- The Washington Times - Monday, October 18, 2010

This weekend, dozens of organizations are hosting a rally and walk to highlight the issue of human trafficking. The Oct. 23 event is called the DC Stop Modern Slavery Walk on the Mall.

How is human trafficking a family issue? And what does this nation have to do with such a heinous activity? (In other words — isn’t this some tragic Asian or East European problem?)

First a definition: Human trafficking refers to the forced economic exploitation of children, young people and adults. Many of these “modern-day slaves” end up in commercial sex activities such as prostitution and “escort” and “massage” services, servicing clients in hotels, homes, truck stops, strip clubs and so-called gentlemen’s clubs.

Human trafficking officially became an American problem in June, when the performance of the United States was included in the State Department’s annual Trafficking in People Report for the first time. The U.S. was ranked as a Tier 1 country, meaning it fully complies with the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, but it also was clearly identified as a “source, transit and destination country” for trafficking.

I think it’s heart-stopping that an estimated 100,000 of America’s own children are snagged into sex-trafficking webs each year. In testimony before Congress in September, the cities of Oakland, Brooklyn, San Francisco, Atlanta, Houston, Miami — and the Washington, D.C.-Baltimore corridor — were mentioned as prime trafficking sites.

Many of the children and teens lured into sex slavery are runaways, abandoned young people or those vulnerable to sweet-talking predators. The average age of “induction” is very young, as “Tonya” — a pseudonym — explains below.

“When I was 12 years old, a guy I thought was just a ‘dope [cool] boy’ kept following me in his car when I walked to school,” Tonya recalled, according to Linda Smith, founder of Shared Hope International, in testimony to the House Judiciary subcommittee on crime, terrorism and homeland security.

“He was older … and he said I was really cute. He paid a lot of attention to me, and eventually I got in the car with him. For a while, we were boyfriend and girlfriend; we would go everywhere together. When I think about how it must have looked to people — a baby-looking girl like me with an older ‘boyfriend’ — it makes me wonder why nobody was ever there to stop it, or even ask any questions at all.

“It didn’t take long before I experienced the real treatment — being beaten, stomped on, manipulated and sold all day, every day,” Tonya said, according to Ms. Smith.

“People have asked me how I could have done what I did — sell my body on the street, in cars, in trucks, anywhere and everywhere, and then deliver every last dollar to my pimp. … I’m amazed myself that I was so under the control of that man. He was the only person in my life that I felt connected to, and I even felt like he was my only protection; therefore, I would have done anything to stay with him.”

Ms. Smith and other anti-trafficking activists are determined to keep the trafficking issue in front of Americans. They are lobbying for more prevention; prosecution of traffickers and customers; and protection, services and shelters for victims.

As for those who wonder whether trafficking is a family issue, Laura Lederer, adjunct professor at Georgetown Law Center and president of Global Centurion, an anti-trafficking organization, has a ready answer.

“You cannot have a healthy family if the man in the family or the young men and boys in the family are exploiting others,” said Ms. Lederer, who worked on trafficking issues at the State Department for eight years.

Groups on “parallel paths” need to collaborate, she added. Those who want to build healthy families and healthy marriages, and those like hers “who are working on the dysfunctional side — with the men and boys who think it’s OK to go out, exploit someone and then go home to the family” — need to join forces.

Many Americans may find human sex slavery too baffling and disturbing a subject to follow. But for those who feel called to become modern-day abolitionists, this Saturday’s event on the Mall could be a galvanizing experience.

Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at cwetzstein@washingtontimes.com.

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