Op-Ed

Fighting sex trafficking is everyone’s job | Opinion

“If you see something, say something” is a popular catchphrase used by law enforcement officials to encourage all of us to be on the lookout for suspicious activity, primarily in the context of terrorism.

But we are all expected as part of our civic duty to step up and notify the appropriate authorities when we become aware of other situations, such as domestic violence, child endangerment — or even a dog left alone in a hot car. As the recent criminal investigation into the Orchids of Asia Day Spa in Jupiter, Florida, remind us, we need to add human sex trafficking to that list.

Sex trafficking is an activity that is at once invisible and right in front of our eyes. In hindsight, there were clues that the spa was operating a sex shop, but nobody — including the neighboring business owners and their regular customers — saw the signs. That’s because traffickers go to great lengths to conceal their activities, using cash instead of credit cards or electronic banking, moving their operations around and changing their travel and transportation routines.

But there are often subtle clues and data trails that law enforcement can follow to detect and disrupt trafficking networks. Large cash transactions in retail stores in a specified area, petty thefts (particularly of feminine hygiene products, soap and toothpaste, as traffickers tend not to provide such items for their victims) and sexually suggestive ads on social media — all can be analyzed to help detect networks.

These red flags and clues are there if we look hard enough. But are we looking? There are a number of misconceptions about human trafficking that must be dispelled if we are to recognize the problem in front of us:

1. This can’t still be going on in 2019: Yes, it can, and it is. An estimated 25 million men, women and children are victims of human trafficking globally. According to a U.N. report, 54 percent of victims were trafficked for the purpose of sexual exploitation.

2. These are small operations: Forced labor and sexual exploitation generate an estimated $150 billion in illegal profits a year, which makes it the second-largest source of profit for organized crime groups, behind only drug trafficking. One estimate puts sex-trafficking profits alone at $99 billion a year.

3. This is consensual sex, and the workers are getting paid: Human trafficking preys on vulnerable people — such as runaways or immigrants. It relies on fraudulent recruitment practices, such as the promise of legitimate employment or a better life, then turns into sexual slavery through coercion, deception or force. The women at the Orchids of Asia Day Spa had no access to transportation and were periodically moved from location to location. They had their passports taken away. Police said the women were lured here with the promise of jobs as housekeepers or restaurant staff.

4. This might be prevalent in other countries, but is rare here: Sex trafficking happens everywhere. Human trafficking victims in the United States number in the hundreds of thousands, and the U.S. Department of Defense has called it the fastest growing crime in the world.

5. Sex workers in the United States typically are foreigners: Not necessarily. According to one report on juveniles involved in sex trafficking, 83 percent of confirmed sex trafficking incidents involved U.S. citizens.

In my research into the use of data analytics to disrupt and dismantle sex-trafficking networks, I find it useful to think about sex trafficking as a business, subject to the rules of supply and demand.

In terms of supply, awareness campaigns can play a key role in keeping potential victims from falling prey to traffickers. Since poverty and lack of employment opportunities are key drivers, evidence suggests that empowerment-oriented interventions such as education, vocational training and skill-building can have an even greater impact.

On the demand side, potential customers need to understand that sex trafficking is a crime against another person: It is immoral, hurtful and unethical. All of us need to keep an eye out for suspicious activity. If you see something, say something. Nothing will change unless everyone takes responsibility.

Renata Konrad, an associate professor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute’s Foisie Business School.

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