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Only July 29th, FBI agents, together with 230 law enforcement agents from local, state and other federal agencies from across the country, concluded a 3-day nationwide crackdown against prostitution and sex trafficking. Representatives from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) participated in the law-enforcement action. According to published reports, sweeps were conducted in 76 cities, 159 adults were arrested for allegedly acting as procurers, pimps, and more then 900 “adult” prostitutes were busted. What garnered the most media attention were the 105 young people “rescued” from sex slavery.
The roundup was part of the FBI’s “Operation Cross Country” (OCC), a program designed to crackdown on prostitution and to free young people forced into the unregulated commercial sex trade through trafficked. Ronald Hosko, assistant director of the FBI’s criminal division, acknowledged child sex trafficking as “one of the most prevalent, violent and unconscionable crimes in our country.”
The raids drew media headlines. Print, TV and online news coverage reported on the fact that – as Fox News stated – law enforcement “rescued … teens ranging mostly in age from 13 to 17 years old, with the youngest victim being 9 years old … .” Law enforcement agents from every level of the national police apparatus joined forces to put a dent in one of the nation’s most sinister criminal activities.
The FBI reports that, in 2011, 44,090 people were arrested for “prostitution and commercialized vice.” Remarkably and mostly unreported, the sex busts in 2011 represent a 50 percent drop in arrests for prostitution from 2004 total of 87,872. Why? The FBI offers no explanation as to why this decline has taken place.
However well meaning — and well coordinated – the latest OCC action was, one must ask whether it was just another publicity stunt or really a game-changer, something that makes a meaningful difference in the fight against sex slavery, especially involving under-age girls?
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“Operation Cross Country demonstrates just how many of America’s children are being sold for sex every day, many on the Internet,” said NCMEC’s John Ryan. The NCMEC is a private, nonprofit organization established by the U.S. Congress in 1984 to assist in the prevention of crimes against children.
Historically, the FBI did not investigate adult prostitution but left it to state and local law enforcement. However, in 2003, bowing from pressure from the Christian right, it joined NCMEC and the Department of Justice’s Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section (CEOS) to establish the “Innocence Lost National Initiative.” Its purpose is to combat the alleged growing problem of commercial sex involving underage girls and boys.
(A century ago, Christian moralist were offended by the provocative sexual liberties of the “new woman” and forced Congress to pass the Mann Act, a law intended to halt interstate commercial sex or what was known as “white slavery.”)
To date, the FBI, along with local law enforcement, has conducted 7 OCC raids. In the most recent crackdown, 105 young people were “rescued,” 159 people were arrested as pimps and another 900-plus were busted as adult prostitutes or johns. These busts took place throughout the country, including: Chicago (2 “rescues,” 1 “pimp,” and 96 sex workers); Denver (9 “rescue,” 6 “pimp,” and 51 sex workers); Detroit (10 “rescue,” 18 “pimp,” and 41 sex workers); Las Vegas (2 “rescue,” 1 “pimp,” and 53+ sex workers); Newark (0 “rescues,” 5 “pimps,” and 65+ sex workers); New Orleans (5 “rescues,” 6 “pimps,” and 64 sex workers); San Francisco (12 “rescues,” 17 “pimps,” and 65 sex workers); and Tampa (2 “rescues,” 0 “pimps,” and 64 sex workers). In addition, local law enforcement scooped up illegal cash, drugs, vehicles, firearms and other personal items.
The FBI has taken up a noble challenge. “Teen runaways – who are often trying to escape abusive homes – frequently fall prey to domestic sex traffickers or ‘pimps’ who lure them in with an offer of food and a seemingly safe place to sleep.” Over the last decade, it has established 46 task forces and working groups. It has “rescued” 2,700 juveniles from forced prostitution. In additions, it led to the arrest of 4,893 pimps and adult prostitutes and to 664 pending cases, 715 informations/indictments and 905 convictions. So, each year or so, the national police apparatus undertakes a series of symbolic raids, like the well-coordinated OCC media campaign, to crackdown on commercial sex and to free underage sex slaves. Has it worked?
Emi Koyama, publisher of the Eminism blog and “a social justice activist/writer/rogue intellectual,” has done the most systematic analysis of the OCC program. She’s tracked each of the 7 “sweeps” and provides detailed data on sweeps 1 thru 5 (with essential complete available information) that shows the number of cities involved in crackdowns has increased from 16 (2008) to 40 (2010); this year OCC raids targeted 76 cities. She also shows for the first 5 raids, a total of 239 young people were “rescued” (the last 2 raids added 184 rescues); that 202 “pimps” were busted (no information was available for raids in 2008 and 2009; the last 2 raids saw 263 additional pimps busted); and a total of 3,187 sex workers and others were arrested (no information on the last 2 raids is available).
Koyama takes issue with the underlying premise of the OCC program. “Anti-trafficking advocates too often neglect decades of development within the anti-domestic violence movement that can and should inform our approach to assisting youth and adults in the sex trade,” she notes. She adds, “we need to stop spending millions of dollars in these useless law enforcement campaigns and use that money to fix social institutions that fail youth in the first place.”
Over the two decades from 1990 to 2010, the total number of arrests for what the FBI identifies as “prostitution and commercialized vice” fell by more than half (55%). It reports that “the recent period from 2005 to 2010 also saw large declines in the male (down 35%) and female (down 27%) arrest rates for prostitution and commercial vice.”
Among those arrested for prostitution or commercial vice in 2010, two-thirds (69%) were women with a median age of 30 years. However, the greatest number of those busted was aged 20 years for females and the late-20s for males. In 2010, only 2 percent of vice arrests involved a juvenile. Since 1990, underage prostitutes have continually averaged between 1 and 2 percent. According to FBI data, in 2010, 30 percent of prostitutes’ involved adults 40 years or older and 9 percent involved a person 50 years or older.
Over the last 20 years, the arrest rate for prostitution has been cut in half (down 55%), with substantial declines in both the female (down 50%) and the male (down 62%) arrest rates. Between 2005 and 2010, female arrests have fallen by more then a quarter (27%), while male rates have fallen by 35 percent. Neither the FBI nor the Dept. of Justice
The Justice Department estimates that, each year, nearly 450,000 children run away from home and that one-third of teenagers living on the street will be lured toward prostitution. Clearly, underage prostitution – whether “consensual” or due to sex slavery – is a real problem. However, with such a vast pool of desperate teenagers, is OCC nothing more than a bureaucratic band-aid?
The American media love a good sex scandal and, like the outing of a politician, busts like that executed through the OCC’s most recent raids garner wide press attention. Sadly, these campaigns are targeted at the low-hanging fruit of the flesh trade.
As Koyama observes, “anti-trafficking organizations routinely claim (falsely) that there are hundreds of trafficked ‘children’ in any given city, who are forced to have sex 10-15 times a day, every day ….” She pointed adds, “if that is the case, why do they only find 105 minors in a three-day police sweep mobilizing law enforcement agencies in 76 cities? … It does not make sense.”
It’s time to rethink prostitution and to address the underlying factors that lead many young people to get trapped in the sex racket. First, officials should seriously consider decriminalizing sex work and the arrest of sex workers and their johns; this approach, exemplified by the FBI’s periodic OCC round-ups – other then getting good media play — simply doesn’t work. Officials should seriously consider the “regulation” of commercial sex as a means both to protect the health and safety of sex workers and to restrict – if not eliminate – sex trafficking. Second, officials should divert resources from the periodic street-level stunts of OCC and address the issue of household domestic violence which seems to be the leading indicator of young people running away from home and ending up in the sex trade. Such actions would help Americans get beyond the neo-puritanical, moralistic sex paradigm that has distorted healthy sexual life for the last four centuries.
David Rosen writes the “Media Current” column for Filmmaker and regularly contributes to AlterNet, Huffington Post and the Brooklyn Rail. Check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com; he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.