Humans for sale: the issue of sex trafficking

Danielle Ferguson

Imagine owning a business in which the product offered could be sold time and time again, receiving profit with each purchase.

The idea of a reusable product makes the business of human trafficking very appealing to those wanting to reap great revenues.

“[Human trafficking] is the fastest growing criminal activity in the world because it’s more profitable than any other,” said Cathy O’Keeffe, executive director of Braking Traffik, an Iowa-Illinois servicing sex trafficking awareness group. “A human can be used over and over again.”

Human trafficking occurs when someone is forced to work in the sex trade or provide any kind of labor or service-related labor under conditions of force, fraud or coercion.

More specifically, commercial sex trafficking is the exploitation of any sexual activity in exchange for value, including, but not limited to, prostitution, pornography and performance in strip clubs.

“We certainly have seen those kinds of cases in Iowa. We’ve also had other sex trafficking cases that have been charged with other statutes besides human trafficking,” said Roxann Ryan, attorney for the Iowa Department of Public Safety.

In Iowa, criminals can also be convicted of ongoing criminal conduct because trafficking is, essentially, an ongoing enterprise of selling people. To charge trafficking, however, victims are often needed to testify, which can be a fearful thought for them.

The sentence for being charged with ongoing criminal conduct is the same as conviction of human trafficking: 25 years in prison.

“If you can get the same result without having to put a victim through testify[ing], there might be some big advantages to not charging human trafficking,” Ryan said.

With the criminal acts being charged under ongoing criminal conduct as opposed to human trafficking, the public may not know of the amount of illegal sex acts occurring.

Although often overlooked, Iowa can be seen as a jackpot location for sex traffickers. Being a more laid back, rural state with major highways that run cross country, Iowa has the perfect conditions for sex traffickers to take advantage of.

“Interstate 80 literally goes from California to New York, so it’s a major trafficking route for pretty much everything, legal and illegal. Same goes for I-35,” Ryan said. “Certainly, if you’re going to traffic someone, it’s an ideal place if your ‘business’ is to traffic something or someone.”

According to Polaris Project, a leading organization in the fight against modern-day slavery, there were eight cases of sex trafficking in Iowa in 2012, three of which were from Cedar Rapids.

Truck stops and the internet seem to be hot spots for traffic business. Most transactions are happening online.

“Traffickers use the internet and social media to find victims and to lure people under the age of 18 into trafficking and exploit them,” O’Keeffe said. “With sex trafficking now being advertised on the internet, it’s easy for buyers to find and set up a transaction.”

Online trafficking makes catching these criminals a difficult process. Although police can monitor websites for advertisements, these ads are hard to trace back to the original source and can be quickly taken off the site.

“You can see her and her picture, but you don’t know where she is,” O’Keeffe said.

Pimps, a legal term for someone who sells someone else’s sexual services, know who to look for: vulnerable homeless or runaway youth, the majority being female. Even young girls who are in the safety of their own home become susceptible behind a keyboard, which is why Braking Traffik stresses internet safety so heavily.

“When Braking Traffik goes around to give presentations to colleges [or other schools], we talk a lot about the Internet and social media because that’s something that relates to most people that age,” O’Keeffe said.

Braking Traffik aims to raise awareness, which O’Keeffe said is a main component to fight human trafficking. The more people know about it, the more likely they are to recognize the signs.

Both O’Keeffe and Ryan said the most effective way to end sex trafficking is to end demand for all commercial sex.

“When demand declines, supply does too. If you don’t change demand, it’s hard to affect supply,” Ryan said. “For college students, the one thing is: Reduce demand. Don’t pay for sex. Period.”