It has been almost two decades since I first learned that slavery still exists in the world. That knowledge has motivated me personally and professionally ever since. My research includes labor and sex trafficking – both serious problems in Texas – but in this article, I deal only with sex trafficking, the topic of a recent World Affairs Council of Dallas/Fort Worth program entitled Evil at Our Door: Human Trafficking, hosted by Rosie and former Mayor Mike Moncrief at the Fort Worth Club.
I want to make three main points about sex trafficking in the United States.
The first is that sex trafficking is a highly gendered issue. I have collected data on more than 900 federal prosecutions of sex trafficking across the United States, and 99 percent of the victims are female while the traffickers and the buyers are heavily male.
The power dynamic here cannot be overstated. Men are buying and selling women and girls as commodities, objects and instruments for their profit and pleasure.
The second point is that this issue is also highly racialized. In partnership with Thorn, a Los Angeles-based organization, I surveyed more than 300 sex trafficking survivors across the U.S. Of these, 44 percent were African-American females, despite the fact that this demographic comprises only 7 percent of the overall population in the U.S.
Moreover, in interviews I conducted with convicted traffickers in federal prison, they noted that they base their pricing structure on a variety of factors, one of which is race where a black victim costs less than a white or Asian victim. This is partially due to the greater supply of black victims, but I believe it is also a testament to the devaluing of black female bodies in our society.
The third point is that the underground commercial sex economy is one of the highest profit-generating black markets in the world. I recently published an article on the economic impact of the illicit massage industry in Houston, and this research revealed that this one tiny segment of the much larger commercial sex economy in Houston yields $107 million in annual revenue.
We see this demand in Fort Worth, as well. I teach a class on human trafficking at TCU and part of the experiential learning aspect of the course is to observe demand for online prostitution right down the street from the university.
In the class, we post an ad on a popular online escort site at about 3 p.m. By 7 p.m., this ad has attracted literally hundreds of interested buyers. We tell the buyers to show up at Hawthorne Suites across from Panera Bread on University Drive, while we sit on the patio at Panera and observe those who show up in this very public place.
We tell the buyers to do outrageous things, like lift up their shirt to prove that they are not wired, do cartwheels or stand and wave their arms around. They do it.
We tell them that we are coming down from a drug-induced high and need coffee and ask if they’ll go across the street to get some coffee. They do it.
We tell them that our child is in the room with us; they say the child can sit outside. We tell them we are “barely legal” and they are not deterred.
These men drive up in Lexuses, Mercedes, BMWs, as well as pick-up trucks, minivans, Corollas, and much older beater cars. They range in age from their 20s to their 70s. They talk about their grandchildren. They are every race.
There is literally no profile.
But in the two hours that we sit observing this, on average nine men show up – nine men the woman supposedly behind the door would be forced to have sex in that time span.
At a minimum of $100 per encounter, this is roughly $500 per hour – and almost all that money goes to the trafficker. The victim sees little, if any, of it.
In business terms, the trafficker still has his product on the shelf at the end of the day. It’s smart business for a criminal – the same “unit” can be sold over and over and over again, the likelihood of getting caught is low, and even when he’s caught, the penalty is relatively minor.
This is a complicated issue that deals with violence, greed, poverty, public health, transnational organized crime, visa and immigration fraud, child abuse and neglect, misogyny, power, corruption and discrimination based on gender, race, and ethnicity.
Combatting this crime and restoring dignity to victims begins with a fundamental conviction that all human lives are equal, regardless of nationality, race, gender, education level or socio-economic class.
It is fundamentally about every human’s right to live a dignified life free of force, threats and exploitation. It is striving toward the ideal that every human being is inherently valuable and worthy of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
This is a societal problem, and it is up to the society to change it.
Vanessa Bouché, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Texas Christian University. For more information: VanessaBouche.com and www.humantraffickingdata.org