(Image obtained from Australian Broadcast Corporation)
In previous issues of PanAmerican Crime we discuss some of the social ills that are exploited by organized criminal groups in order to obtain money, power, and prestige. Sometimes, the causes of these problems are, at their root, related to the culture, structure, or societal reach of specific criminal groups and their subcultures; but sometimes, the criminals merely provide a conduit for powerful oppressive forces that enable the operation of their illegal enterprises. Prostitution is one of those issues that cuts deeper than organized crime, to the marrow of social ideas about liberty, poverty, equity and gender roles. However, human slavery, specifically for the purposes of prostitution, is much more cut and dry. Today PanAmerican Crime will issue a topical polemic on the pervasive use of human slavery for the purposes of prostitution, a crime that is much more commonplace in communities throughout North America than is often believed in polite society. This piece was written because PanAmerican Crime is of the opinion that this specific crime is one of the vilest still propagated across our World today, deserving of its own piece separate from those recently done on Russian, East Asian, and Mexican organized crime. Rather than focusing on a specific group or individual, it will instead zero in on the practice itself and, in a fit of opprobrium, call for swift action to fix the disturbing trends outlined all too briefly here.
Again, as we often have to do, it is important to first discuss some of the finer points surrounding the issue of prostitution to ensure that: 1 – this article is interpreted the right way; and, 2 – those we offend are those we actually intend to offend. First off, prostitution is often labelled as the “world’s oldest profession.” This statement in and of itself can be problematic. To some, the designation of this practice as a “profession” connotes a mutually respectful and beneficial relationship, where the agents involved are valued and the services rendered are regulated in some equitable way. However, it is difficult to see how the earliest prostitutes found in recognized human history – most likely slaves or relatives of the ruling family or family head that were gifted, sold, or lent to travellers, traders, or other group members in hunter-gatherer societies for sex – actually fit that label. Certainly, women, men, and children were likely all victimized, but what facilitated or necessitated the creation of this role was some form of patriarchy (or matriarchy, depending on the society) that codified or regulated the imbalance of power required to utilize other humans in roles that include providing sex for sustenance, resources, or influence rather than strictly economic motives. Yet if the label of “professional prostitute” can be applied in early human societies where women, men, and children provided a valued and respected sexual function as part of some form of barter system to obtain equitable access to the shared resources of a specific clan, tribe, or society then perhaps this label of the “first profession” is applicable.
This comparison between the various scenarios regarding prostitution’s origin represents, in essence, the debate that surrounds prostitution’s place in human society today. Is prostitution entered into by actors who have the agency to willingly choose this “profession” – this is the myth the propagates the use of euphemisms like “call girl” and “escort” when discussing the sex trade – or is their choice the end result of being direct victims of a power imbalance within human culture that forces them to sell their bodies for survival? Depending on how this query is answered often relates directly to whether or not prostitution is treated as a societal blight or a service that should glean some respect – the conclusion about which this article makes no claim to know or answer. To accurately tease out and explain what the answer is well beyond the scope of this piece, but what PanAm Crime would like to make clear is that even agency, despite what the actors may claim, can be debatable. Science has now provided myriad examples of how environment (and genetic predispositions) can determine human emotional responses and how free choice is therefore, at least in part, subservient to place, circumstance, and time. The ongoing and politically charged Burka/Niqab debate that is currently raging across the province of Quebec provides another example of how agency can be interpreted – to some, if women state that they wish to wear face-covering head scarves then that should be allowed; to others, the patriarchal nature of the culture involved precludes their ability to exert agency in this regard, meaning that regardless of their stated desire to wear a burka or niqab, their culture has not equipped them with the ability to reject the donning of that garment. Given the known examples of violence or ostracism from family that can accompany the removal of the garment this argument cannot be so lightly dismissed.
But whether various forms of prostitution represent a lack of agency on the service provider’s part does not factor into this discussion, beyond introducing the controversy that currently surrounds how this practice is viewed. It seems to be one in which everyone has a vehement opinion. For the purposes of examining organized crime’s role in human trafficking or slavery for prostitution it is safe to say that there is no middle ground and debating a lack or abundance of agency is a moot point – safe to say, sex slaves do not make their own decisions. So where does that leave today’s conversation? First off, numbers. To demonstrate how prevalent this practice is with both johns and providers of the service innumerable examples stand out. In Paris, France the city recently arrested and fined over 1,000 johns for utilizing the services of prostitutes, all of which occurred in just one month. In Canada, there were just over 3,500 convictions for sex offences in 2009, but by 2014 that number had dwindled to just over 1,000 throughout Canada. However, these numbers are misleading as the Canadian government has recently passed laws that have re-labelled prostitution-related offences for the purpose of focusing law enforcement energies on the organizations that support and facilitate this trade as well as other crimes considered more serious in nature – a practice adopted across many major American jurisdictions as well. Yet this methodology – the second issue that must be explored before the discussion can continue – means that the numbers surrounding how many people are involved in the trade are harder to capture. It also means that, with police less focused on street-level prostitution, they are less likely to pickup prostitutes for questioning and thereby obtain information on who they work for. Police agencies across North America have been accused, and rightly so, of adopting the New York City Police Department modus operandi known as the “Broken Windows Strategy” that was pioneered (at least in a popular public setting) during the mayoralty of Rudy Giuliani. In essence, while this strategy has been somewhat acknowledged as helping reduce incidents of petty crime, it also (along with social and economic investments) drove many criminal practices out of the public view and away from the scrutiny of front line police officers. So, while removing the proverbial street walker, this actualized notion reduced scrutiny over an already marginalized group thereby driving the practice of prostitution into the hidden realm that has also drawn (or forced) so many disheartened young people behind the closed doors of the secretive, wholly unglamorous, and ultimately unsafe world of the bawdyhouse and bordello – a trend readily seen across the developed world.
Because of these policing and societal choices the statistics used to illuminate this practice cannot be viewed as encompassing or revealing beyond, as stated previously, demonstrating the shifting priorities of police departments. As the stats for arrests in Canada make clear, the shrinking numbers of street walkers has resulted in less oversight and therefore less public awareness. But, despite these issues with police strategy, it can be safely surmised that paying for sex has not seen a reduction in popularity. What has changed is how it’s perceived and society’s response. And, not all of these responses are willfully ignorant or directly harmful. In recognition of the inherent power imbalance that has helped shaped prostitution and human trafficking for sex only 9% percent of those individuals charged with prostitution offences in Canada in 2014 were female, indicating that the government (as an at least ostensible reflection of a democratic society) views the procurers of prostitution as the issue to be dealt with rather than the prostitutes themselves, who are rightly increasingly seen as victims in some regard; (again, an indication that these individuals are not seen to enjoy total agency). But how to police or offer assistance to a group with less and less public-facing exposure? Such is the conundrum facing police and policy makers throughout North America.
For those criminals shaping the policy of organized gangs that rely on prostitution for income societal shifts have altered their MO as well. Young contemporary Canadian and American women are, for the most part, much more empowered than previous generations – this statement is an overt generalization as there are many social ills that have yet to be addressed or even acknowledged. Even still, as economic prospects and social awareness improved over the latter decades of the 20th Century these developments mean there are simply less women who feel the need to walk the street as a sex worker to make ends meet (even with the modest improvements mentioned here there are certainly far too many, but for analytical purposes this statement holds relative truth). As government services and outreach have improved so too has society’s ability to assist its most marginalized aspects. But what if those who have become the most marginalized do not have identification, connections, the ability to speak the local language, or even a passport?
At this point in time, while independent sex workers do exist throughout North America, the vast majority of organized prostitution takes the form of women being illegally smuggled into large cities in Canada or the United States by criminal groups where they are warehoused in substandard living conditions serving men for sex around the clock. While fulfilling an almost Dickensian existence, these victimized women are often forced to live and work in the same cramped apartments as other women in the same situation. They are generally not allowed to go outside or socialize, and are certainly not permitted to venture anywhere on their own. And the sad fact remains that there is almost no ability to reach or assist these people unless socially conscious citizens or astute law enforcement personnel happen upon them where they live and work, which rarely occurs given the designed isolation in which they live. Such is the status of the thousands of undocumented aliens who are smuggled in from developing countries to fulfill the need of organized criminals who cater to North Americans’ sexual appetites. Due to their clothing styles, language, and lack of knowledge of their surroundings organized criminal groups cannot have these women walking the street, especially if, as sadly happens far too often, these women are coerced into travelling overseas by false promises, a need to repay a loan, or threats of retaliation against family members back in the home country.
This dramatic increase in what essentially amounts to the illegal trafficking in sex slaves is a direct result of North America’s affluence and its ability to somewhat protect its own citizens. But, it is also the result of false ideas, often promoted by North American sex workers, surrounding the need for police to halt repressive practices that unfairly stigmatize and target young, female sex workers. This last statement does not support the use of repressive tactics against prostitutes; what it instead supports is a comprehensive realignment of police priorities so that they sit in line with those of sex workers while also allowing police a window into the world of prostitution so that they can be aware of and react to trends and scenarios where their influence and presence is undoubtedly required. In fact, when looking at the numbers mentioned earlier, this appears to be what is happening, albeit gradually. Where improvement has not been seen is in the insouciance directed towards the incredible poverty, abuse, and lack of agency (yes, there it is again) propagated by organized crime against women and children brought from overseas for the purposes of sexual servitude. One only needs to peruse any of the back pages of inner city magazines and newspapers to come across adds for massage parlours with pretty, young Asian women staring longingly back at the reader to find where such sexual slavery is occurring; in fact, one website, aptly named “backpages.com” provides internet users with a long list of independent sex workers selling their wares in every jurisdiction, yet within these lists are bordellos and brothels where women smuggled in illegally are used for their bodies. The women involved are the archetype of the unempowered and have absolutely no trust of government authority, making their willingness or ability to ask for help from local North American authorities all the more unlikely.
These women are obtained, coercively or not (it should not matter how someone becomes a slave in determining whether or not it is wrong), from places in the former Eastern Bloc, East Asia, and Latin America, where local democratic freedoms are non-existent or at least subservient to authoritarian leanings. Russian organized criminal groups, east Asian gangs, tongs and triads, and Mexican cartel conglomerations all benefit and promote this practice. An article by Dena Weiss paints a picture of how this occurs very succinctly: “The criminal act (of human trafficking) not only involves trafficking an individual, but also the demand for exorbitant fees to transport a person and create fraudulent passport documents. Once an individual has arrived in a new country, the organized crime members remain in control and usually force the immigrant into prostitution or forms of slavery such as working in a sweatshop.” In the states bordering Mexico and other major hubs, such as Chicago, literally hundreds of thousands of young people have paid for and been promised safe passage to the proverbial land of milk and honey only to find captivity and ransom demands at the end of arduous journeys across the continent, often in excruciating conditions in hidden compartments or walking for hundreds of miles across barren deserts. Such demands are often designed so that they can only be met by the victims if they work as prostitutes for the same gang or individual (referred to as “coyotes”) that originally led them astray or an affiliated network.
With such heavy hitting criminal entities involved it can be safely assumed that this practice is lucrative and growing as it is considered a relatively risk-free opportunity by these groups given the lack of power or protection these women experience. As has been identified in previous PanAm Crime articles, major organizations like those mentioned appoint local leaders to oversee their interests in North American cities and neighbourhoods, providing merchandise in the form of drugs and women to these smaller subsets, which essentially amount to franchise outlets. Once they arrive however, their documents are stripped and the women themselves are sometimes drugged or videotaped during sexual acts to ensure their subservience, with threats of exposure of what the women have become or violence made against their families. Local gangs are then utilized to protect or supervise the locations, ensuring the women’s cooperation and providing security against incursions by other criminal groups. Others are lured by promises of work in bars, as nannies, or as mail order brides, racking up major debts in order to obtain their dream life, a debt they can only repay through work in a nameless, unknown and grey world of some seedy brothel. In the end, the lives of these human beings are used up in nightmare of abuse that makes billions annually for organized crime.
The practice of utilizing and promoting human slavery for sex is growing undeniably worse. As North America trumpets its apparent social freedoms it has simultaneously replaced its own daughters and sons who once fulfilled this role with the starving children of parents from across the seas. So, while police pursue the Broken Windows strategy when it comes to prostitution with certain effect and governments smugly congratulate themselves on being socially progressive that only the hubris of the wealthy can produce, both have basically become unwitting partners with the criminals through their own apparent apathy. In a sad example of “If I can’t see it it’s not problem,” thousands of the most marginalized women in the entire world have been smuggled into North American with little effort to perform a service that the government and police feel they already have under control. Certainly, these examples demonstrate the incredible challenge that transnational criminal networks pose to national governments and the citizenry of the Globe. It is almost unbelievable to state that in a desire to improve social justice, freedom, and access to government services national and regional governments in North America have empowered a practice they reputedly abhor and that stands in direct contrast to these goals.
By: PanAmerican Crime
Rotenberg, Christine, “Prostitution offences in Canada: Statistical Trends,” Statistics Canada, November 10, 2016, https://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/85-002-x/2016001/article/14670-eng.htm
Weiss, Dena, “Organized Crime’s Involvement in Sex Crimes and Human Trafficking,” Public Safety – American Military University, https://inpublicsafety.com/2014/07/organized-crimes-involvement-in-sex-crimes-and-human-trafficking/
Hacillo, Alex and Mark Townsend, “Police Criticized as Organized Gangs Gain Control of Sex Industry,” The Guardian, September 25, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/sep/24/organised-crime-behind-uk-sex-trade