|Trafficking survivor Audrey Morrissey|
The woman on the other end answers and invites him up. When he gets to her room, they negotiate a price – her services are advertised at $60 for half an hour. As soon as the man agrees, a loud beep alerts the undercover officers waiting next door. They rush in to bust the man for solicitation. Such clients are referred to as “johns”.
This scene is captured in A Path Appears, a new three-part documentary series based on a book by Pulitzer-prize winning journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. The first part, airing on Monday, explores the devastating world of sex trafficking and how American women are coerced into prostitution.
|The guys who buy sex, they really are the guys-next-door|
The crackdown, called National Day of Johns Arrests, was conceived by Thomas Dart, the Cook County sheriff, as part of an effort to disrupt demand for prostitution by highlighting the role solicitors play in perpetuating the industry. In the past three years, the sting operations have spread to 28 law enforcement agencies in 14 states.
“If there were no johns, there would be no prostitutes,” Dart says in the film. On this particular day, deputies received 75 appointments after placing four ads on Backpage.com, though only 14 actually showed up. “It’s like shooting fish in a barrel,” Kristof remarks in the film.
During the 12-day nationwide crackdown staged in the run up to the 2014 Super Bowl, law enforcement officers arrested 359 would-be sex buyers and 14 pimps and traffickers, according to Demand Abolition, which tracks the arrests. Experts say the Super Bowl and other big sporting events attract higher incidents of sex trafficking due to the increased volume of men looking to buy sex in one area.
During the sweep, a Chicago area man was arrested wearing his blue hospital scrubs. When asked his highest level of education, the man said: “MD”. In Texas, deputies with the Harris County sheriff’s office arrested a constable from their department who came to buy sex wearing his uniform trousers, according to a press release.
“The girls really do come from disadvantaged backgrounds. They’re not the girl-next-door. But the guys who buy sex, they really are the guys-next-door,” Kristof told the Guardian in an interview.
The documentary is in many ways an antidote to the issues raised by their book Half the Sky, in which the authors argue that the oppression of women is “a malignancy that is slowly gaining recognition as one of the paramount human rights problems of this century”. A Path Appears focuses on effective, and most importantly, scalable, solutions to some of the behemoth issues facing women and girls.
‘American women are being bought and sold like slaves’
To view sex trafficking as a fate that befalls foreign women who are smuggled into the US, kept in chains and forced to work as modern-day sex slaves is to ignore a whole different side to the story.
“The biggest surprise was that there was so much of it here in the US and that the problems run much deeper than we expected,” WuDunn told the Guardian. “Most of us don’t expect to see the people who are trafficked to be Americans who are trafficked from their own towns, within their own hometowns.”
In the past decade, the US Justice Department and the FBI have woken up to the issue, stepping up efforts to disrupt the trade domestically. “It’s sad but true: here in this country, people are being bought, sold, and smuggled like modern-day slaves,” the FBI says on its website.
Astonishingly, it’s often the women who spend time behind bars while the pimps and johns are rarely caught. One survivor said she had been arrested more than 100 times, while her pimp never ran into trouble. But there is a growing movement among state and local law enforcement agencies to treat prostitutes as victims rather than criminals, especially as more Americans realize the problem is very much a domestic one.
“A lot of the conversation about women’s rights in the US is about equal pay and about board representation and Title 9,” Kristof said. “These are certainly real issues and there’s real inequity in these areas but it sure does seem to me that the two biggest areas of gender inequity in this country are sex trafficking and domestic violence. They exist because by and large, society diverts its eyes,” Kristof said. “And while I certainly want to continue those conversations about board representation and unequal pay, etc, I think we should be much more engaged with what happens to the tens of thousands of girls who are trafficked each year.”
Actually, Nicholas, the biggest area of gender inequity by far is child sex abuse which encompasses child trafficking. Check out these stats.
|‘It’s easy to traffic a young woman. It’s so lucrative’|
Becca Stevens, founder of Thistle Farms
“No five- or six-year-old girl dreams of growing up to be a prostitute,” said Becca Stevens, the founder of Thistle Farms, a Tennessee-based social enterprise that employs women who have survived prostitution, trafficking and addiction.
The three most common forms of sex trafficking involve pimp-controlled prostitution, commercial-front brothels, and escort services. Stevens says systemic failures, augmented by a personal history of sex abuse and poverty, send women spiralling into the hands of a trafficker. Speaking of her work with survivors over the past 18 years, she said: “I have never met a woman who’s never been raped.”
Recently, Stevens has started hosting a “johns” school to educate men who have been caught seeking prostitutes about the industry. In her view, breaking the cycle of demand so that selling girls is no longer a profitable business is paramount. “It’s easy to traffic a young woman. It’s so lucrative,” she said. “You can sell drugs once, but you can sell a girl 1,000 times.”
‘If you don’t give me a (oral sex), I’m going to arrest you’
Audrey Morrissey is the associate director of My Life My Choice, a survivor-led organization in Boston. She told the Guardian: “One message we have to get across to the men [who seek prostitutes]: ‘We don’t like you. You think we like you. We don’t like you.’”
Morrissey, 52, was lured into prostitution by the father of her first daughter at age 17. She says he took advantage of her love for him. “I was a teen parent. I thought I was in love. Honest to God truth, I look back on it now, and know I was in love. He was the father of my child. And one day, he just said to me: ‘If you love me you would do this and make us money.’”
|Morriseey with Kristof|
She said that in the 1980s, the prostitutes were glamourous. They wore mink coats and glittery dresses. “I didn’t see pain and misery from the car. I saw glitter and clothes and fashion. I was already attracted to what I thought looked good … I guess back then I couldn’t process that they had to have sex with men they don’t know.”
At some point, her boyfriend dropped her on the corner and told her to stand there until someone drove by to pick her up. Her first client pulled up. It was a police officer. Morrissey says that his first words were: “If you don’t give me (oral sex) I’m going to arrest you.” She climbed into the car sobbing like a baby. She said he could tell she was an amateur and eventually told her to leave before anything happened. He left her with words that would later echo in her mind of months to come: “Do you know you could be blowing some guy and he could slice your throat?’”
Morrissey was traumatized by the experience. But over time, her boyfriend was able to convince her to return to the streets.
After her boyfriend was arrested on unrelated charges and locked up, Morrissey said she considered leaving the trade. But by then, she’d formed a camaraderie with the other women, something which made her feel like she belonged. Because of her light skin, she had always felt like an outcast growing up: “In my neighborhood I felt I was too white to be black and when I went to school I was too dark to be white. There was the only place it was OK to be light-skinned. For many years, I developed this false sense of self-esteem.”
She continued to work for a decade, serving several pimps and developing drug addictions; her second daughter was born addicted to heroin and cocaine. At 30, Morrissey said she’d hit rock bottom and knew she needed help. She accessed a detox program and got clean; she has remained sober to this day.
Morrissey now helps mentor young women who share a similar fate. “They help me to stay on track because I don’t want to let them down. I don’t want to be the person that gave them hope, and then went back to standing on a corner,” she said.
|‘Johns are upper middle class white males, married with a family’|
Shelia McClain, who works at Thistle Farm
Under US law, anyone younger than 18 is a victim of sex trafficking – regardless of whether or not the trafficker used force, fraud, or coercion – because minors cannot legally give consent. The punishment for someone who traffics children ranges from 40 years to life in prison.
Morrissey wants to see more attention focused on the johns, rather than the prostitutes. Why would her daughters have to carry the stigma of having a mother who was a prostitute, while her clients’ daughters are shielded from knowing what their fathers did on their lunch breaks?
She said there’s a fallacy to think that johns are “creepy guys in trenchcoats”. “There’s just not enough creepy guys in trench coats to make this a multi-billion dollar business,” she said. “It’s men with money. It’s upper middle class white males from the suburbs married with a family.”
There’s no magic bullet, Morrissey said. In her view, the only way to make progress combating sex trafficking in America is to continue educating the public and to keep the heat on pimps and johns who prey on these young women: “This is a rollercoaster ride, and we’re in it for the long-haul.”
A Path Appears airs on Monday 26 January on Independent Lens on PBS at 10pm ET