In The News

Should Prostitution Be Decriminalized?

Karen Wigle Weiss is an attorney with over 28 years experience as a prosecutor in the Greater New York City area. She has represented victims of human trafficking in their efforts to expunge prostitution-related convictions and has authored a report on Safe Harbor Laws, which are focused on treating victims of human trafficking as victims rather than criminals.


Many people, including legislators, have a knee-jerk positive response to the question of whether prostitution should be decriminalized because they wrongly believe that it is a “victimless crime.” But, as survivors of sex trafficking report, nothing could be further from the truth. My contact with survivors of sex trafficking, as well as the experiences of others who work in the field of anti-trafficking, overwhelmingly establishes that prostitution is neither sex, nor work and it far from harmless. Rather, it is a brutal form of slavery, often inflicted on children, and resulting in ruined lives.

The question of whether prostitution should be decriminalized must be approached from the perspective of how to best protect vulnerable children.  A nuanced analysis of the question requires consideration of the impact of decriminalization on vulnerable people, including children.

Arguments in favor of decriminalization of all prostitution-related activity are grounded on the false assumption that people engage in the activity voluntarily as an exercise of their own free will.  For the vast majority of prostituted people this assumption is groundless. Often the age of entry into prostitution in the United States is between 13 and 14 years of age. Children subjected to serial rape for extended periods of time are extremely traumatized and completely lack the support necessary to escape.  Thus, it is highly unrealistic to conclude that upon reaching their 18th birthday they are able to make a reasoned, independent decision to pursue prostitution as a profession.  They have suffered, often for years, under the control of manipulative, brutal pimps who have drained them of any sense of self worth and frequently induce them to become dependent on drugs or alcohol. True free choice is well beyond their reach.

Recently, several New York legislators have proposed an extraordinarily broad decriminalization of prostitution and all prostitution-related activities, including pimping, brothel running, and sex buying.  This misguided proposal clearly arises out of a failure to engage in the necessary analysis of all aspects of the problem. The legislators appear to have allowed themselves to be influenced without taking into account several important factors.

First, the group advocating for complete decriminalization has a financial interest in the profitable industry that would result from the suggested legislation.  Second, the people purportedly represented by adults who voluntarily engage in or wish to engage in prostitution as a profession, is an extremely small, unrepresentative cross-section of people subjected to prostitution.  Public policy should be based on an evaluation of the greater good for the largest portion of the population, not the greater good of a small handful of people.

In order to craft decriminalization legislation that reflects reality and supports justice for victims legislators should consult with non-profit organizations that have spent decades studying prostitution-related issues and are familiar with the experiences of children who have been subjected to prostitution.  Criminal legislation should reflect condemnation of what society considers unacceptable behavior to discourage people from engaging in that behavior. It should also reflect protection of innocent people, who are victimized by the bad actors. In short, laws should be designed to protect and promote the welfare of those who are sex trafficked, while holding accountable those who would harm them.

In the context of prostitution, these ideals can be implemented by decriminalizing the actions of prostituted people.  Specifically, repealing statutes that result in the arrest of prostituted people, such as prostitution and loitering for the purpose of prostitution.  And, at the same time enacting or enforcing laws that will result in the arrest and prosecution of people who sell and buy, or facilitate the sale and purchase, of other human beings.  This type of legislation has been labeled the Nordic or Equality Model.

Legalizing pimping, brothels and sex buying harms vulnerable people -- especially children.  Children are regularly targeted by sex traffickers and sold on internet sites. Sex traffickers prey upon children who have often been abused at home, are homeless or in foster care, both online and in the streets.  Legalizing pimping will only encourage pimps to target more and more vulnerable children. Moreover, normalizing the prostitution industry by legalizing pimping, brothels and sex buying risks creating a false perception that it is a victimless activity and leading naïve, immature teens into believing that it is a good way to make money.  Thus, more young people will find themselves caught up in a destructive activity that has a devastating impact on their brain development and their futures.

It is the responsibility of legislators to draft laws that give high priority to the safety and welfare of children.  The broad decriminalization legislation now proposed by a few New York legislators fails to do so. They would do well to re-direct their efforts to improving the social safety nets for survivors of sex trafficking and vulnerable youth, such as shelters, education and prevention services to help youth learn how to avoid falling victim to pimps.

Is Grooming Teenagers for Prostitution “On-brand” for Teen Vogue?

At ECPAT-USA we teach youth through our in-school programming about how to avoid being groomed by traffickers who are always seeking new individuals to feed into the sex trade. Traffickers and pimps tell enticing stories to young people - many of whom are vulnerable because of their life histories of abuse and neglect. These stories involve the love and care the trafficker says he will bestow, and the great riches and success in store for young people if they just follow his lead. It is, of course, all lies and all manipulation that takes advantage of the youth and naïveté of young people who aren’t able to recognize a “recruitment conversation” when they hear one.  And now we have Teen Vogue helping the pimps.

The child exploitation grooming process is pretty well documented by now, and increasingly, the systems that need to know how to protect children from sexual exploitation are all on board.  Social workers, foster parents, criminal justice agents, health care workers and others have learned how traffickers use exploitative processes to lure their victims and passing on that information to those who are the most vulnerable to such tactics.

Not the editors of Teen Vogue. In a recent op-ed, space was given in their magazine to help out the pimps and traffickers by amplifying the message that these exploiters use to recruit teenagers.  The piece included language such as “purchasing intimacy and paying for the services can be affirming for many people,” which will only help lay the groundwork for pimps and traffickers trolling the internet, shopping malls or the streets to find homeless, sexually abused, LGBTQ or foster care youth.

As many survivors have attested, they were not empowered and they were not strengthened by being in the sex trade. Many were recruited well before they were 18 years old and their bodies were controlled by pimps and buyers. They suffered physical and mental abuse that affects them for years afterward.    

The retrograde and irresponsible message in the piece - from a magazine aimed at a teen audience - is that selling your body as a commodity to the highest bidder is something to be glorified and supported.  This message has already been communicated by the fashion industry - so maybe it is completely on-brand for Teen Vogue.  


Grooming: Is R. Kelly Using The Same Tactics As Human Traffickers To Control His Victims?

Musician R. Kelly has been the subject of investigations, indictments, and lawsuits for decades. Most recently, the singer was indicted in Chicago in a lawsuit that accuses Kelly of sexually abusing four victims - three of whom were between the ages of 13 and 16 at the time - over a span of a dozen years. Through it all, the musician has maintained his innocence and has presented statements from other underage victims who reiterate that they remain in consenting relationships with Kelly.

This idea that girls would willingly subject themselves to a relationship in which their attire, food and even their bathroom use are all direct by someone else can be confusing to an outsider’s perspective. But the method used to teach an individual to accept an abusive relationship, known as “grooming,” is a process that has long been used by traffickers to continue their own cycle of trauma and abuse.

But the method used to teach an individual to accept an abusive relationship, known as ‘grooming,’ is a process that has long been used by traffickers to continue their own cycle of trauma and abuse.

“Grooming is the slow, methodical, and intentional process of manipulating a person to a point where they can be victimized,” Eric Marlowe Garrison, a sex counselor and author, said in an interview with Allure. “After [the perpetrators] find their targets, they then gain trust and move in from there.”

Grooming commonly starts with friendship. Specifically in Kelly’s case, grooming typically started with a promise to help a young singer with her music career. An abuser or trafficker approaches a victim with the promise of care and companionship, security and support, but then they will slowly convince their victim that they are the only one who cares about them. Teens who feel isolated and alone, or have run away from home, are especially vulnerable to traffickers. Kyra Wooden, Director of ECPAT-USA’s Y-ACT Youth Program, explains that “youths are more likely to fall victim to the trafficker’s ploys because of emotional wounds and voids that the trafficker promises to heal.”

Youths are more likely to fall victim to the trafficker’s ploys because of emotional wounds and voids that the trafficker promises to heal.

Like sex traffickers, Kelly systematically selected his victims, looking for individuals who felt as though they didn’t belong. His victims were girls who had big dreams and needed his help in order to make them come true. As the Lifetime documentary Surviving R Kelly points out, almost all of Kelly’s victims are girls of color - girls who have been taught by society that their lives are worth less than white children. This often leaves Black girls more vulnerable to all forms of exploitation.

After establishing a foundation of trust and care, abusers and traffickers will then start to make requests of the victim to judge how far his or her boundaries can be pushed. What might begin as a request to wear certain clothes or use certain names will slowly escalate to the point where an individual is no longer allowed to leave a room without gaining permission.

Throughout this process, the victim is isolated, which leads him or her to believe that there are no other options. To accelerate this, traffickers will confiscate a victim’s identification documents and money, which makes a victim even more reliant on his or her trafficker. The more an abuser is able to keep an individual from his or her support networks, the easier it is for the abuser to remain in control. As Dawn Michael, PhD, a sexuality counselor explained to Allure, the resulting behavior on the part of the victim can look to an outsider as though he or she has been “brainwashed.”

“The more they can cut off other people [who] are close [with the victim], the more power they have over that person, because they’re not going to have as much outside influence,” Michael said.

In Surviving R. Kelly, several interviewees described the two different sides of the singer: the one who was loving and confided in them about his own sexual abuse as a child and then the one who would withhold food from them for days when he was angry. This cycle of explosions and reconciliation manipulates victims psychologically, and as one psychologist puts in Surviving R. Kelly, creates “chains and handcuffs that are all mental.”

For many victims of abuse, the first step to breaking the cycle is the realization that their relationships aren’t healthy. The beginning of that realization can be as simple as receiving information for the first time about what a healthy relationship looks like. A core focus of ECPAT-USA’s Y-ACT Program is helping participants understand the differences between healthy and unhealthy relationships and how traffickers manipulate those relationships - a process that had led some participants to self-identify as victims of trafficking or question the nature of their relationships.

“Child sexual exploitation, grooming, and avoiding toxic relationships are all very complex in nature,” Wooden, said. “Students need to learn preventative and protective behaviors because the tactics for luring and grooming are more intricate and conniving than young people are familiar with. Overall, teaching youth to understand their right to have relationships without hurt and pain can ultimately save a student’s life.”

If you or someone you know is a victim of trafficking, help is available at the National Trafficking Hotline (888-373-7888) 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Cover image via Instagram

As Child Sex Abuse Cases Fill the News, Don’t Be A Bystander

For many, many years child exploitation and abuse perpetrated by people in positions of authority have been ignored or downplayed. Too many of those whose role in society it is to defend the vulnerable, enforce laws that protect children, or call for justice for them have been shown to be using their positions of authority to exploit and abuse, or at the least, to be complicit in letting it go forward. Some of them are finally being brought to justice, but that’s probably the tip of the iceberg.

There has been a constant drumbeat in the news in the last few weeks about long-festering cases of child exploitation that are now coming into the public eye:

  • Jeffrey Epstein given a very meagre sentence by the then-Miami U.S. Attorney Alex Acosta (now Secretary of Labor).

  • R. Kelly arrested for sexually exploiting 4 young women, 3 of whom were under 18 years old.

  • The documentary by HBO about Michael Jackson’s “relationship” with young boys.

  • The Catholic Church just completed a summit meeting at the Vatican about systemic child abuse for decades.

  • The Southern Baptist Convention having to now deal with child abuse that was reported for years but never addressed.

  • Patriots owner Robert Kraft has been accused of soliciting sex in Florida after a large-scale investigation into sex trafficking in the state.

The natural question is how to respond, what can and should be done to fight this? For over 25 years, ECPAT-USA has been working to end the sexual exploitation of children through:

Working with the private sector to train key people in how to identify trafficking and how to report it. We do this in the travel industry, where most of the large hotels chains have signed our Code of Conduct and implemented training for staff. Marriott hotels trained 500,000 associates in the last year to identify and report trafficking. And that is just one company. And there have already been cases where an employee saved a young person.

Empowering youth in New York City through educating middle and high school students to recognize the signs of when they are being groomed by a predator.

Raising awareness of the issue and championing legislation that supports trafficking survivors.

While the recent news stories about trafficking can be overwhelming, reporting on the issue is also important. It lets victims know that this is not something they have to accept and that they can come forward. And it lets someone being approached know that they don’t have to succumb.

And the increased reporting is forcing institutions that have ignored the problem for years to finally deal with it.

NEW FEDERAL ANTI-TRAFFICKING LAW POINTS TO PRINCIPLES OF ECPAT CODE OF CONDUCT AS MODEL FOR TRAVEL INDUSTRY

The new U.S. anti-trafficking law, passed in Congress on Dec. 17th, says when federal employees travel they should choose travel and hospitality companies that follow the six points of the ECPAT Code of Conduct, ECPAT-USA announced today. While H.R. 2200 the Frederick Douglass Trafficking Victims Prevention and Protection Reauthorization Act of 2017 could not specifically identify ECPAT, the six criteria are clearly patterned after the Code of Conduct.

“ECPAT and its many travel and hospitality partners are grateful that the strong code we have developed to help company staff identify and stop trafficking has now been held up as a standard by the U.S. government,” said Carol Smolenski, Executive Director of ECPAT-USA. “The new law provides a focus on prevention, which we consider the next frontier in our effort to bring an end to child sexual exploitation.”

In addition to the instructions to federal employees on travel, the new law:

  • Provides training and education efforts so that employees of the travel and hospitality industries can better recognize children and adults who may be trafficked.

  • Provides for reintegration programs for the victims of trafficking.

  • Creates a new grant program to help bring anti-trafficking educational outreach to America’s schools.  

This legislation is the product of a bipartisan effort by the members of both houses of Congress and serves as a model for how successful that approach can be. ECPAT is also grateful to Congressman Chris Smith (R-NJ) and Congresswoman Karen Bass (D-CA), who championed this effort in the House, and Senators Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), John Cornyn (R-TX), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Bob Corker (R-TN) and Bob Menendez (D-NJ) who crafted the companion bill in the Senate.

“The Trafficking Victims Protection Act Reauthorization has been a top legislative priority for anti-trafficking organizations throughout the country. This new law ensures that the United States will remain the global leader in this fight to end modern human slavery. We are very proud to have worked with the members of Congress to achieve this excellent result,” said Smolenski.

For more than twenty years, ECPAT-USA has fought for and won passage of strong anti-trafficking legislation. The Trafficking Victims Protection Act which was initially passed in 2000. It must be reauthorized every three years.

“We are so very pleased to see the evolution and improvement of those initial efforts in the passage of that latest version of the law,” Smolenski said.

ECPAT-USA is the oldest U.S. advocacy organization dedicated to ending the sexual exploitation of children. It is part of a global network of such organizations operating in over 90 countries worldwide.

The Ordinary Complicity That Puts All Children At Risk

In 1961, Hannah Arendt coined a phrase that seems so very poignant to today’s headlines.  While covering Adolph Eichman’s war crimes tribunal in Jerusalem for The New Yorker, she subtitled her subsequent book, The Banality of Evil.  The work is a meditation on how ordinary people, doing very ordinary things, can participate in monstrously evil acts.  

The Miami Herald’s blockbuster report about the Jeffrey Epstein case reminds us of how profoundly true Arendt’s observations were.  Implicated in the Miami Herald’s reporting is former U.S. Attorney, and current Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta. But Epstein’s crimes, like so many human tragedies, go far beyond Acosta’s malfeasance and cowardice in the face of a wealthy child predator. For this outrageous pattern of child sexual abuse to work, many, many people had to be involved.  Drivers, schedulers, cleaning staff. All of them did their jobs. All of them turned a blind eye to what they knew was happening in front of them. “Not my problem” is the human reflex that turns many people into accomplices to tragedy.

Nor is today’s headline the only one. The outrages keep piling on.  The Catholic Church’s hierarchy has covered up thousands of cases of abuse by its clergy of both boys and girls across the globe.  In so many cases, this was done with a wink and a nod from prosecutors and law enforcement who were informed of what was going on, but were not interested in rocking the boat.  The USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar abused children under his care for many years, and while the rumors were everywhere, coaches failed to act. In 2011, Penn State administrators were discovered to have  covered up abuse by assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky.  The failing in all of these cases is that it is easier for society to point at the monster than to reflect on how our culture enables these monsters to grow and succeed.   

Beyond child trafficking, an even more bleak picture emerges from recent research showing the number of children whose rape and torture is captured in images (often called child pornography) and then shared in large numbers on the internet. How many people are involved in the creation and distribution of this material who say absolutely nothing?

We find again and again, in institutions we rely upon to protect and nurture children, a banality of evil.  An institution is in fact, a collection of individuals. And each of those individuals, whether at a Federal prosecutor’s office, or in a Catholic Bishop’s Diocese, or a child welfare agency, has to make that same decision to ignore the harm being done to children -- keep their heads in the sand, and pretend like nothing is wrong.    

Society’s disinterest in child welfare runs deeper still.  Who do we turn to, to provide witness and protection, to bring child molesters and child traffickers to justice?  More often than not, we place that responsibility on the victims themselves. For example, without the bravery of child trafficking survivors telling their stories while pursuing cases against enablers like Backpage.com, we would not be anywhere in Congress and the courts. Supporting survivors and giving them a platform must surely be one of the ways that our society can begin to undermine the silence that allows these systemic abuses to remain in place.  

But it cannot be the only step we take.  

Our nation is embarking on some soul-searching about sexual violence thanks to the #MeToo movement.  But we also need to have much more stocktaking and a concrete acknowledgment that it is not a child’s role to protect themselves from predators.  It is society’s job.

Our country is defined by our freedom and liberty, our Bill of Rights, our Constitution.  But in 1789, the rights of children were not under deliberation. Children belonged to parents, and little further consideration was given to their rights or legal status.  It was a very English, and property-driven view of childhood. That same 18th century view of children still echoes into our law today. And it is this view that makes it easier to live in a society where children are exploited, but for all of us to say “not my problem.”  

Ultimately, for our country to seriously tackle child sexual exploitation, we need a concrete acknowledgement that children have rights.  And our society has a responsibility to protect those rights. That responsibility is not just a parent’s job. It is not a child’s lawyer’s job nor is it just the teacher’s or school counselor’s.  It falls on all of us, every day. If we see a child being exploited, we have to find the fortitude to speak up. What a better world it would be if good, rather than evil, was the banal expectation for the lives of our children.    

Global Business Travel Association Highlights ECPAT-USA’s Work Preventing Child Sex Trafficking

At this year’s annual convention, our partner Global Business Travel Association (GBTA) put the issue of child sex trafficking front and center. In addition to a convention-wide presentation about the exploitation of children, GBTA and American Airlines sponsored an Awareness 5k Run and Walk that helped raise $20,000 in support of ECPAT-USA’s work. Recently, Michelle Guelbart, ECPAT-USA’s Director of Private Sector Engagement, sat down with GBTA to discuss the impact of their efforts and how the travel industry as a whole can help put an end to child sex trafficking on their podcast The Business of Travel.

“The spotlight shone on the issue is something that you can’t even measure,” said Guelbart. “I had people sending me messages on LinkedIn and on email saying that we’ll never travel and look at the world the same way after seeing the presentation on the main stage. That’s incredible.”

The interview also touched on ECPAT-USA’s campaign in support of the reauthorization of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which GBTA joined previously by adding their name to a corporate sign-on letter urging Congress to pass the bill.

“There’s so much to be said about raising awareness of this issue,” Guelbart said. “I haven’t had a point yet where I’ve walked into a room or done an event where there wasn’t one person who said they’ve never heard about this before. You might believe that you’re talking about it enough because you talk about it once a year, but that really isn’t enough.”

Listen to the full episode below, and learn more about our partnerships with travel and tourism industry here.

ECPAT-USA Director Of Private Sector Engagement Selected As Advisor To US Department Of Transportation

ECPAT-USA is pleased to announce that Michelle Guelbart, our Director of Private Sector Engagement, has been appointed to the Advisory Committee on Human Trafficking of the U.S. Department of Transportation. Guelbart is one of 15 individuals to serve on the committee.

As a member, Guelbart will provide information, advice, and recommendations to the DOT on matters relating to human trafficking. The ACHT will also develop recommended best practices to combat human trafficking for states and stakeholders in the transportation industry.

“I am honored to be selected to the Advisory Committee on Human Trafficking, and I look forward to working closely with other members and the Department of Transportation on initiatives to end child trafficking in the U.S.,” said Guelbart. “It is encouraging to see awareness of this issue being elevated to a national level, and I feel privileged to have the opportunity to represent the voice of ECPAT-USA in this conversation.”

ECPAT-USA Director Of Private Sector Engagement Honored For Work In Social Responsibility

Michelle Guelbart, ECPAT-USA’s Director of Private Sector Engagement has been named to BizBash’s list of the Top 500 People in Events in the Sustainability and Social Responsibility category. According to the publication, the list is meant to recognize the best of the meeting and event industry across North America and includes people who lead the largest trade and consumer shows, orchestrate global brand campaigns, and plan high-visibility cultural events that have everyone talking on social media.

“I am surprised and honored to be mentioned in a list with so many amazing leaders in the events industry,” said Guelbart. “It is a privilege spreading ECPAT-USA’s message to the private sector and help build upon the global movement to end child trafficking.”

Guelbart, left, at the AccorHotels signing of The Code.

Guelbart, left, at the AccorHotels signing of The Code.

For over 14 years, ECPAT-USA has worked with the hotel and tourism industry to combat the sexual exploitation of children. As the Director of Private Sector Engagement, Guelbart has been instrumental to increasing the industry’s awareness of the issue and advising companies in the implementation of policies to identify and prevent child sex trafficking. Under her guidance and leadership, real steps have been taken to better protect children around the world.

ECPAT-USA congratulates Michelle on this recognition!