The trafficking of humans for sexual exploitation sounds terrifyingly exotic; the plot in a Hollywood movie like Taken where beautiful women are abducted and sold to the highest bidder in an auction attended by the ultra-rich. In reality sex trafficking arrests are increasing in places like Allentown, Bethlehem, Easton, South Whitehall, Lower Macungie, Palmer and Bethlehem Townships. The victims are mostly young women from those same communities.
Today, sex trafficking takes place in your hometown. It happens at fake massage businesses, strip clubs, truck stops, hotels, and motels. It is made easy by online “escort” services and websites like skipthegames.com that allow the explicit advertisement of any and all sexual acts. One can browse through hundreds of “profiles,” many including X-rated images, each of which includes a list of the sexual acts the “escort” is willing to perform. So far these websites have been able to avoid the fate of backpage.com which served the same purpose until April 2018 when the Federal Government indicted several people connected to the site for facilitating prostitution.
This sex trafficking is brutal and humiliating. The victims are often children and young adults. The Hollywood imagery of Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman could not be less accurate. The overwhelming majority of women (and yes men also) being sold for sex have no choice in the matter. There is no “hooker with a heart of gold” story when a man pays $80 to have sex with a drug addicted teen in a motel room off Airport Road.
The truth is that most of these women are controlled by men; pimps or traffickers, who manipulate, exploit, control, extort, beat, and rape them. The pattern seen repeatedly in this business is a young woman, typically vulnerable, alone, and unsophisticated. Often overconfident in her ability to control the situation or the man who will exploit her. The pimp starts out as caring, protective, even charming. The promise of easy money, access to drugs, physical protection, and someone to take care of her is enticing to one unfamiliar with exploitation and violence. Often the victim is plied with drugs to the point of addiction. Opioids have become the favorite drug, especially fentanyl, because of how quickly the addiction is set and how long and torturously painful withdrawal can be. The need for the drug drives the women to acts they never would have previously considered. Refusal leads to withholding of the next fix and the pain of withdrawal. Physical assault and rape are constant threats against any woman who fails to follow the rules set down by her trafficker. Often degrading photos and videos of the women are used as a means extortion, with threats to release the images to family or more publicly on social media.
A woman trying to break free from this cycle fears the drug withdrawal, perhaps as much as she fears the rapes and beatings. Many who are in the control of a trafficker are also in fear of law enforcement due to their own criminal acts. The shame and humiliation threatened by the release of the videos and pictures often means returning to family is a fraught option they cannot face. Few believe they can escape safely.
While the ugliness of sex trafficking remains somewhat hidden, the damage it does affects the entire community. Illegal drug use and violence often accompany trafficking. The broken lives of the victims and their families cause a devasting ripple effect across generations. This is not just occurring in exotic locations. It is happening is Fogelsville, Hanover Township, Lehighton, Reading, and every local community.
The response is also occurring throughout our area. Local police and prosecutors work together, often with the Department of Homeland Security, to identify traffickers and prosecute them. Some high-profile cases have increased community awareness. A non-profit group Valley Against Sex Trafficking (VAST) has been working to end sexual exploitation and empower survivors of sex trafficking. Increased community awareness is part of the plan to eliminate human trafficking. One part of the solution is to shed light on the issue instead of allowing it to remain hidden or ignored. Resources are available locally and nationwide at www.thevast.org; 484.560.6836 and 1.888.373.7888.