Human sex trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery that’s often imperceptible to people who never intentionally dabble in that world. However, many people who are familiar with the exchange of money for sex still may not recognize the telltale features of a sex trafficking ring even when one is operating right under their noses. Once the soothing blinders have been removed from their eyes, some people find the realities of sex trafficking impossible to cast back into the shadows, no matter how personally pacifying such a concealing action might be.
Sarah Godoy is one such individual who couldn’t ignore the realities of sex trafficking once the truth was revealed to her. While working on her master’s degree in social welfare at UCLA, Godoy traveled to India to assist a non-profit organization that serves women and children who’d been trafficked into brothels. Upon returning to the United States, Godoy then opted to aid a separate non-profit serving teenagers who’d been sex trafficked.
While Godoy began her research career seven years ago by conducting a Google-funded investigation into the role of technology in sex trafficking, she now continues her research as a Ph.D. student at the University of North Carolina, focusing on identification and intervention with respect to preadolescent children who are trafficked for sex. I spoke with Godoy recently about the subject.
Splice Today: You mentioned to me that it’s important to define what trafficking is so that people know what they’re talking about.
Sarah Godoy: Federally we define human trafficking as labor and sex trafficking. We don’t include organ trafficking like the rest of the world, which is very weird. For adults, you have to prove that there’s force, fraud or coercion involved, and that someone induced the person being exploited into exchanging sexual activity for something of value. Sex trafficking for a minor is defined as any child under the age of 18 who is induced into any kind of sexual activity in exchange for anything of value. That could be transactional sex. That could be live sex shows. That could be sexually explicit images, or sexually explicit videos. As long as something is exchanged of value. That could be monetary value, but it could also be food or shelter. It could even be a grade for a class. It doesn’t have to be a tangible item that can be held as long as it is something that is being exchanged. That’s the difference between sexual abuse and sexual exploitation—that commercial aspect.
ST: You’ve done research on sex trafficking in both India and the United States; how does one region compare with the other in terms of the forms sex trafficking takes?
SG: The common thread of any trafficking or exploitation is that the demand for commercial sex drives the trafficking no matter where you are. Predominantly men are the sex buyers. You could be anywhere in the world, and there’s this weird misconception that the younger a person is that you have sex with, the less likely you are to contract HIV or another STD from them. One thing I’ve seen in both India and the United States is that people who purchase sex will pay more money for access to younger children. Geographically, where you’re located is going to dictate how much people are paying for sex.
By definition, “traffic” involves moving somewhere. For it to be sustainable to traffic people, you need to move them to an area where people will buy the sex. People might be exploited from marginalized populations—either economically marginalized or poverty stricken, or downcaste, or people of color. Those who are exploited are moved to places with affluence and people who can afford to purchase the sex. If you have multiple marginalized identities, you’re at greater risk. For a kid in the United States, if you are in the foster care system, you’re at increased risk for myriad reasons. If you’re part of the juvenile justice system, if you’re a person of color, if you’re from a low-income community, all of those characteristics are compounded. They may look differently in different parts of the world, but we still see that the people who are most marginalized in a community are going to be at the highest risk.
ST: I’d think that if a fortysomething-year-old guy is trying to have sex with a 12-year-old girl, that guy is simply a pervert. I’m not thinking that he’s strategically trying to avoid a disease by arranging for sex with a child. To what extent do I have that wrong, and that a sex buyer selecting someone who’s young is more of a matter of being risk-averse rather than simply wanting to get their hands on someone underage?
SG: You’re not wrong; it’s just a matter of looking at the broader constellation. There are pedophiles who are specifically targeting pre-adolescent or adolescent-age children. There are also people who’re simply situational sex buyers, and they may not go looking for a 12-year-old, but that’s what’s available to them, so that’s who they’re going to have sex with. The notion of being risk-averse is very real when we think about the characteristics of a sex buyer. The people who buy sex are often married or in a relationship, or they’re divorced. They usually have enough money to buy sex. So they’re educated, employed and usually affluent. Part of the group is made up of people who just want to have sex with young people, but for others it’s about not wanting to get an STD and not wanting to take it home to their partner. They’re all factors, and they’re not mutually exclusive.
ST: In my mind, the stereotype of someone who pays for sex is the guy who might have difficulty getting a girlfriend, finding a spouse, or finding a woman who’s willing to go on a date. At least that’s the image that pops into my mind; a person who couldn’t acquire sex through traditional, societally-accepted means. The shorthand for that would be an unemployed, socially undesirable guy living in mom’s basement. It sounds like that’s an unfair characterization of the typical sex buyer.
SG: If we look at the research and what we know about the demographic characteristics of purchasers of sex, the majority either are or have been in relationships to some extent. They’re not typically social outcasts. They’re usually connected in society, and they have jobs. Even then, there are still many reasons why people buy sex. Someone might be married and not enjoying their sexual relationship at home. Or they want to act out things that they’ve seen in porn, or act out fantasies, and their partner doesn’t want to, so they go somewhere else. It isn’t that many of these buyers aren’t people who couldn’t get anything; they’re not getting the specificthings they want with their existing partners. In the United States and in some other parts of the world, between 10 percent and 20 percent of men either have purchased sex, or will purchase sex at some point in their lifetime. There are cases of young men losing their virginity because their fathers took them to have sex and paid for it. The men are of all ages. I’ve seen men as old as 90 who’ve participated in research studies, and they’re still actively buying sex.
ST: What percent of the buyers of sex would you say are employed men in relationships?
SG: The research shows that upwards of 80 percent of the men are employed and have the disposable income to purchase sex. We also see that the peak times for when sex is purchased in many places will either be at lunchtime or immediately after work. I’d say that at least half of the men who purchase sex are married, in a relationship, or divorced.
ST: The last time I was in California, I witnessed what appeared to be a sting at a truck stop where sex workers were getting arrested, or at least questioned by the police.
SG: One thing we often do without realizing it is labeling people prostitutes and sex workers. We take away the possibility that these people are sex-trafficked. I like to use person-centered language, and refer to them as “someone who is engaging in commercial sexual activity.” I say that because I don’t want it to be lost that these people may be exploited. Truck stops are infamous for purchasing sex. There’s a very large organization that exists called Truckers Against Trafficking. Essentially, they go around educating truckers about why they shouldn’t purchase sex, and what sex trafficking looks like. There’s a misconception among people in general, but especially among truckers, that because there are people around who are available to purchase sex from, that they’re willfully doing it to make money. I’ve worked with teens who were trafficked at truck stops around the United States; they were exploited and didn’t keep any of that money. I’ve also worked with teens who could point out a specific truck stop and say that if they were there they’d charge a specified amount for a certain sex act. By the time I met them, they were 16 or 17 and survivors of exploitation. That means that when they started being trafficked, they were 14 or 15. If you see people engaging in sex work, there’s probably a trafficker watching them from a car that you can’t see.
Another issue I have with stings is that in the United States we arrest the person who’s selling sex; that’s the low-hanging fruit. In California and some other states, we’ve stopped arresting children on prostitution charges because we’ve recognized that children are minors and can’t legally consent to sex, and if you’re a minor engaging in commercial sexual activity, by federal law we’ve defined it as sex trafficking. When we arrest the child or the person who’s selling it, we’re not looking at the full context. The purchaser may have never been arrested for buying sex. At most, he may have gotten a slap on the hand and that’s it, but the trafficked people he’s buying sex from having probably all been arrested at some time. With the model for how we respond and criminalize the people engaging in the selling of sex, I think we’re missing the mark. No one who is selling sex should be criminalized, but we need to hold the sex buyers responsible.
ST: When I hear about sex trafficking in the U.S., I think about someone being shuttled in from overseas, and probably someone who doesn’t speak English and is dependent upon the person who brought them in for everything. That’s how I imagine it. How close is that to the truth?
SG: That absolutely happens, but across the world the majority of the people exploited through sex trafficking are exploited within their own communities by other people from their communities. In India, all the women in brothels I met were from India. They may have been from villages, but they were still from India. When I was working with kids in Los Angeles, they were all from Los Angeles. That was their home. There are also people who are trafficked throughout the United States. I speak with people who’ll tell me they’ve been shipped from coast to coast, from Las Vegas to Atlantic City. They’ll be shipped to wherever major events are happening, and wherever there is a major congregation of men.
I also worked with people from Colombia who were trafficked in Japan, or who were going to different parts of the world and forced to work in red-light districts. It does happen, but it happens less frequently; it’s not the majority. You need to have a really savvy network to transport people from one country to another country, actually get them into the country, and then keep them there. A lot of the same networks that exist for sex trafficking also exist for other trafficking, too, like gun trafficking.
ST: Can you affix an average age to someone who’s being sex trafficked?
SG: You can’t find an average age of a sex trafficker or an age of initiation. The data from two decades ago placed the average age of entry at 12, but we don’t have true data to support it. If we can’t recognize it for what it is, we can never quantify how many people are being exploited or understand the scope or nuance of something like the average age of a person being trafficked.
I’ve done research predominantly with adolescents and young adults. The youngest person I’ve interviewed for research purposes is 13, but I also do research on preadolescent-aged children who are trafficked, and I’ve worked with women in the anti-trafficking field who were trafficked beginning at the ages of four and five. We know familial trafficking tends to start with children at the youngest of ages who are trafficked because the family members are the people who have access to them. The youngest people I’ve ever seen recovered by the FBI were two sisters—a three-year-old and a five-year-old—who were sold for $600 by a family friend.
We often focus on teenagers and have less of a focus on these preadolescents. But it’s happening and it has happened for a long time. I know a woman in her 70s and she was trafficked at age three or four. That’s seven decades ago, and we’re still not identifying it to the degree that it needs to be identified.
ST: We’ve spoken a lot about young girls being trafficked, but are young boys also heavily trafficked for sex?
SG: Absolutely. I think one of the biggest misconceptions is that it’s only adolescent girls who are predominantly being trafficked, but we know that boys, young men and transgender youth are also trafficked. I’ve worked with a man who identified as LGBTQ. His parents kicked him out of his house. His dad said, “You have to leave this house because you’re gay.” He was homeless and lived in his car. There were traffickers who were watching, broke into his car, raped him, and then trafficked him. He was trafficked among high-profile men who worked in government in the D.C. area. There was a network he was trafficked into with other boys and young men who were specifically tailored to wealthy, affluent lawmakers.
There are some traffickers that have a lot of money, and there are different types of trafficking. So if we think about wealthy people who are connected to the government, they’re probably going to have high-end escorts going through their sex trafficking, whereas if you look on the street, you’re probably going to see a young person of color trafficked. There’s no one face you can put on sex trafficking. It’s going to look different based on your region. If you’re in an urban or rural region it will look different. It will also look different based on your own race or ethnicity. So most people may have a snapshot in their minds, but it won’t be comprehensive, because it’s so diverse.