Renée Loth

Today’s slavery

A unified effort to end human trafficking

By Renée Loth
January 29, 2011

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IN NEWARK, 20 young women and girls from West Africa were discovered working in hair-braiding salons for 14 hours a day with no pay. Their employer ruled over the victims, some as young as 10, with beatings, sexual assaults, and voodoo curses. Closer to home, five people were indicted in Quincy for operating brothels in rented apartments using immigrant women kept in a state of debt bondage with threats of deportation. In Danvers, a 13-year old runaway girl was offered to a group of men at a Motel 6 by a woman living at the hotel with her son.

These are a few high-profile cases that resulted in arrests. But the US Department of Justice estimates that hundreds of thousands of people in this country are trafficked for coerced labor or sex. This includes American citizens, especially minor girls and sometimes boys, who are recruited, kidnapped, lured into drugs, beaten, raped, and forced to sell their bodies for money they never keep.

And you thought the 13th Amendment ended slavery.

Human trafficking is the fastest-growing illegal industry in the United States, second only to drugs. Federal authorities believe most trafficking rings are supplying forced labor — for domestic work, agriculture, manufacturing, hair and nail salons, and strip club dancing. But prostitution is close behind, and there can be a thin line between sweatshops and brothels.

Coerced prostitution is increasingly popular among criminal gangs because of its grim utility. An illegal gun or drug can only be sold once. But a girl’s body can be — and is — sold over and over again.

Until recently, most of the effort aimed at combating the sex trade focused on the supply side: repeated arrests of the prostitutes themselves. Nationally, 63 percent of females in juvenile detention are there for prostitution crimes, even though these girls are more accurately the victims.

Advocates estimate that at least nine people are arrested for selling sex for every one person arrested for buying. “You have a violation of human rights that is mischaracterized as a crime, committed by the victim,’’ said Kate Nace Day, a law school professor at Suffolk University. “Except for the exchange of money, these men would be prosecuted for statutory rape.’’

Now there is new attention to the demand side: the men who solicit the sex, and the criminal enterprises that support it. Last week, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley filed legislation creating two new crimes — trafficking of persons for coerced sex, and for forced labor — and increasing penalties for “John crimes’’ that may not have been updated for a century.

Further complicating the fight against sex trafficking is the Internet, which drives the transactions off the street, where they were at least visible to police and social workers. Audrey Porter, a victims’ advocate and self-described survivor of the sex industry, says the life is even more dangerous than when she was young. “Today kids are put in a hotel room and there is no way to find them.’’

And then there are public attitudes. The notion that prostitution is a victimless crime, a rite of passage, or even a glamorous profession is far too prevalent. Swanee Hunt, a former US ambassador whose foundation is launching a national campaign against sex trafficking, put it succinctly: “It isn’t the oldest profession; it’s the oldest oppression.’’ In many ways, the fight against sex trafficking parallels earlier efforts with domestic violence, which once was seen by society as a private matter, if not a spousal privilege. To combat prostitution, the same kind of education will have to take place among police officers, counselors, physicians, and perpetrators, who have long been protected by a culture that minimizes the abuse.

That effort will get a major boost next month at an unlikely venue: the Super Bowl. As with other events that attract revelers away from home, the area around Cowboy Stadium is expected to be a magnet for the sex trade. Jay Ratliff, a star tackle for the Dallas Cowboys and a father of two daughters, is headlining a public service campaign with ads that speak directly to his fans. “Real men don’t buy sex,’’ he says.

The price in ruined lives is higher than anyone should have to pay.

Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.