The Hard Sell

Americans traveling abroad have seen the anti-human trafficking signs in tourist destinations for years now: warnings to avoid sex with underage prostitutes or face stiff international penalties as a consequence.

Nearly 10 years after the first United Nations protocols to curb human trafficking for sex and slave labor, awareness of what has come to be known as ‘modern-day slavery’ has infiltrated our domestic borders and even trickled down to the local level.

In Columbus, victims’ advocates and rescue organizations are increasingly working to stem what they say is a growing tide of commercial sexual exploitation of young, vulnerable native-born women—including many prostitutes.

But convincing Ohioans that “pimp” is synonymous with “trafficker”–and that young prostitutes should be treated as survivors rather than criminals–has proven to be a hard sell for advocates.

From global to local

Even Columbus’s most vocal activists against human trafficking say they had trouble wrapping their minds around the concept of contemporary slavery when they were first introduced to the movement. For Kae Denino, co-chair of the public awareness committee with the Central Ohio Rescue and Restore Coalition (a collaborative group of Columbus-area anti-trafficking groups), the warning signs she saw during visits to Costa Rica meant little to her until she read about sex slavery in an issue of National Geographic.

“When I got off the plane, there were all these signs that said ‘Don’t have sex with children!’ and I just thought, ‘thank you for your very sage advice.’ I didn’t really understand. It took a little while,” said Denino, who organizes local events to raise trafficking awareness, teaches classes for journalists covering the topic and is active in local and national organizations.

“Since understanding the idea of sex slavery, and from the National Geographic article (“21st Century Slaves,” published in Sept. 2003) and things that I’ve read since, my traveling life is turning toward abolition now,” said Denino. “This is what I’ll do for the rest of my life, is raise money and awareness and move towards freeing slaves as much as possible.”

Since returning from an extended stay in St. Croix earlier this year, Denino, an adjunct professor at Columbus State, has been one of the more public faces of the local anti-trafficking movement. Denino organizes events for the Central Ohio Rescue and Restore Coalition and hopes to be appointed as the co-state director for Not For Sale Ohio, a national anti-trafficking non-governmental organization (NGO).

Last month, Denino hosted Freedom Follies, a live music, dance and craft gala at Wild Goose Creative, the art collective on Summit Street just north of the OSU campus. The event drew the city’s young professionals, creatives and musicians, and the $10 admission fee benefited the Central Ohio Rescue and Restore Coalition (CORRC) and Columbus’s soon-to-be-opened Gracehaven House living facility for rescued Ohio trafficking victims, as well as three international rescue and restore organizations.

Both the CORRC and Gracehaven seek to rescue and rehabilitate not only immigrants and minors kidnapped or otherwise forced into slave labor, but also Ohioans who were, or are still, minors when they were coerced into prostitution by abusive boyfriends or pimps.

“When I say I’m an abolitionist and I fight slavery, people get all excited to write a check to India—which is great—but these girls here who are walking around in maybe Old Navy clothes who look like us but are just as held down by force,” Denino said.

Nobody enters prostitution as an adolescent “because they think it sounds like a better idea than the Girl Scouts,” said Denino. “To talk to people about forced prostitution, according to some people in the movement, that’s redundant. They’re saying that no one really makes that choice—that it’s all, in many ways, forced.”

Like other Columbus-based advocates, she maintains that there is no relevant distinction, according to the legal definitions, between “trafficker” and “pimp,” between being physically forced or psychologically coerced into the commercial sex industry. People who argue otherwise, Denino said, “just don’t have any idea of what kind of mind-frame these girls are working from.”

It’s these “in our own backyard” victims who have generated the recent boom in local awareness campaigns and media coverage. Bringing the issue home to Central Ohioans has been crucial in the lobby for tougher state trafficking laws, as well as for securing funding for domestic victim rehabilitation efforts at anti-trafficking non profits.

But swaying a tough-on-crime public mentality into believing that many street-level prostitutes are, indeed, the victims is an uphill battle, especially since it mandates a distinction between those who enter the criminal lifestyle voluntarily and those who were exploited as minors, kidnapped or forced through violence or psychological coercion. Young victims themselves may not make the connection until they are introduced to the topic through local awareness campaigns. Just ask Theresa Flores.

“I had lived it and didn’t realize that what had happened to me was called human trafficking. I actually went to a conference as a social worker and learned more about it. (I) realized that if I didn’t realize it, then most people didn’t either. That was pretty much the conviction I needed to start telling my story and tell people what (human trafficking) looks like,” said Flores, a Columbus social worker whose sexual exploitation as a minor more than 20 years ago is detailed in her nationally distributed memoir, A Sacred Bath.

The book, which Flores said is the only memoir by an American detailing the domestic sex trafficking of a minor, has made her a public figure within the national anti-trafficking movement and a regular media source, including a recent appearance on MSNBC’s expose “Sex Slaves: The Teen Trade,” which aired in February. Her second book, The Slave Across the Street will be published on January 11, Human Trafficking Awareness Day. Flores is the director of public awareness and training for Gracehaven House and sits on the Ohio attorney general’s newly formed Ohio Trafficking Commission board as a victims’ representative.

Flores’s work is an effort, in part, to reform social and legal systems so that underage and young prostitutes, whether forced violently or coerced through threats, drugs or intimidation, are processed as “survivors” rather than as criminals. Not surprisingly, Flores has met with some resistance.

“There are always the others out there who are the naysayers. So I get a lot of comments about ‘why didn’t you run?’ or ‘why didn’t you tell somebody?’” said Flores. “People who are being prostituted are victims and not doing it by choice—because who would do that by choice? It’s going to take a long time to shift people’s mentalities and ideas about that. But it is working.”

Denino shares Flores’ conviction to press through objections over applying new trafficking definitions to the age-old prostitution debate. “If somebody’s going to get nitpicky with me and say that pimps aren’t really traffickers, or that those prostitutes really asked for it because of lifestyle choices, I’m just going to go on to the next person,“ said Denino. “My job is not as much changing the public perception as much as it is about actual abolition of slaves.”

Sensational media and the numbers problem

The public conversation about human trafficking in Ohio changed dramatically in 2009.

Following high-profile busts of underage, multi-state prostitution rings based in Toledo as part of the FBI’s “Innocence Lost” national initiative, Gov. Ted Strickland signed House Bill 280 into law in January. A synopsis of the bill on the governor’s website asserts that “trafficking has increased across the state, especially in northeastern counties, and a large majority of these victims are women.”

The new law allows prosecutors to add harsher trafficking charges to related offenses in order to strengthen penalties and, in part, defines human trafficking as “compelling a victim or victims to engage in sexual activity for hire; engaging in a performance that is obscene, sexually oriented or nude oriented.” It also mandates that the attorney general’s office establish a commission to study human trafficking incidences in the state.

The Trafficking in Persons’ Study Commission convened its first meeting in July. In a press release, Attorney General Richard Cordray stressed the need to define the issue as it affects the state.

“We have indications that the problem is prevalent in Ohio, but we lack comprehensive statistics accounting for its depth,” wrote Cordray. “In addition, the majority of our law enforcement professionals have not been trained to identify and help these victims. The commission has been created to address these issues and provide further recommendations.”

The same release cites statistics from national anti-trafficking groups the Polaris Project and the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center that estimate anywhere from 100,000 to 300,000 American youths are at high risk for being trafficked for sex.

The FBI’s arrest of 60 pimps in the most recent of its “Innocence Lost” operations resulted in the rescue of 52 underage victims of prostitution across 36 cities, an indication that the commercial sexual exploitation of minors is a problem here. But until solid statistical measures are established, estimates from government agencies and non-profits leave the issue in a gray zone concerning a solid accounting of trafficking victims that Cordray described as “under the radar.”

Local media coverage of the issue boomed in 2009 when the focus shifted to the more narrow (and salacious) issue of sex trafficking of domestic girls rather than the (likely larger) issue of immigrants being forced into trade labor. Until this year, “slave” was not a word featured in local media coverage of young Columbus women arrested for prostitution. Now it is.

But sensationalized media coverage can hurt as much as help the problem, say some working within the anti-trafficking movement.

“Local media is simply picking up on what’s going on and what people want to hear,” said Denino, who also has written about the issue locally. “That’s a really big problem that we have, where everybody want to talk about the issue because it’s sexy and exciting and horrible…but if the media doesn’t handle it gently, it can be so derogatory towards the movement in general.”

It can also mobilize a grassroots effort of advocacy and awareness and, perhaps, ultimately, help change perceptions among law enforcement and policy makers to begin to work toward rescue and rehabilitation instead of criminal arrest,

In addition to publicity campaigns and fundraising parties like Freedom Follies, Denino spends the first Friday of every month in bus stations, truck stops, cheap hotels and fast-food restaurants on Main Street downtown taping information sheets in the stalls of the women’s restrooms. Each card asks, in six different languages, “Has your ID been taken away? Is anyone forcing you to have sex? Are you free to come and go where you live?”

“What you need to do, if you want to get to those people, is have some interface with them maybe in that split second when they’re in public, but they’re alone,” said Denino. “With things like Freedom Follies, my job is to reach people like us, that we should get involved and everything. But my job with the cards is to actually find survivors and get them freed.”

As Flores’ message has spread and more Ohio social workers learn the conditions and definitions of human trafficking, they are in a better position to report pimps to law enforcement, thereby ending the cycle of prostitution rather than criminalizing young victims she said.

“I’m getting more calls about, ‘Gosh, do you think we have a case?’” said Flores. When Gracehaven House opens in north Columbus next July, if will be one of three homes nationally to offer rehabilitation services for young victims of commercial sexual exploitation.

“You see it in media all the time, a 16-year-old arrested for prostitution, 14-year-old. . . it just floors me that kids are being arrested for prostitution when that’s actually, by definition, human trafficking,” said Flores. “Part of it is changing our laws to adapt to that. We really need to see the woman as the victim and the man as the criminal. If we could start arresting the man—the john and the pimp—then I think we can start making a big dent.”



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  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by knoxqualityinn, Tiger Edwards. Tiger Edwards said: The Hard Sell « Cjaye57's Weblog: In Columbus, victims' advocates and rescue organizations are increasingly workin… […]

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