The Continuing the Conversation: The Fight Against Modern Day Sex Trafficking Panel and Discussion offered insight into the industry of sex trafficking on a local and global scale on Friday, March 29. Hosted by Girl Scout Troop 75142, the event picked up from last semester’s sex trafficking panel, this time including panelists Shavon Ramos, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, Congressman Bill Foster, Guardian Angels Services Officer Mary McGavin and Will County Chief Investigator Megan Brooks.
“Sex trafficking is not just someone else’s problem,” said Girl Scout Troop Leader Dr. Utica Gray. “This is our problem. This is an issue that can affect our family members and friends. If it truly does take a village, it is our collective responsibility to take ownership of this issue and to take steps needed to combat it. Put simply, this is too important of an issue to overlook. People (children and adults, both female and male) are being sex trafficked right in our very own neighborhoods. I hope this is the start of an ongoing discussion.”
The event began with remarks from Dart, as he spoke on the statistics and dangers of sex trafficking. Dart identified the key issues with law enforcement’s handling of sex trafficking in the past, as most cases used to involve a complaint prompting police to arrest a prostitute, who, only hours later, would cycle back to the location she originally came from. In 2007, prostitution over the Internet skyrocketed, first appearing in ads on Craigslist.com before finally arriving on Backpage.com.
Numerous websites serve as a platform for sex buyers to post ads for prostitution, purchase services from ads and exchange information with other buyers. In an effort to identify and arrest sex buyers, the Cook County Sheriff’s Department, as well as other law enforcement, has posted decoy sex ads. Artificial intelligence bots interact with sex buyers, sending responses to the suspect, who believes he or she is messaging another person. After a certain number of text messages have been exchanged, the bots deliver a deterrence message detailing the dangers of sex trafficking.
“To date, our office has reached more than 2,200 buyers with more than 12,800 text messages sent,” said Dart. “Approximately 20 percent of individuals contacted two or more ads. This effort also monitors site traffic to see if any are becoming a dominate site for trafficking. So far none can compare to Backpage’s scale and traffic.”
To give more context on online sex trafficking, with a focus on Backpage, the 2017 film, “I Am Jane Doe” was shown. Throughout the documentary, young women who were victims of child sex trafficking, identified as Jane Doe, J.S. and M.A., recounted their experiences of being sex trafficked, as well as their frustrations that Backpage faced no repercussions for displaying ads for child sex trafficking on its website.
“I saw the trailer for ‘I Am Jane Doe’ on my Facebook feed about a year ago, and I was blown away,” said Gray. “I then called my daughter downstairs for her to view the trailer. She, too, was amazed by what she saw, and she suggested that we share the trailer and discuss it at a troop meeting. I showed the movie trailer at our next troop meeting, and my scouts suggested that our troop do something to educate others about the topic.”
Backpage, which, at the time of filming, accounted for 80 percent of the market for online sex trafficking, was sued repeatedly by the families of victims, but was always protected by section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. This act prevents online services from being held accountable for information published by a third party. Backpage CEO Carl Ferrer was arrested for pimping in Oct. 2016, but was also protected by section 230.
“When I was watching [‘I Am Jane Doe’], I was cringing at how long it took Congress to act,” said Foster. “The bill I was proudest to pass changed section 230.”
Following the release of the film, Backpage’s website has been seized as a part of an enforcement action by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act was passed in Feb. 2018, as an amendment to the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act. This amendment changed legislation in the Communications Decency Act, enabling sex trafficking survivors to pursue civil rights of action and empowering state Attorneys General to bring prosecutions against online services. This legislation brings liability to websites which knowingly facilitate sex trafficking. Since its passage, these types of online platforms have experienced a 60 percent reduction in ads due to decreased demand.
After the viewing of the documentary, Ramos, who was a victim of and assisted with sex trafficking, told her story, describing how she became involved after dating a man in the business. Threatened by her abusive boyfriend, Ramos assisted in holding victims hostage and convincing them to use drugs. After seeking help through the Chicago Dream Center in her healing process, Ramos is now employed at the center as an aide in the Women’s Residential Program.
“Many people think this is a victimless crime between consenting adults,” said Dart. “This is not a victimless crime. We surveyed 172 individuals involved in prostitution and found that most participants started before they turned 21, used drugs — often highly addictive — such as heroin or crack cocaine, and said they experienced violence against them, including sexual assault as a child. Of the women who reported their age, approximately 44 percent said they started before they were 18. Approximately 63 percent of the women surveyed said a pimp recruited them.”
Children who appear to be alone or shy in public areas are most likely to be targeted for sex trafficking. Sex traffickers are most likely to seek children out at malls or hotels, in addition to on social media platforms. In the Chicago area, airports, expressways and fake massage parlors are common prostitution hotspots. To avoid becoming a victim, parents are encouraged to teach children to stay away from strangers, to monitor what they are drinking when they go out and to ignore unfamiliar social media accounts.
“Ask your kids what’s happening on social media,” said Brooks. “You can sit down with your kid and say, ‘Show me your favorite app.’ You can ask, ‘Why do you have this man on social media when you’ve never even met him?’ Together, you can remove him, and have that safety talk.”
The event concluded with a panel in which the audience had the opportunity to engage in a discussion with the panelists.