Slavery in America didn’t end in 1865.
“This is an ongoing epidemic,” Cindy McCain told a stunned audience at the 10th annual Women in the World Summit on Friday morning. Slavery in the form of sex trafficking is hiding in plain sight — “everywhere,” she said. While there is no way to put a precise number on how many women are affected today, the number is grim. This was just one of many misconceptions corrected by McCain, who chairs the McCain Institute’s Human Trafficking Advisory Council, and two other women with intimate understandings of what exactly is at stake.
While the general public tends to think trafficking of girls occurs in inner cities, the reality is more complicated. Dr. Sharon Cooper, a developmental and forensic pediatrician, offered multiple examples: girls who are taken and sold to rural farmers; young homeless people who are swept up by “moles” by illusory promises of “a better life”; children who are marketed online to Americans who fund the abuses with their credit card — “pay per view.”
“A big case out of Durham, North Carolina, involved a father who adopted two children and was selling them online to other men,” Dr. Cooper said, to audible gasps in the theater.
Sitting alongside McCain and Cooper was a young woman named Nicole Bell, who announced: “I was recruited as a teenage girl.” Bell was just 16 when she was groomed and prostituted by a 32 year-old man, an inciting incident that led to years of drug abuse, jail time, and homelessness that she eventually broke out of when she was 34. Bell now runs Living In Freedom Together (LIFT), a non-profit dedicated to empowering other individuals to exit the commercial sex industry.
Nicole challenged the very definition of prostitution. Prostitution is generally described as an exchange of sex for money by two consenting adults — but, Bell said, “Prostitution isn’t people deferring entrance to Yale,” Bell said. “We’re looking at people in poverty, people of color, people coming out of the foster system. It’s not this conceived notion of choice.
Trafficking is also impossible to stamp out with tokenistic gestures, and it is not something that can be blamed on foreign adversaries. “I have to ask,” said moderator Cynthia McFadden, as she addressed McCain: “Back in February, President Trump claimed that his border wall would put an end to human trafficking.”
“He’s living in Disneyland,” McCain said, with a rueful laugh. “It simply isn’t true.” The kids who are being trafficked are domestic, she said: “They’re within the United States, and they’re going from state to state to state to state.”
“It is not an immigration issue at all.”
It is also not a woman’s issue, though the judicial system often treats it as one, sending women to jail while their “johns” are merely put in classes. A recent initiative in Arizona attempts to correct this imbalance, McCain explained, by taking cars away from the men who rely on them to propagate the sex work.
What more can be done to address the issue of trafficking in America?
The key, all three women agreed, is education and awareness. This includes making sure that doctors and nurses are trained to spot the kinds of vulnerabilities that push women and children towards trafficking. It also involves reforming the biases of prosecutors. “We’re currently working on a pre-arraignment diversion program [in Massachusetts],” Bell said. Instead of charging women with prostitution and sending them to prison, the women will instead be offered connections to the kind of “exit services” than can help them escape these cycles of exploitation.
“We have a whole audience of disruptors here,” McFadden concluded. “And i’m sure many of them are wondering — maybe all of them are wondering — what can they do? How can they help?”
“I call on you to educate yourself on these issues,” McCain pleaded. “This is very much a man’s issue, women,” she added. “We need to take hold of this.”
Additional reporting by Laura Macomber.