

(b) The punishment for an offense under subsection (a) is—

(1) if the offense was effected by means of force, threats of force, fraud, or coercion described in subsection (e)(2), or by any combination of such means, or if the person recruited, enticed, harbored, transported, provided, or obtained had not attained the age of 14 years at the time of such offense, by a fine under this title and imprisonment for any term of years not less than 15 or for life; or

(2) if the offense was not so effected, and the person recruited, enticed, harbored, transported, provided, or obtained had attained the age of 14 years but had not attained the age of 18 years at the time of such offense, by a fine under this title and imprisonment for not less than 10 years or for life.

(c) In a prosecution under subsection (a)(1) in which the defendant had a reasonable opportunity to observe the person so recruited, enticed, harbored, transported, provided, obtained or maintained, the Government need not prove that the defendant knew that the person had not attained the age of 18 years.

There you have it. “Trafficking” can simply be recruiting or impressing people into slavery. And thankfully our national legislature wisely added that “Well officer, she looked like she was over 18 years old,” isn’t a valid defense.

So, a few days ago, Sean Venkman approached me to appear on the Internet radio show he co-hosts with Tyler from NOLA called Real Deal Talk Radio. Episode 2-16, with me in tow, aired on Thursday night, May 9, 2013 and is available for replay. We spent about forty-five minutes discussing human trafficking and sex slavery, using the context of the Castro case in Cleveland as the jumping off point.

When Sean told me what the topic was going to be, I pulled a book I got for Christmas a few years ago off my shelf and thumbed through some of it as a refresher. The book is A Crime So Monstrous: Face-to-Face with Modern Slavery, by E. Benjamin Skinner. Mr. Skinner’s book is a broad view of the world-wide issue of enslaved humans, including forced labor, forced military service (illegitimate conscription), and forced sex. Wanting to have a more domestic focus for the show’s discussion, I turned to online sources.

One of the first things I came across was the documentary film Not My Life. The documentary, like A Crime So Monstrous, gives a worldwide perspective but also tells the stories of two young American women who were forced into prostitution as slaves while teenagers. Both, thankfully, escaped or were rescued. A thirty-minute condensed version of the full film is available at YouTube. I encourage readers to view the entire clip, but for now the segment I’m most interested to have you watch is for five minutes starting at 10:40 (that link goes to the proper starting point).

More than a hundred thousand underaged girls are trafficked for sex in the United States today. They come from all economic and ethnic backgrounds. They are found not only at truck stops, but on the Internet, in motels and hotels, and of course on city streets. (From the clip)

Angie and Sheila, the two brave survivors from the film, were not brought to this country by an international sex slave conspiracy or ring. They were entrapped by slavers right here. Here. The United States. That’s simply abhorrent.

I’m confident that when most Americans think – rarely as they do – about human trafficking, particularly with respect to the sex trade, the images that come to mind are foreigners, predominately eastern Europeans or Asians (since that’s who the victims are in police procedural dramas I’ve seen where the plot uses trafficking), who are smuggled in and forced into prostitution. The human cost to domestic victims just isn’t portrayed, and largely isn’t talked about.

One hundred thousand underaged girls forced into prostitution. That says nothing of the adults who are enslaved by threats of violence against selves or family, forced drug use, or both. Frankly, I don’t think the 100,000 number even scratches the surface of the unthinkable total of victims in our midst.

There is attention being paid, but like this story from May 9, 2013 in The Blaze, most of the victims’ stories discussed and reported involve girls abducted abroad. Those cases are every bit as abhorrent as girls forced into sexual slavery purely domestically, but as with so many other things, it’s easier for people to turn a blind eye when it isn’t about us or people who look like us.

Think back to the Not My Life clip. How would Americans’ reactions to and sense of urgency over sexual slavery in our communities change if the face of the crisis wasn’t a nameless, faceless foreigner but Angie, who frankly even after enduring unimaginable torment as a forced prostitute, still looks like an innocent girl of fifteen or sixteen years old? We’d hope the reaction would be outrage, but probably would still be “it couldn’t happen here” disbelief. What does that say about us as a society?

The next lie in the “it couldn’t happen here” mantra is along the lines of “Well, yes it happens but not in my city, town, or neighborhood.” Nobody wants to see, but it’s there, right in front of each and every one of us if eyes are opened. If you use some of the other resources I located, your eyes will be opened to the potential trafficking operations that are right in front of each of our very eyes.

Once such information source is the Polaris Project for a World Without Slavery. Polaris focuses entirely on human slavery issues in the United States. They deal with both sex and labor trafficking awareness, issues, and advocacy for victims. They have sections for each of the primary fronts or areas where sex trafficking occurs.

Many fronts for sex trafficking are camouflaged or indistinguishable from legitimate businesses. Think about how many store fronts you see on a daily basis during your commute or around your municipality offering “massage”. There are three storefront “Asian” or “Chinese” massage businesses within five miles of my house, which is a hardly a seedy, destitute area. Richland Township, Allegheny County, PA is solidly upper middle class and went for Mitt Romney last November 65.9% to 34.1%. It’s hardly the community where you’d expect a prostitution operation to set up shop, but I looked, and all three of them advertise regularly and repeatedly on websites or sections of websites (I’m not going to give the links) that clearly aren’t focused on promoting the services of licensed massage therapists. Are they legitimate businesses? Do the women who work there do so because they choose to? Who can say for sure?

Authorities south of Pittsburgh in Bridgeville, PA busted a “massage” business for prostitution back in February after a lightning-quick fourteen month investigation. The investigation was expanded to look into trafficking concerns, but there’s no mention in any of the reports of the women who “worked” there, just the three people arrested and charged.

Theresa Flores was blackmailed into becoming a prostitute at age 15 in Detroit, Michigan three decades ago. How was she coerced into sex trafficking? She had been raped by an older man, there were pictures taken during the assault, and she was threatened with exposure if she didn’t comply. The men who trafficked her threatened to kill her and her family if she resisted. Anybody want to say that the prevalence of sexting among American teens doesn’t amplify this kind of entrapment possibility by hundreds of times?

Melissa Woodward was sexually molested and physically abused at age 12 in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area of Texas in the 1980s and then sold into sexual slavery by a family member.

She and 14 other girls were chained to twin beds during the day, and rarely taken to the bathroom. The girls were given ice-cold showers to reduce the swelling on their little bodies. Attendants would cover-up Melissa’s bruises from the night before, put make-up on her, and then present her to another group of men for more abuse and profit. This happened night after night until she felt like “hamburger meat”. She would service between 5 and 30 men a night.

There’s more of Melissa’s story at the above link, and video testimony. I hope you have a strong stomach.

Also this month, charges were filed in New York and New Jersey against 13 members of a human trafficking ring that smuggled young Mexican women for forced prostitution in both urban brothels and among migrant agricultural workers (some I’m sure illegal/undocumented and possibly enslaved themselves) at farms where they labored.

I could continue with additional links to stories such as both underage girls and adult women who were first recruited to work at a legitimate, properly licensed strip club, sexually abused there, provided with  and forced-addicted to drugs, and then forced into prostitution – but I think by now you get the point, and if you want to learn more, you know where and how to look for the information.

One common theme you’ll find though: the stories of sexual slavery - especially those cases where the victims are American-born women and girls - will generally be found only in local newspapers and media outlets. The great lack of national media attention to the situation is both inexplicable and disgraceful. To be fair and to their credit, CNN has an entire site dedicated to ending human trafficking. Perhaps they should give it more air time.

We are never going to get anywhere combatting human trafficking, particularly for the sex trade, unless we’re willing to throw open the curtains, let in the light, and speak frankly, clearly, loudly, and repeatedly about slavery in our midst.

Going back to the story out of Cleveland by James McCarty, it’s well and good that the story was published, but it still minces words and somewhat downplays the horror. The girls and women were not “virtual prisoners” – they were prisoners, and the qualification is all the more depressing in that it was made by the United States Attorney prosecuting the case. There’s another disturbing point to be made from the report, and that’s that for the two arrests made, at least the number of victims rescued equaled or exceeded the number of arrests. Wait, that sounds good, right?

Data and press releases that can be found on the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Human Trafficking page - which itself pulls linguistic punches with its headline, “It’s sad but true: here in this country, people are being bought, sold, and smuggled like modern-day slaves.” (no, they are not like slaves; they are slaves) – clearly show that we’re nowhere near winning this battle and are likely losing it:

Just think about that last one logically: 571 accused in criminal enterprises that only had 48 victims? 10 or more traffickers to obtain, control, and force sexual slavery upon each victim? They’ve got to be missing victims by a factor of at least fifty. And how is it that only ten of the one set of victims were known to the NCMEC? Remember the Melissa Woodward case above?

I know a libertarian argument for trying to solve this problem would be to legalize prostitution. I can categorically say it likely wouldn’t solve a thing, and would likely make trafficking problems even worse. That is what was observed in the Netherlands when most if not all restrictions on prostitution were removed. The number of women – of and under-age – who were trafficked from outside the Netherlands and forced into sexual slavery there increased dramatically after legalization, as cited in A Crime So Monstrous. And in any case, legalization does not remove the likelihood that women and girls will continue to be coerced and forced into sexual slavery in numbers too tragic to comprehend. Legalizing the end act is not going to slow down what is the fastest growing criminal enterprise in the world today: trading in people.

It is established in law in some states, as well as the United States Code, that a minor child cannot consent to becoming a prostitute, and can’t be charged as one. Not every state has those “safe harbor” laws though. The first instinct for law enforcement with respect to prostitution arrests has to first be to determine if the prostitutes are perpetrators or victims. If they’re victims, we are doing them a gigantic disservice (understatement of the century) if their “rescue” leads to a jail cell or juvenile detention, as reportedly happened last year to a 14 year old trafficking victim in Pittsburgh. If decriminalization of prostitution while retaining the laws on trafficking, pimping, etc. and their severe penalties is entertained as a way of making enforcement a “victim first” priority, that’s something I think we should entertain.

This is an issue that is also highly relevant to the current national debate over immigration reform and policy. Many women and girls (and males too, they’re not immune from forced sex rings) who have been trafficked from overseas for sexual slavery (and for non-sexual forced labor, male or female) are either in the United States with no legal status or their travel documents are in the possession of their tormentors. Many if not most of them were enticed into trafficking rings by false promises of better lives. How can we, a nation founded for liberty, tell victims of trafficking that they have no place here? That they must return to their native lands – lands that are so good that they were sold, coerced, or kidnapped into slavery in the first place – without any consideration for being allowed to remain? That the first reaction to “We’re glad you’re safe.” is “Now, get out.”? That’s not as disgusting as turning a blind eye to American slavery in the first place, but close.

I’m not going to pretend I have any solutions. I don’t. I wish I did. I do know that the issue of slavery in America is yet another symptom of misaligned societal priorities. I wrote at my personal blog, Their Finest Hour, last year after Aurora, and then recently after Boston, about how ultimately protecting society, defending home and property, and defending the most vulnerable people among us is up to us: not government, not law enforcement.

Today, we are told that “if it saves one child’s life” we should accept limits on Constitutional rights that are guaranteed by the Second Amendment. Why is there no discussion on Piers Morgan’s show about “saving one child’s life” by remembering that the Thirteenth Amendment isn’t just words on 147 year-old paper?

More importantly: if we have a government who is so willing to ignore clearly established Constitutional rights in many other areas – e.g. Fourth Amendment erosion under the TSA and PATRIOT act, Fifth Amendment property protection rights post-Kelo - why would we expect them, if the chips were down, to give a crap about the Thirteenth Amendment? Doesn’t the evidence we can see all around right now if we open our eyes demonstrate that they’ve already given up on it?

When I transcribed the words of Secretary Seward’s proclamation at the beginning of this post announcing the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, I wept. We have been such poor stewards of what we were given by our forefathers, thousands of whom paid with blood to win that victory. We can’t take anything for granted. We must fight.

To the faces of the children and teachers killed at Newtown, to those of the lost Veronica Moser-Sullivan (Aurora) and Martin Richard (Boston), we can now add the thankfully living faces of Angie and Sheila from Not My Life - one woman white, one woman black – to our banners and our rallying cries. There are thousands of Angies and Sheilas, and ultimately it can be only “We, the people” who are capable of saving them.

We’re the United States. And yes, none of this should happen here.


Please now take a moment and read the “Recognizing the Signs” of human trafficking page at the Polaris Project. There are also additional resources they have available for download. Keep in mind that victims of human trafficking – sexual or non-sexual – can be found almost anywhere, particularly in businesses or enterprises that are using youth or immigrant labor. There are documented cases, for example, of nail and beauty salons catering only to women that are fronts for prostitution and sexual slavery operations.

Do not be afraid to see what you see.

If you suspect that you have come across a victim of human trafficking or an enterprise that is trafficking, please contact local law enforcement and the National Human Trafficking Hotline:

1-888-373-7888

Allan Bourdius (108 Posts)