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What Jeffrey Epstein’s case says (and doesn’t say) about human trafficking in America

Most trafficking cases don’t look like Jeffrey Epstein’s. Here are the facts.

Michelle Licata (left) and Courtney Wild, two women who say Jeffrey Epstein abused them, stand surrounded by cameras and reporters outside a Manhattan courthouse after a hearing on sex trafficking charges against Epstein.
Michelle Licata (L) and Courtney Wild, two women who say Jeffrey Epstein abused them, leave a Manhattan courthouse after a hearing on sex trafficking charges against Epstein on July 8, 2019 in New York City.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Anna North is a senior correspondent for Vox, where she covers American family life, work, and education. Previously, she was an editor and writer at the New York Times. She is also the author of three novels, including the New York Times bestseller Outlawed.

The Jeffrey Epstein case is forcing the American public to reckon with difficult questions about power, wealth, and the apparent ease with which all too many people were able to ignore evidence of abuse.

It’s also thrown a spotlight on what may be one of the most poorly understood crimes in America: human trafficking.

The federal government defines trafficking as using “force, fraud, or coercion” to make someone perform labor. That can include sex trafficking. When he died, Epstein was facing trafficking charges in connection with allegations that he paid underage girls for sex.

But experts say most human trafficking cases look nothing like what Epstein is accused of. For one thing, most traffickers aren’t multimillionaires with ties to current and former presidents. For another, most trafficking has nothing to do with sex: The majority of trafficked people are forced into other kinds of labor, like domestic or agricultural work. “It’s really important for folks to understand that labor trafficking is far more prevalent than sex trafficking,” Jessica Emerson, director of the Human Trafficking Prevention Project at the University of Baltimore, told Vox.

For Emerson and others, the Epstein case is an opportunity to push back on some of the misconceptions around trafficking. But it’s also a chance to point out what the women who have spoken out about Epstein have in common with other trafficking survivors: When they met Epstein they were vulnerable, often poor and isolated from family members, or both.

“Trafficking doesn’t target people,” Kate D’Adamo, a consultant with the group Reframe Health and Justice, told Vox. “Trafficking targets vulnerability and marginalization.”

Now that Epstein’s case is getting public attention, advocates say, it’s a chance to push for reforms that would help all survivors of trafficking, not only the ones whose stories make national news.

Most human trafficking is not sex trafficking

“Human trafficking occurs when someone uses force, fraud, or coercion to compel someone to engage in a commercial sex act or other forms of labor,” Emerson explained. Paying a minor for sex is also considered trafficking under federal law, she added, regardless of whether force, fraud, or coercion are present.

Epstein, for his part, was facing two trafficking charges when he died: sex trafficking of minors and conspiracy to engage in sex trafficking of minors. Those charges stemmed from allegations that, in the words of the federal indictment issued earlier this year, the money manager “enticed and recruited” underage girls to his homes in New York and Florida “to engage in sex acts with him, after which he would give the victims hundreds of dollars in cash.”

The allegations against Epstein point to a variety of possible criminal charges, including sexual assault. But the office of the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, which issued the indictment, appears to have chosen trafficking charges for jurisdictional reasons.

Typically, cases of child sexual abuse are not handled by federal authorities, said Deborah Tuerkheimer, a law professor at Northwestern University and former prosecutor in Manhattan. However, trafficking, especially if it involves crimes in several states, is more likely to be a federal matter. When asked why the US Attorney chose trafficking charges specifically, a spokesperson noted to Vox that assault of a minor is not a federal crime.

Despite the charges against him, the allegations against Epstein aren’t necessarily representative of the broader picture of human trafficking. While experts say there’s a lack of reliable data on the prevalence of trafficking in general, the International Labour Organization estimated in 2017 that 24.9 million people around the world were trapped in forced labor, with 4.8 million of those experiencing forced sexual exploitation.

People can be trafficked into labor of any kind, Emerson said, from domestic work to restaurant work to work in a nail salon or massage parlor. “Anywhere there is work and there is a vulnerability and someone willing to take advantage of that vulnerability, you may have labor trafficking happening,” she said.

For example, Fainess Lipenga told PRI in 2017 that for three years she was treated almost as a slave by a Malawian diplomat in the US, forced to work as a maid 16 hours a day, seven days a week, for less than 50 cents an hour. The diplomat took away her passport and locked her in the house, Lipenga said. Eventually, she was able to escape, and she became an advocate for other human trafficking survivors. But because of diplomatic immunity, the diplomat could not be charged.

Experiences like Lipenga’s story, in which people are forced into non-sexual forms of labor for little to no money, are far more common than sex trafficking, experts say. But labor trafficking tends to get less attention because it doesn’t lend itself as well to salacious headlines. “For lack of a better way to describe it,” Emerson said, “it’s not as sexy.”

Sex trafficking doesn’t rise around the Super Bowl. It’s one of many myths around the problem.

If you’ve read about sex trafficking in recent years, you may have heard that it spikes during the Super Bowl or other sporting events, or that the average age when minors are first trafficked is 12 years old.

Neither of these claims is correct, Emerson said. The majority of what’s publicly presented as data on sex trafficking is “not just wrong but blatantly not true,” she added.

“No data actually support the notion that increased sex trafficking accompanies the Super Bowl,” wrote Kate Mogulescu, an assistant professor of clinical law at Brooklyn Law School, in a 2014 New York Times op-ed. When the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women studied the claim, the group wrote that, “despite massive media attention, law enforcement measures and efforts by prostitution abolitionist groups, there is no empirical evidence that trafficking for prostitution increases around large sporting events.”

A big event like the Super Bowl can increase the demand for commercial sex in the area, Jennifer O’Brien, an assistant professor and researcher at the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, told Slate earlier this year. But the majority of commercial sex is not human trafficking.

Data on the prevalence of trafficking in the sex industry is hard to come by, but D’Adamo of Reframe Health and Justice says the most reliable studies have found around 15 percent to 25 percent of minors who sell sex report having been exploited by a third party at some point. The same kind of reliable data doesn’t exist for adults, D’Adamo says, but the prevalence of exploitation might be lower because minors are at greater risk.

Rather that being based in reality, Mogulescu wrote, the myth of a trafficking spike around the Super Bowl “has taken hold through sheer force of repetition, playing on desires to rescue trafficking victims and appear tough on crime.”

In some cases, Emerson said, misinformation spreads out of a genuine desire for answers. People are “horrified that this is happening and they want to know how much this is happening.”

But trafficking is “not a simple issue,” she said. It happens underground, and survivors are often frightened to talk about it, even to the people who are supposed to help them. That’s why in her work, Emerson says she focuses less on absolute numbers and more on the factors that can lead people to be targeted for trafficking, like poverty, addiction, or discrimination.

“I don’t talk about data,” Emerson said. “I talk about vulnerability.”

The biggest thing human trafficking survivors have in common is vulnerability

A lot of the details of Jeffrey Epstein’s case, such as his enormous wealth and his ties to powerful people, make it unusual in the larger world of human trafficking.

But other aspects of the case, said D’Adamo, “are so common.” According to the allegations against him, she said, “he went after marginalized young women” who needed money and who “would probably not be believed” if they came forward to report abuse, D’Adamo said.

“Jeffrey preyed on girls who were in a bad way, girls who were basically homeless,” Courtney Wild, who met Epstein when she was 14, told Julie K. Brown of the Miami Herald last year. “He went after girls who he thought no one would listen to and he was right.’’

That kind of marginalization is a common factor among survivors of all types of trafficking, Emerson said. People who are poor or have a hard time getting a job due to homophobia, transphobia, or other kinds of discrimination are especially vulnerable to being trafficked. So are people who are undocumented or whose immigration status is otherwise at risk.

“If I take somebody’s documentation or threaten to expose them to immigration authorities, I can force them into any type of labor,” Emerson explained.

Another feature of Epstein’s case that is common to other trafficking cases, D’Adamo said, is that according to reports by the women and girls involved, “other people in the community knew” they were being abused. “It wasn’t a secret.”

While the image of sex trafficking in the media may be one of shadowy secrecy, in fact the many women who have spoken out against Epstein say they were recruited in plain sight, at malls or outside their schools. And they say that others besides Epstein were aware of the abuse and did nothing to stop it, or even actively helped Epstein in his crimes.

In fact, this week, Jennifer Araoz, who says Epstein began abusing her when she was 14, filed suit against his longtime friend Ghislaine Maxwell and three of Epstein’s employers, alleging that they aided in the abuse.

“Jeffrey Epstein and his network of enablers stole from me,” Araoz said, according to BuzzFeed News. “They robbed me of my youth, my identity, my innocence, my self-worth. For too long, they escaped accountability. I am here today because I intend to change that.”

The Trump administration claims it’s fighting human trafficking. Advocates say otherwise.

For advocates, a lot of anti-trafficking work is about reducing vulnerability. “You do human trafficking prevention work when you do criminal justice reform, when you do anti-poverty work, when you do anti-racism work, when you work on the issue of homelessness, when you work on the issue of interpersonal violence, when you work on access to immigration relief,” Emerson said. “All of those things make people less vulnerable to being trafficked.”

Preventing trafficking is also about improving labor protections, D’Adamo said. In industries like domestic work where workers still lack basic rights like a minimum wage, it’s especially hard to identify and root out exploitation. “If we’re going to talk about addressing trafficking, what we’re really talking about is lifting the floor for labor,” D’Adamo explained.

To help survivors of sex trafficking specifically, D’Adamo and other advocates call for decriminalizing sex work. Many also call for legal reform around the country to allow people arrested for prostitution to expunge their criminal records, making it easier for them to get jobs outside the sex industry. Someone involved in the commercial sex trade “is more likely to be trafficked or to become more vulnerable to being trafficked if they can’t get a job,” Emerson said.

President Trump, meanwhile, has claimed his administration takes an aggressive stance on fighting sex trafficking. “My Administration continues to work to drive out the darkness human traffickers cast upon our world,” Trump wrote in a 2017 executive order in which he proclaimed January 2018 National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month.

But in reality, many of the administration’s actions could actually make the problem worse, advocates say. Trump’s constant threats of raids by immigration officials, as well as other policies targeting undocumented immigrants, could make immigrants more fearful of reporting trafficking and more vulnerable to people who could use their immigration status to control them. “The immigration policies that have emerged from this administration have made people unbelievably more vulnerable to trafficking,” Emerson said.

The White House has also banned the use of federal funds to help survivors of sex trafficking clear their criminal records. And under Secretary Alexander Acosta, Trump’s Labor Department slow-walked the approval of special visas for immigrant trafficking survivors, making them less likely to come forward, Catherine Rampell of the Washington Post reported earlier this year.

Acosta announced his resignation in July amid growing criticism of his role as US attorney in Miami in granting Jeffrey Epstein a plea deal that allowed him to stay out of prison. That means that he, at least, will no longer have a say over what happens to human trafficking survivors.

When it comes to human trafficking more broadly, the Epstein case has the potential to teach the American public a lesson about how powerful people prey on the less powerful, advocates say, even if the specifics are somewhat unique.

“If we can think about power, if we can think about status, if we can think about need and how all of that plays into these cases,” said Tuerkheimer, the Northwestern professor, “I think we’ll have a greater understanding and greater empathy when someone comes forward.”

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