Mimi Crown’s story is like millions of others that have been and are being told across America. At age 21, she was abducted and forced into sexual solicitation.
“I had to ask permission to eat, to sleep, to buy myself feminine products or even to use my phone,” Crown said of her detention. “It felt like I was in a prison that I’d never get out of. I had no limits on what I should have been doing, however, sexually. I secretly did what I could to mentally deal with this at the time.”
Sexual trafficking represents a critical threat to the well-being of this nation’s girls. In 2016 alone, the National Human Trafficking Hotline reported 7,572 human trafficking cases, with 5,551 of these cases being sexual trafficking cases. One of the least acknowledged and under-appreciated facts about the statistic, however, is that the face of the typical victim is not that of Jaycee Duggard or Amy Smart, as media depictions of sexual trafficking suggest.
The typical face of sexual trafficking in America today matches the faces of the 501 juveniles that have gone missing in the D.C. area in just the first quarter of this year. According to the FBI, 40 percent of victims of sex trafficking are African-Americans, with that number being significantly larger in the major metropolitan areas. In Los Angeles County, the African-American victim rate reaches 92 percent. In overwhelming numbers, the persons most likely to be victimized are vulnerable Black girls and women.
“Compared with other segments of the population, victimization rates for African American children and youths are even higher,” the National Center for Victims of Crime reports. “Evidence suggests that Black youths ages 12 to 19 are victims of violent crime at significantly higher rates than their white peers. Black youths are three times more likely to be victims of reported child abuse or neglect, three times more likely to be victims of robbery and five times more likely to be victims of homicide.”
Per the FBI, 59 percent of all juvenile prostitution arrests involve African-Americans. With law enforcement more likely to see a Black sex trafficking victim as a prostitute and not as someone needing help, trying to find solutions toward keeping our girls safe may require a radical examination of the core beliefs American society is currently based on.
“I actually did not know what ‘human trafficking’ was, until it happened to me,” Crown, who wrote the book “Stuck in Traffic” about her experiences, added. “I was reading an article, literally just last year about a young woman who was rescued from trafficking and, in the story, it gave details of what happened to her. I said, ‘Wow, that sounds just like what I went through.’
“I would tell [the politicians] to stop treating victims/survivors of human trafficking like criminals,” she said. “These women have gone through unimaginable ordeals and the last thing they need is to have the finger being pointed at them.
“Did she rob someone? Yes, but she would not have done it had her pimp not first held a gun to her head. So, stop judging and start helping.”
At the Intersection
Understanding why African-American girls are being targeted requires taking a critical look at those that are actually taking the girls.
Statistics show that African-American men are overwhelmingly the individuals that kidnap and traffic the majority of America’s sex trafficking victims. However, these traffickers are marketing and selling the services of their victims to a largely white, affluent base.
Due to this, prosecutions of offenders devolve into a question of credibility between a politically advantaged white offender and a vulnerable brown victim. Typically, the result of this is the victim being silenced and blamed for what was done to her.
“Most people who buy sex are those that have disposable income; they tend to be white men that are married that have an education,” Marian Hatcher, the senior project manager and human trafficking coordinator for the Cook County Sheriff’s Office of Public Policy, told Atlanta Black Star, quoting both national and internal research. “The people who are being bought are the people who needs are not being met, which typically are African-Americans. We are the ones that typically end up in the criminal justice system, so there are more of us that are involved in jail or juvenile detention.”
Hatcher, who as an adult was subjected to sexual trafficking herself, attributes this to the nation’s racial history. Drawing parallels to the United States’ Department of Homeland Security’s definition of human trafficking – which is “modern-day form of slavery involving the illegal trade of people for exploitation or commercial gain.” – Hatcher argued that sex trafficking victims are typically treated as chattel property, similar to African-American enslaved in the antebellum South. The mindset of being able to “buy a person” is a notion that is deeply ingrained in the American psyche and that never really left, despite changes in the legal reality.
In 2010, the Urban Institute conducted research in attempting to estimate the size of the underground commercial sex market in the United States. In the report that was released in 2014, in eight major American cities – Atlanta, Dallas, Denver, Kansas City, Miami, Seattle, San Diego, and Washington – the 2007 economic worth of the market per city was approximately $40 million and $290 million, with pimps and traffickers that participated in the study reporting taking home between $5,000 and $32,833 per week. The study found that while street-level solicitation has declined, the proliferation of social media and websites such as backpage.com and craigslist.com (which has, since the publication of the report, removed its adult services section) have led to greater proliferation of the solicitation of those involved in the sex trade.
The logic of why someone would engage in sex trafficking is clear; unlike drug trafficking, which deals with the selling of a consumable product, a sex trafficked victim can be sold repeatedly and traded to other traffickers. For the offer of protection, adventure, a better life, or an escape from the hardship of their current lives, girls everyday are willingly or forcibly placed into the possession of those that would sell access to their bodies.
If one was to create a Venn diagram of the forces that influences sexual trafficking, one would see that four different phenomenon are intersecting: white privilege/white access, racism, gender identity/gender objectification, and poverty. In order to find a valid solution to the question of the disproportionate way sex trafficking affect the African-American community, each of these phenomena must be taken on.
“The problems lie in the fact that most Americans see the typical sex traffic victim as a white, blonde hair, blue eyed girl and the typical juvenile prostitution arrestee as a Black woman,” Hatcher added. “Most people don’t realize that the two are the same person.”
“It is often when a women or child is exploited or prostituted, she may have to get services from agencies that are not culturally inclined,” Ne’Cole Daniels, founder of Survivors on the Move and founding co-chair of the anti-sex trafficking community World Without Exploitation, said to Atlanta Black Star. Daniels has shared that she was a victim of sex trafficking. “They are getting services from an agency that doesn’t understand our history, typically, a white social services agency. They are facing racism in the criminal justice system, being forced to pay higher restitution fees, getting more jail time, dealing with biased family service officers, and facing care plans that are difficult or impossible to complete, leading to a return to the life and recidivism. “
On Being Vulnerable
For many, sex trafficking is a mostly invisible crime. The average American’s exposure to the crime has been national media reports of recovered victims such as Amy Smart and the movie series “Taken.” While the notion of a child or woman being grabbed from the streets or from their homes and the unlikeliness of this happening tend to drive the imagination of those that would dissent to the notion that sex trafficking is a serious concern, the reality reflects what it means to be vulnerable in America.
“From my experience, traffickers are more likely to target girls with questionable family networks, teenage runaways, homeless girls, girls in the foster system; girls that can be easily plied away,” Helen Taylor, the director of intervention and outreach for Exodus Cry, a Christian-based sex trafficking abolition program, told Atlanta Black Star. Taylor argues that when it comes to sex trafficking, America has a perception of the “good victim” – the white, typically blonde, typically blue-eyed girl that was taken from the street – that is blinding response efforts to the truth. This notion of the “good victim” has historically led law enforcement and first responders to interpret non-conforming victims to be not victims at all, but rather runaways or teenaged prostitutes.
These perceptions persisted despite most states having statutory rape laws that dictate that a minor cannot consent to sex.
“A lack of education, poverty, having a criminal record, or otherwise being prone to accept a large front-end enticement tend to make these girls vulnerable to traffickers,” Taylor continued. “The trafficker will go after the girls that would cause the minimal risk, who would slip through the net.”
“Racism and misogyny play their parts in the buying of sex from these victims. These buyers are not the stereotypical ‘lonely guy’; they are married or have girlfriends, but they choose to buy these sex acts as an act of violence that dehumanize, humiliate, and hurt these girls.”
In her reflections of her life while being trafficked, Mimi Crown shared on her last day of captivity. “The sun was shining, but there was still a darkness that surrounded my window, making it impossible for me to glisten. I sat on my hotel bed, waiting for the next man to come in and use me like a rag doll, then there it was. A heavy knock at my door, and as I walked to open it, I told myself that he would be the very last man. Little did I know it wouldn’t happen at all. Upon opening the door, there stood a short, nicely built man with the biggest smile on his face. We greeted one another then I turned to him saying this, ‘I know what you came for. I know what I am supposed to do right now. Collect my money and lay on my back just to be able to eat tonight, but I no longer care about the food, or being able to pay for another night at this upscale hotel. What I want is to go home.”
Her would-be buyer took pity on her and paid for her return flight home. Most victims are not as lucky.
Hypersexualization and Kylie Jenner
To a certain extent, those that would purchase sex need neither rationalization nor justification to make sense of their acts. However, one must be cognizant of the risk factors modern day life is presenting to African-American girls.
A recent example occurred when social media darling Amber Rose “broke the Internet” by posting a bottomless full body pic of herself to Instagram. While Rose presented the pic as a feminist image in promotion of her upcoming SlutWalk, by the time most people heard of the image, the meaning has been stripped away from it. What was left of a self-affirming political message after it completed its media cycle was an overtly sexual one.
This proliferation of sexuality, arguably, has raised expectations for a certain class of men. Among these men, women and girls are increasingly being objectified as nothing more than sexual objects. This is best seen in the media coverage of Kylie Jenner. Jenner – at the age of 19 – is one of the most photographed and Instagrammed women in the world. The problem with this is that she started her career at the age of nine.
With Jenner admitting that she had body altering surgery, a key component of her brand is her sexuality. This has created a pitched public debate over if it is okay to sexualize a minor – even if that minor consented to being seen as a sex image.
With social media being driven by the use of sexual imagery to drive traffic and followers, this hypersexualization is “reprogramming” the perceptions of some men.
“We’ve seen three trends associated with these images,” Kenyon University sociologist Sarah Murnen said to the PBS NewsHour, “It’s now common to see more parts of the body exposed. There is more emphasis on the size of women’s breasts. And easy access to all these images has made it all more acceptable to us.”
Shows like “Toddlers and Tiaras” are increasingly moving the bar on what is feasible to look at with a sexual perspective. This is creating a predator class for a population – tweens and teenagers – that was previously considered sacred.
“We as women should have the freedom to respect our bodies and celebrate our sexuality and womanhood. We are, however, responsible for the images we portray,” Ne’Cole Daniels added. “Situations like Amber Rose’s may be excusable to some because she is an entertainer, but this is who our children are looking up to as role models.”
“You can celebrate your liberation as a proud, beautiful woman, but this must be tempered by an effort to not allow yourself to be degraded to just being a sex object. What you may believe you are conveying is not always what is perceived.”
Where We Go From Here
In Chicago, there has been as ambitious effort underway to reverse the narrative on sex trafficking. Taking their cues from the fact that sex buyers are rarely punished in American jurisprudence, Chicago has embraced a version of the “Nordic Model.”
The “Nordic Model” is a theory in sex trafficking policymaking, saying that those that have been prostituted should not be punished. Instead, the buying of sexual acts is criminalized, with offenders facing stiff fines and possibly imprisonment in repeat or extreme cases.
One of the Swedish researchers that penned the protocol, Cecilie Høigård, shared why the model was drafted. “We spent several years doing fieldwork and we developed close relationships with the prostituted women,” Daisy Elizabeth Sjursø translated. “We heard about their experiences of past abuse, extreme poverty and violence. We were prepared for these stories, because of our previous studies on outcasts and marginalized people. But what the women told us of their concrete experiences of prostitution was unexpected and shocking.”
“They told us what it was like to use their bodies and vaginas as rental apartments for unknown men to invade, and how this made it necessary to separate their body from their self: ‘Me and my body are two separate parts. It is not me, my feelings or my soul he fucks. I am not for sale.””
With a minimum of 16,000 women and girls prostituted in the Chicago metropolitan area, according to Cook County Sheriff’s Office statistics, and with 61.7 percent of those prostituted first exchanging sex for money before they are 18 years old, Cook County has a significant sex trafficking problem. Host of the nation’s largest airport, the Chicagoland area has become one of the largest centers of sex trafficking and juvenile prostitution in this country, with 100 percent of all women prostituted reporting receiving violence in some form, including rape, beatings, physical assaults, and threats involving a weapon.
The Cook County approach differs from other law enforcement agencies in this country because the county commits to offering services to victims at the time of arrest. Upon being identified as a victim in need by the sheriff’s Vice Unit, the Human Trafficking Response Team is deployed to escort the victim through getting needed counseling and other services, having adequate court representation, and receiving the resources needed to leave “the lifestyle” and to successfully reenter the community. Cook County has also joined other law enforcement agencies nationwide to go after sex buyers; the National Johns Suppression Initiative – which ran from Jan. 18 through Feb. 5 – saw 101 alleged sex buyers arrested in Cook County, with 29 sex traffickers and 723 sex buyers arrested nationwide.
The narrative about sex trafficking, however, will not change until behaviors and perceptions change – including that of the “good victim.”
“As a prosecutor, I dealt with the issue of the ‘good victim’ and the ‘bad victim’ repeatedly,” Lauren Hersh, national director of World Without Exploitation, said to Atlanta Black Star. “There are definitely victims that are white with blonde hair and blue eyes, but most victims of the sex trade do not look that way. The idea of the ‘good victim’ patently flies in the face of anything that can help us combat this issue. If we are only talking about trafficking and we are not talking about racial inequality, and we are not talking about gender inequality, and we are not talking about income inequality, we cannot tackle this issue.”
“For years, the victims of these crimes were labeled ‘throwaway kids,’ people that didn’t matter too much to society. We are starting to come around on this, but there are still people out there that choose to look away because these kids may not look like their kids. We must continue to press this issue and make this issue relevant and heard. Adults and children who have been trafficked or sexually exploited should be treated as victims of a crime, not as criminals themselves.”
Atlanta Black Star is thankful to World Without Exploitation, the Cook County Sheriff’s Office, and Exodus Cry for their assistance with this article.