Consenting prostitutes or trafficked victims?

Op-ed: Understanding the reality of sex trafficking begins with insight into the prostitution market.

This isn't the movie "Taken." Liam Neeson isn't going to show up in a black Audi and Versace suit to rescue his innocent victim daughter from gun-wielding Albanian mobsters. Sex trafficking across America is a more clandestine activity, hidden within the commercial sex industry that has flourished in our country for decades, as well as in plain sight under the veneer of legitimate businesses.

Understanding the reality of sex trafficking begins with insight into the market, as well as the perpetrators, victims and customers. The difficulty lies in distinguishing consenting prostitutes from sex-trafficked victims.

Today, commercial sex is advertised both in the street and online. For example, in Washington, D.C., during the dark hours of early dawn women in platform heels and lingerie solicit customers on 10th and K streets. There, willing sex workers walk alongside sex-trafficked victims, without distinction. However, this is dying practice. Given the growing public awareness about sex trafficking and the resulting increased law enforcement, more marketing is taking place online.

Upper crust clientele may peruse sex workers on websites that provide screening services for high-end "adult companionship." An average Joe, on the other hand, can find more economical options under the "escort" section on other sites. After screening for law enforcement, "in-call" providers will give customers an address for the exchange, while "outcall" providers will go to a location provided by the customer, a home or hotel, for example.

The central distinction between consenting prostitution and sex trafficking is the use of force, fraud or coercion for the purpose of exploitation. This can happen in a number of ways, which infrequently involve conventional kidnapping. For example, a woman managing an erotic massage parlor may import women from South Korea and hold them in indentured servitude to repay an inflated visa debt, like in the case of the "Peach Therapy" in Virginia. Susan Lee Gross (a.k.a. Ju Me Lee Gross) was sentenced to two and a half years for bringing women in as sex workers to her Annandale-based massage parlor and laundering the proceeds from the illegal activity, according to the Department of Justice.

Domestic sex traffickers — colloquially referred to as "pimps" — often feign love and affection for new recruits, filling a void in their lives through the provision of food, shelter, clothing, fellowship and esteem, before coercing or deceiving the victim into the commercial sex industry. Then, the trafficker uses threats, drugs and violence to maintain compliance. Both of these types of sex trafficking involve creating a virtual tether between the offender and the victim, instead of a physical chain, as depicted in Hollywood portrayals.

Human traffickers can be best described as wolves in sheep's clothing. They manipulate their victims into believing they are heroes or Casanova lovers.

"Why does a prostitute need a pimp? To guide her, to love her, to protect her. The pimp is her father that she never had. He is that big brother that she misses, or the boyfriend from back in the day. ... He is the popular guy in school that never paid her attention in class. To her, he is what Christ is to a Christian. …The blood that pumps in her heart and keeps her legs moving. Without him, there's no her," Carlos Curtis, who is serving life in prison for sex trafficking a 12-year-old girl from New York to Washington, D.C., told me in an interview.

While these traffickers may be hidden in the shadows of society, men who patronize their victims are our husbands, fathers, brothers and colleagues. They have graduate degrees, loving families and successful legitimate careers. They often love their wives but are bored in the bedroom. According to one "John," a former journalist and current media relations specialist, "I'm not paying for sex, I'm paying for a different experience and to walk away afterward." This "John" is one of many men who refer to themselves as "hobbyists" or "mongers" in online erotic review forums. While many of these men may intend to transact with consenting prostitutes, they inadvertently receive services from victims of human trafficking. Ultimately, although they may not condone the forced, defrauded or coerced exploitation of a sex-trafficked victim, these men still fail to alert authorities for fear of self incrimination.

This is the reality of sex trafficking in cities across America. Unlike Hollywood depictions, sex trafficking victims in real life are difficult to distinguish from consenting prostitutes. This failed distinction has led to the erroneous criminalization of sex trafficked victims and failed prosecution of sex traffickers. Understanding this reality is key to combating the human trafficking scourge in our country.

Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco serves as a human trafficking expert witness for criminal cases; her book, "Hidden in Plain Sight: America's Slaves of the New Millennium," is contracted for publication in 2017 with Praeger/ABC-Clio. Her Twitter handle is @MehlmanOrozco.

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