At this point, the coronavirus pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of American life, from how we work and educate, to how we socialize and shop. As such, it is no surprise that it has also affected our illicit commercial sex industry, from supply and demand to the number of victims at risk of sex trafficking and how we combat this scourge.
What Americans don’t realize is that the prevalence of sex trafficking has been exacerbated by the pandemic. Our war to combat this modern scourge has, thus far, failed.
Despite the dearth of empirical data establishing the prevalence of sex trafficking in the United States, experts and practitioners agree that COVID has increased the incidence of sex trafficking and those at risk of victimization.
The pandemic has disproportionally affected marginalized communities.
In the face of limited economic opportunity, some are engaging in “survival sex” as a method for making ends meet during the financial crisis. Sex traffickers are also taking advantage of these situations to facilitate recruitment and control of new victims.
Unlike made-for-Hollywood depictions, which feature violent forms of kidnapping or physical force as the primary method of recruitment, human trafficking typically involves coercion and deception.
Human motivation is often driven to meet needs: physiological needs, such as food, water, and shelter; the need to feel safe; the needs of love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization.
Human traffickers typically operate by assessing what voids a target has in meeting these needs and then making the false promise to fulfill them. This method of manipulation leads to clandestine exploitation, which is often difficult to identify.
Think of it as a mental tether, as opposed to a physical chain.
As a result, trafficking crimes are often misidentified. During the course of their victimization, most survivors of human trafficking have been erroneously criminalized by being charged with crimes related to their victimization (e.g. prostitution, drug use, illegal immigration, etc.).
In response to the high rates of misidentification, more than half the states have vacatur statutes to provide post-conviction relief to erroneously criminalized victims.
In addition to being misidentified by the criminal justice system, victims of trafficking typically interact with thousands of third parties during the course of their victimization, without anyone realizing they are being trafficked.
These unwitting third parties include nail and hair salons, medical facilities, social service providers, schools, restaurants, transportation, hotels, social media platforms, and everyday people—all encountering human trafficking victims without knowing.
Given the hidden nature of human trafficking crimes, it is no surprise that anti-trafficking efforts appear to have had little impact in stemming the tide of victimization. In 2011, the Campbell Collaboration did a systematic review for research on the efficacy of anti-trafficking interventions and found the effect is not known.
Earlier this year, a small study concluded that human trafficking training can result in myth endorsement reduction, as well as an increase in perceived knowledge and actual knowledge post-training. However, while training participants can recall facts on trafficking, that does not necessarily translate into an increase in victim and offender identification or deterrence.
While little is known about the true prevalence of trafficking, how to quickly identify it and combat it, we do know that the COVID-19 pandemic has further increased the number of women, men and children at risk of trafficking and the social distancing and safety requirements have added a new challenge to victim identification and rescue.
Unfortunately, American efforts to combat trafficking have historically been more symbolic than substantive.
If Americans want to end modern slavery, we must prioritize evidence-based interventions that significantly increase victim identification and protection, as well as offender prosecution, while preventing new crimes.
Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco holds a Ph.D. in Criminology, Law and Society and serves a human trafficking expert witness in criminal and civil court. Her first book Hidden in Plain Sight: America’s Slaves of the New Millennium is used to train law enforcement on human trafficking investigations.