This Is What Modern-Day Sex Slavery In America Looks Like

Sex Trafficking Holly SmithAP Photo/Steve HelberHolly Smith, now in her 30s, was forced into prostitution after running away from home at the age of 14.

The New York City mayor’s office recently helped launch a program to give legal assistance to victims of sex trafficking, and a woman in her 40s who endured years as a virtual slave appeared at its news conference.

That woman, who now goes by the name Kika Cerpa, survived an ugly crime that has started to get attention in America only in recent years. While many survivors come from impoverished circumstances, others, like Cerpa, had jobs before falling prey to sex traffickers. Some victims come from the U.S., while many others come from overseas. Their stories vary, but traffickers use some of the same tactics to control their victims.

“People are not programmed to have sex with multiple strangers [a day],” says Lori Cohen, a senior staff attorney for the advocacy group Sanctuary for Families, adding that trafficking victims sometimes must have sex with 60 men a day. “In order for somebody to do that, their defenses are broken down.”

Kika Cerpa’s story

In Cerpa’s case, she was kept in a basement by herself after arriving in America as a very young woman. She’d been working in the accounting department of a hotel in her native Venezuela when she fell in love with a coworker, Cerpa told Business Insider in a recent telephone interview arranged by Sanctuary for Families.

That coworker introduced Cerpa to his cousin, Sandra, who promised her a job as nanny in the United States. When Cerpa arrived in 1992, Sandra took her passport and her money.

“She said to me my boyfriend owed her money,” Cerpa said, “and the only way I could pay it off was working.”

The next day, Sandra took her to a brothel in Jackson Heights, Queens (now a popular neighbourhood for young professionals) where Cerpa ended up sleeping with 20 men. Sandra pocketed the $US12 Cerpa made from each customer. For a year, Cerpa lived under Sandra’s thumb and in her house.

“I wasn’t allowed to leave the house on my own. I wasn’t allowed to eat,” Cerpa said, adding that most of the time Sandra would actually feed her.

At one point, Cerpa managed to escape. She slept on the train for a night but didn’t know where to go after that. She returned to the brothel where Sandra had been taking her. The pimp there said he would give her a place to sleep, but he continued funelling the money she made back to Sandra — who still had her passport. Cerpa was stuck.

“Modern-day slaves”

Both the Justice Department and the FBI have stepped up their efforts to combat human trafficking, a crime that seems difficult to fathom in a country that ended slavery nearly 150 years ago. As the FBI says on its website, “It’s sad but true: here in this country, people are being bought, sold, and smuggled like modern-day slaves.”

Under U.S. law, it’s illegal to coerce “a person’s labour, services, or commercial sex acts.”

“The coercion can be subtle or overt, physical or psychological,” the DOJ says, “but it must be used to coerce a victim into performing labour, services, or commercial sex acts. ” (There’s no need to prove coercion in trafficking cases involving minors, since they’re not old enough to give their consent.)

Between 2009 and 2011, the Justice Department brought an average of 24 forced labour cases every year. U.S. prosecutors have gone after human traffickers who kept victims in suburban mansions, sweat shops, brothels, strip clubs, and bars. In one recent case, a 33-year-old pimp in Washington state was indicted for allegedly beating and threatening two women into working as prostitutes.

“She never understood specifically why he assaulted her but recounted that she felt ‘lower’ each time he did,” a detective said in charging papers quoted by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

In another recent case, two Long Beach, California men pleaded guilty to sex trafficking adult women, luring them into romantic relationships through deceptive internet ads and then psychologically manipulating them into prostitution.

“Sex trafficking is not something that only happens outside of the United States, but victimizes Americans in our own backyards,” Assistant Director of the FBI Los Angeles Field Office Bill Lewis said in a statement after that guilty plea. “In this case, the defendants defrauded victims and forced them to work as sex slaves under threat to themselves and their families.”

The push to stop prosecuting victims

Law enforcement officers in America have historically prosecuted sex trafficking victims as prostitutes despite their own suffering. Cerpa herself was arrested one Sunday in the ’90s and taken to Queens court along with a dozen other trafficking victims. Cerpa and the other women pleaded guilty and returned to the brothel.

The futility of prosecuting human trafficking victims as criminals was not lost on a Queens judge named Fernando Camacho. Back in the early 2000s, Camacho came across a 16-year-old runaway who kept getting arrested for prostitution, he said in an interview with the Center for Court Innovation. He said he just “didn’t think she was out there of her own free will.” Ultimately, he stopped giving her jail time and started looking for social services for her.

There were others like her in Camacho’s court and around the country. One of those teenagers, Holly Austin Smith, says a man at a shopping mall promised her work after she ran away at the age of 14, the Associated Press reported in 2011. He brought her to a New Jersey hotel.

“Within hours I was on the streets of Atlantic City having men forced on me,” Smith, now an anti-trafficking advocate, told the AP.

Camacho elaborated on the trafficking of teenagers in his interview with the Center for Court Innovation:

There was something going on out there in our own backyard where young kids who were runaways and throwaways were winding up in vulnerable situations where they were being preyed upon and recruited by very bad people. It also became clear to me that once they were in the street that it was not so easy if not downright impossible for them to leave, and that the way we were dealing with — had been dealing with them traditionally in the criminal justice system just wasn’t the right way. It wasn’t.

After recognising this injustice, Camacho helped launch New York state’s first-ever statewide Human Trafficking Intervention Initiative. That court identifies sex trafficking victims who have been charged with prostitution and connects them with social services. If they utilise those services, the criminal charges against them are ultimately dismissed.

“While there still is an antiquated view that prostitution is a chosen profession, many individuals who end up in New York courts on prostitution charges are victims of trafficking, recruited into the commercial sex industry by force, fraud, or coercion,” New York’s Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman said when announcing the program.

For her part, Cerpa finally escaped the sex industry after marrying one of her customers. When that customer turned out to be abusive, she eventually got in touch with the nonprofit Sanctuary for Families in 2004. This nonprofit provides a range of services, from lawyers to counseling to housing. When she started working with Sanctuary, Cerpa explained to an employee there that she “never had the dream to be a prostitute.”

Eventually, she realised she’d been trafficked and started going to counseling.

“One of the things that came out of this was that I should tell my story,” she said. “I was in a really bad situation, and I didn’t know how to get myself out.”

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