We’ve Come a Long Way Since Ending Slavery in the 19th Century.  Now it’s Time to Abolish Sex Slavery

It’s January 2023 – a new year and still early into the decade of the ’20s.  It is also the month of the year we recognize as “National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month.”

It was only twelve years ago  that President Obama declared January as such, and the issue has significantly grown in the public’s eye since then. For those fighting within the movement, it’s hard to believe that this proclamation and anything related to the acknowledgment of modern-day slavery is very recent. As we think about the enormity of this issue and how it touches millions of human beings globally, it is essential to examine the history of how different types of legislation have led to this point.

On January 1st, 1863, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation stating that “all persons held as slaves are, and henceforward should be free.” The nation was still amid the Civil War, and the issuance of this proclamation did not result in an immediate end to slavery. But it put into motion what would lead a nation toward freedom. Then, on December 6th, 1865, the 13th Amendment was ratified, effectively abolishing slavery within the United States.  

Simply put, slavery tarnishes our nation’s history. It is something that we must acknowledge. Unfortunately, the passing of the 13th Amendment was far from the end of the exploitation of human beings. As sexual slavery and human trafficking became more of an issue in the early 20th century, the White-Slave Traffic Act, also called the Mann Act, was passed on June 25th, 1910. In its original form, the act made it a felony to engage in interstate or foreign commerce transport of “any woman or girl for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose.” Its primary intent was to address prostitution, immorality, and human trafficking, mainly where trafficking was for prostitution. R. Kelly and Ghislaine Maxwell were prosecuted under the Mann Act and convicted in 2021.

Before 2000, the Department of Justice did not have one fully comprehensive statute related to the degree of exploitation related to trafficking. Then, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 was passed by Congress with bipartisan support and signed by President Clinton on October 28th, 2000. (Somewhat ironic, isn’t it). The TVPA established the framework to fight human trafficking with protection, prevention, and prosecution. The Act has since gone through numerous reauthorizations, most recently in 2021, expanding the definition of child trafficking to include online exploitation and grooming.       

On December 7th, 2007,  Polaris launched the National Human Trafficking Hotline – a toll-free number and SMS text line available 24 hours a day, seven days a week – 365 days a year. The Hotline connects victims and survivors of trafficking with services and supports to get help and stay safe. In addition, hotline workers receive tips about potential trafficking situations and report the information to the appropriate authorities. More than 200 languages, in addition to English and Spanish, are spoken. Since the inception of the Hotline, there has been legislation at the state level making placement of posters with the Hotline mandatory in numerous locations such as healthcare provider offices, airports, adult establishments, etc.

Here we are in 2023. Human trafficking may still live partially in the shadows, but it’s increasingly becoming a regular topic in mainstream media, partially due to the Jeff Epstein/Ghislaine Maxwell sex trafficking ring that came to light three years ago. And sex trafficking knows no boundaries, as it’s in every zip code in America.  Florida, New York, and California have the greatest number of trafficking instances reported to the Hotline. Tampa, New York City, and Los Angeles are the cities within those states with the majority of the calls. 

In late 2019, I asked a member of law enforcement in Los Angeles County what they were doing to combat human trafficking. As this was during an advisory board meeting (for the city where I lived), he stated, on public record, that it was “not an issue.” Unfortunately, despite the statistics (and numbers do not lie), many chose to turn a blind eye to this reality. 

Yet, I refuse to lose hope. As much darkness as there is, there is also light and justice. For example, there were 160 arrests made in September 2022 in Polk County, Florida, as part of the operation “Fall Haul 2”. Another notable recent event happened in Volusia County (Florida) during Biketoberfest a sting operation resulted in the arrest of 18 people. With these very recent stories of apprehended predators, there are also the success stories of survivors who were able to leave “the life.” Their courage, perseverance, and fortitude should inspire even the most cynical of us. Although they have endured a hellish reality that few could handle, they were able to escape and ultimately thrive. Recent mainstream entertainment is also addressing the subject matter realistically, such as Girl in Room 13, Stolen From the Suburbs, and Angie: Lost Girls. 

I hope and pray that for this National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month in 2023 that we do not turn a blind eye or ignore this terrible problem we are facing. Instead, we must continue creating awareness, working on prevention programs, seeking justice, and supporting survivors in their courageous journeys. And, most importantly, we make progress – that we do not back down and go backward, but we move forward in hopes that such exploitation will be an injustice of the past.