Noticing the Victims: How Legislation Lets Trafficking Victims Slip Under the Radar


People tend not to care about things they can’t see the immediate effects of.

“People tend not to care about things they can’t see the immediate effects of.”

New Jersey lawyer, Ryan Brooks, unpacks this unfortunate statement in his 2014 TEDx Talk, “Why you should care: the human trafficking footprint in the U.S.” In his talk, Brooks first explains how human trafficking (inclusive of sex trafficking) is an industry - the fastest growing illegal industry, in fact - to which we all contribute, as consumers with demands for the industry supply. He then elaborates on the specific legal approach to the prostitution industry, which enables a person to gain money for performing sex under voluntary terms.

Brooks explains that, in the prostitution industry, an exchange between a buyer of sex (the “John”) and a seller of sex presents a case of supply and demand. One person represents the supply, as the human being who is sold for sex, and the other represents the demand, or the desires of the buyer (i.e. the desire for sex, power, whatever it may be). Because prostitution is illegal, a person exposed in the industry will be charged. According to Brooks, the penalty for the buyer is a disorderly person’s offense in the state of New Jersey, which holds a maximum prison sentence of up to six months. Meanwhile, the penalty for the seller, the prostitute, is a crime to the fourth degree, which holds a maximum prison sentence of up to eighteen months. Prostitutes face charges up to three times harsher than buyers, mainly because the “seller” is presumed to be the one initiating the exchange.

But what about those who are not willing prostitutes? Those who have instead been forced into prostitution, thus making them victims of sex trafficking? All of the people sold out of their countries for their bodies to be solicited for sex? All of the children, the women, the men? Are these people still “guilty” of prostitution? Do they deserve a prison sentence? Is it not their traffickers that are guilty of the crime?

Part of the issue with this unbalanced pattern of legal prosecution is the fact that so many individuals on the “selling” end of a sex exchange are victims. And yet they go unnoticed because they may not look particularly “victim-y,” or may even deny being victims of sex trafficking for fear of what their traffickers may do to them. Brooks states that “the current policy requires that we have a better method of identifying victims, and as it stands, we do not have that method.” In order to accurately prosecute sex traffickers and recover sex trafficking victims, we have to be able to identify them.

According to Polaris, a National Human Trafficking hotline, victims of sex trafficking are often insecure, anxious, or submissive; they often avoid eye contact and show signs of malnutrition or lack of health care; they frequently have little personal belongings or control over any aspect of their lives; their stories may be inconsistent; they may have no sense of time or place. And the list goes on…

Legislation doesn’t contain the necessary language to protect those who are forced into criminal acts in the field of prostitution, and as consumers it is our responsibility to put the pressure on companies and politicians to effect change. We need to be standing up and asking of the conditions under which individuals work: Are they forced? Are they paid? Are they given respect? Are they able to maintain their identity and be recognized as individuals? Beyond this, we need to be looking into legislation related to how human trafficking is being combated. Brooks states that we should be calling, texting, emailing, tweeting, or in some way contacting our local and state legislators, asking the following question: “What are you doing to combat human trafficking in…” your city, your state, your country? Asking these questions requires reflection and tangible change, and as long as our cities have a plan, it shouldn’t take long for us to receive answers.

Silence is the bad guy here. Silence is selling people.

It is our responsibility as free people to give a voice to those whose voices are silenced.

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About the Author

Emily James.png

Emily James is currently a junior at Azusa Pacific University, pursuing an English degree with a concentration in Writing. She has big plans to travel and see the vibrant colors of the world, and to write of the marginalized and unheard people she meets along her nomad journey (Dressember is fitting!). When she is not in class or working as an elementary reading and writing tutor, she loves to rock climb, hike, read, and watch romance movies with the girls.