In December 2015, D. Parvaz published “Selling American Girls,” a seven-part investigative report for Al Jazeera America that documented sex trafficking in the US. Each part of her report examined a different role in the sex trafficking trade and its enforcement, from the prostitutes and their buyers, pimps, and advocates, to law enforcement officers and judges.
Sex trafficking in the US is pervasive. According to the US Department of Justice, human trafficking is the second-fastest-growing criminal enterprise after drug trafficking, with minors constituting roughly half the victims in the US. In 2015, over 4,100 of the 5,544 trafficking cases reported to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center’s hotline involved sex trafficking.
Sex trafficking is also a major component of the underground economy in many American cities. A 2014 study conducted by the Urban Institute found that the underground commercial sex economy in the US produced multimillion-dollar profits. Researchers at the Urban Institute studied eight major US cities—Atlanta, Dallas, Denver, Kansas City, Miami, Seattle, San Diego, and Washington, DC—to estimate that, in each city, the underground sex economy was worth between $39.9 and $290 million in 2007. “From high-end escort services to high school ‘sneaker pimps,’” the report’s authors wrote, “the sex trade leaves no demographic unrepresented and circuits almost every major US city.”
As Parvaz reported, “The variety of men engaged in purchasing sex across the U.S. is staggering.” According to Michael Osborn, chief of the FBI’s Violent Crimes Against Children Unit, the FBI focuses on “recovering” the victims of sex trafficking and capturing their pimps, who “represent a national threat” because they move among cities and across states to avoid capture. Buyers (or “johns”), by contrast, tend to remain in local jurisdictions, which the FBI leaves to local law enforcement. Because precincts, counties, and states keep track of john arrests in different ways, if at all, there are no comprehensive statistics for how many are arrested each year. Enforcement tends to be stronger in cases where buyers are charged with soliciting minors. In one study of 134 cases involving prostitutes who were minors, 113 johns were convicted. On average they were sentenced to three years in prison, but served just 1.5 years. Twenty-six percent of those convicted served no time at all.
Many pimps look for children who come from unstable family backgrounds or destitute neighborhoods. According to FAIR Girls, an antitrafficking organization, 70–75 percent of the girls they assisted had histories with foster care systems. Special Agent Renea Green of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation told Al Jazeera America, “We had a trafficker tell us he looked for victims, for girls, walking from the local DFAC [Department of Family and Children Services] office.”
While safe harbor laws, which criminalize adults who purchase sex with a minor, have been passed in thirty-four states, according to the Polaris Project these laws tend to vary widely from state to state, leaving many girls treated as criminals rather than as victims.
Sex trafficking in the US has been a focus of corporate news coverage, but reports tend to focus primarily on the prostitutes and their pimps, while neglecting other important issues raised in the Al Jazeera America report, such as the prosecution of buyers and the criminal penalties that girls and young women often face. Most news coverage is from local news outlets, which tend to report specific instances of sex trafficking, rather than discussing the topic in a broader social context.
D. Parvaz, “Selling American Girls,” Al Jazeera America, December 15, 2015, http://projects.aljazeera.com/2015/12/sex-trafficking/.
Student Researcher: Vanessa Anderson (University of Vermont)
Faculty Evaluator: Rob Williams (University of Vermont)