Lara Powers is the survivor engagement adviser for Polaris, a nonprofit that operates the National Human Trafficking Hotline.
For the past week, the arrest of New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft following a South Florida massage parlor bust has been making national headlines. But the real story here isn’t about one man — instead, we should be paying attention to the non-managerial employees in the massage parlors who were presumably providing commercial sex.
It’s too soon to know how many of the women in the Florida massage parlors may have experienced trafficking. We do know, from over 10 years running the National Human Trafficking Hotline and working on more than 40,000 U.S. trafficking cases, that human trafficking is ubiquitous in locations known as illicit massage businesses (IMBs).
These are a very specific type of illicit business, distinct from therapists who provide massages for health wellness and relaxation. Hotline data suggest that the women caught up in this industry are most often recent Asian immigrants who are defrauded, coerced and manipulated into providing commercial sex. They are victims in a very real sense.
Polaris works with law enforcement, businesses, service providers and state and local governments around the country to help them understand how these illicit businesses work. Knowing the details helps them to investigate in ways that target the real criminals — the traffickers. We suggest ways in which they can support the victims. And we tell them, if nothing else, “Just don’t arrest and book the person who was directly selling sex.”
The damage caused by arresting these people cannot be overstated, and is not limited to trafficking victims. Arresting individuals who are directly selling commercial sex further marginalizes and stigmatizes an already vulnerable population — weakening their ability to keep themselves safe in an exploitative industry.
These arrested victims now have a criminal record. If they break free of their traffickers or leave prostitution, that record will deeply affect their ability to rebuild their lives. It will haunt them when they apply for jobs. It will impact student loan applications. It could keep them from renting apartments. The list of damages goes on. If we as a nation want to make a dent in human trafficking, we must stop the practice of arresting people directly selling sex; every arrest makes a vulnerable person more vulnerable and may limit their options to survive outside the sex trade.
To survivors of human trafficking, this is intuitive. Yet somehow the message has been lost. A recent example was the city of Atlanta touting the 169 arrests made related to sex trafficking in the lead up to the Super Bowl in February. On its face, this sounded like a net positive — a sweeping, forceful surge of accountability that ideally would serve as a deterrent. Look again.
Of those Atlanta arrests, 60 were of traffickers or individuals trying to buy sex. Many of the remaining arrests were of those who were selling sex — people in prostitution. Some of those people were also likely victims of human trafficking.
This is not to say that law enforcement has no role to play in disrupting human trafficking. Trafficking is diverse and dynamic, and interventions must be designed to match the specifics of each situation. In the case of massage parlor human trafficking venues, where victims are often closely monitored, and have restricted freedom of movement and communication, law enforcement intervention is often the only way to facilitate meaningful exit.
Additionally, there are some in the anti-trafficking field who claim that arrests provide an opportunity to extend a lifeline. Concerned law enforcement officials might argue that the time a victim spends in a jail cell, away from a trafficker, enables them to offer life-saving resources.
However, victims who are not ready to leave their trafficking situations, or who may not identify as trafficking victims at all, generally aren’t helped by forced intervention efforts. And what is also true, for all cases, is that the physical act of locking up a sex-trafficking victim is traumatizing, as it would be for any person surviving the extreme disempowerment, dehumanization, and loss of control of an abuse such as trafficking.
If we are truly interested in ending trafficking, we must give victims and survivors the agency to decide for themselves if, when and how recovery happens. When law enforcement raids do happen, the responding officers must be highly trained in trauma and exploitation. We must stop arresting people directly selling sex in the sex trade. Or we must stop calling it anti-trafficking work.