Many believe that sex trafficking is an evil that happens in far off lands. The recent rescue of 168 American children by the FBI proves that is not the case. Pimps, exploited women, trafficked women and Johns are on street corners, advertised online and behind closed doors across the country.
The city of St. Louis is proving to be an active city when it comes to fighting issues related to trafficking and prostitution. Here’s an overview of the initiatives coming from the Gateway to the West.
Curbing the Demand
Due to a new initiative to fight prostitution, when the SLPD arrests Johns (those who pay for sex), they make their mug shots readily available to local media. Those arrested receive a card in the mail letting them know when and where they were caught, cautioning them about STDs, warning them that their behavior is illegal, and informing them of their court date.
Police say they are aiming to be more aggressive with those responsible for the demand. Read more about that initiative here. Though this approach uses shame tactics, face publication raises awareness that prostitution is illegal and that men from the general populace are paying for sex.
Other cities, Nashville being one, have made Johns pay to go to John School in order to change attitudes about paid sex, educate them about the risks of prostitution and let them know that their crime affected someone else.
Christine McDonald, sold to the owner of a strip club at 15 and prostituted by her pimp for 17 years, got addicted to drugs through her pimp and was arrested three times for drugs felonies. When she left the streets and got clean she found herself (like many other former prostitutes) unemployed, with a new baby, drug felonies on her record, and without a way to get food for herself and her son. The state of Missouri, until recently, banned drug felons from receiving food stamps for life.
McDonald, author of Cry Purple, spent 6 years telling her story to lawmakers, advocating for them to lift the ban. As she says, “If we feed the human being, we starve the addiction.” Just recently, Missouri lawmakers lifted the ban.
Read more about the new law here.
Preventing the Spread
Backpage.com and other sites like it (classifieds websites) have slowly taken the trafficking and prostitution marketplace online. Congresswoman Wagner of St. Louis has introduced a bill to prosecute these sites, specifically for exploitation of minors.
Wagner’s webpage says, “Sexual predators can go online and have child prostitutes sent to their hotel rooms as easily as if they were ordering a pizza.” It also says that Backpage generates 82.3% of the $45 million of revenue garnered from online prostitution advertising in 2013. Despite pressure from big companies and human rights groups, Backpage has not removed these ads from their site.
The SAVE Act (Stop Advertising Victims of Exploitation) is designed to close internet marketplaces that knowingly host advertisements for exploitation of minors. It would allow prosecutors to charge these sites with a federal crime.
As of May 20, 2014 the SAVE Act was passed in the House. Though it may be difficult to enforce this law, we applaud Congresswoman Wagner’s efforts to end exploitation online.
One issue that sex trafficking victims face is finding dignified employment as they try to reintegrate into society. It is essential to provide life skills, job training and employment opportunities so that women can provide for themselves and their families in a dignified manner. Establishing and investing in businesses that work to provide these essential tools is a strategy for restoring survivors.
The St. Louis based YouthBridge/SEIC Competition through Washington University’s Skandalaris Center and St. Louis’s Arch Grants Global Startup Competition, have recently awarded Made for Freedom, a social enterprise business that helps raise awareness and provides dignified employment for survivors in St. Louis and around the world, with a total of $75,000.
What Can You Do?
Is there more to be done? Absolutely! We need to curb the demand and establish John Schools. We need to provide resources and opportunities for those that want to leave prostitution. We need to fight for those in vulnerable situations and immigrants are some of the most vulnerable people in our nation. We need immigration reform. We need increased protection, additional safe houses and further training programs for those who have been trafficked. We need to remove the hurdles faced in getting a job and expunge prostitution related convictions like Hawaii.
St. Louis has made some significant strides, but there is still much work to be done.
What efforts does your city employ to fight sexual exploitation? What has worked? What has failed?