To date, Massachusetts does not have a  comprehensive human trafficking law.  Despite passage of bills in the MA House and Senate, a compromise bill is yet to be reached,  leaving law enforcement ill-equipped to effectively prosecute human trafficking as a crime outright.

Instead, law enforcement and the district attorney’s office are forced to cobble together indictments against perpetrators of human trafficking that fail to effectively address central crime.  A recent case of trafficking of minors for purposes of prostitution illustrates this gap in criminal legislation:

In May, a fifteen year-old girl was abducted from a MBTA station by 28 year-old Norman Barnes, a Dorchester man.   Barnes allegedly held her, and a sixteen year-old girl, in various hotel rooms in the Boston-area, pimping them out to men who Barnes solicited using the website, backpage.com.  Eventually, one of the girls was rescued by family members, who in turn notified the police.

Indicted on October 3, Barnes is facing charges connected with his alleged actions, including:

  • 10 counts, deriving support from a minor in prostitution
  • 7 counts, aiding and abetting in the commission of statutory rape
  • 4 counts, statutory rape
  • 4 counts, dissemination of visual material of a child in a state of nudity
  • 3 counts, posting a child in a state of nudity

According to State Police, when Barnes was arrested in his possession were $19,991 in cash, and the key to the motel room where the 15 year-old girl was staying.

As this story receives attention, it is being used to exemplify why Massachusetts needs effective trafficking legislation.  Attorney General Martha Coakley, Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley and Col. Marian McGovern, the State Police Commander have all rallied in support.  According to Suffolk D.A. Conley, the Barnes investigation “makes plain that …. cases like this don’t reflect agreements between consenting adults — they show the true form of human trafficking in Massachusetts.”


This morning, CHTP members John Brown and Christine Cutting had the opportunity to meet with Supervisory Special Agent Cynthia Deitle, the FBI’s Civil Rights Unit Chief. In this role, SSA Deitle has made a name for herself, pursuing investigations of everything from civil-rights era cold-cases to occurrences of modern-day slavery. We talked about many things over the course of our 2-hour meeting.  As we talked about the more overlooked aspects of human trafficking, I realized I’d never really given much thought to domestic servitude. One story SSA Deitle shared about a domestic slave she interviewed took my breath away.

The woman was brought into the country to work in the home of a wealthy couple in New York. She was held there for over a year, barely fed, and forced to do housework for hours on end, only venturing out of the apartment to toss the trash down the trash chute.

During an interview after the woman finally escaped her captors, she was asked why she never tried to leave. She explained that she had no idea how to work a telephone – she was from a small village and had never used one. Additionally, she had never seen an elevator prior to arriving at the apartment building.  When she finally worked up the courage to get into it to try to escape, she had no idea which button to push.

She didn’t leave because she didn’t know how.

So often, human trafficking abuses that make the headlines involve carefully orchestrated busts of brothels, or the less frequent discovery of migrants, forced to pick fruit for pennies a day. We think we have an idea of who these people are – naively tricked into a life of slavery, the reality of which is beyond comprehension. But I doubt few of us have ever felt the paralyzing fear that woman felt facing a wall of buttons in that elevator.

One thing that intrigues me is how the media portrays prostitution and human trafficking. From the movies I’ve seen, it appears that there is no correlation between prostitution and trafficking; in fact, the former group is portrayed as people who actively choose their vocation, while the latter is forced in that lifestyle and bondage. There are indeed sex workers who willingly go into this profession, but they chose it of their own free will–trafficked victims do not.

Yet, one thing I’ve noticed is that the media almost glamorizes prostitution and the lifestyle that comes with it. In the movie “Hustle and Flow”, the story focused on the pimp’s dream of becoming a rapper; the emphasis was on his struggle to make it big in Memphis, while his “hos” are being “taken care of” by him. These women are depicted as being dependent on him, powerless to stop the problem and what they do. This same movie won the 2006 Academy Award for Best Original Song, called “It’s Hard Out Here for  a Pimp.” Here are some of the lyrics:

“Wait I got a snow bunny, and a black girl too
You pay the right price and they’ll both do you
That’s the way the game goes, gotta keep it strictly pimpin
Gotta have my hustle tight, makin change off these women, yeah”.

I’m really confused as to why this won the original song. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all about new groups getting such huge awards like this, but what do these lyrics promote? Using women for one’s personal game? Pimping and hustling are socially acceptable? The title of the song is also bizarre to me, because the pimp isn’t the one having to truly suffer. No one’s making record-breaking songs about the hardships of being forced into sleeping with johns, being forced into slavery or having their dignity taken away.

On the other end of the spectrum, trafficking (particularly sex trafficking) is seen as a horrible social issue, one that must be addressed immediately. I had the privilege of seeing an advanced screening of “The Whistleblower” and I highly recommend that you see it (If you live in Boston, it will be showing again Labor Day weekend at Kendall Square Cinema). I won’t reveal anything too specific, but let’s say that it shows the complexities of international trafficking. What’s the most disturbing fact about this film is that it’s based on a true story. This film shows how the girls are lured into another country with the promise of a better life, then are sold into slavery and forced to act as prostitutes to whomever their pimp/owner tells them. h film also addressed the same issue as talked about above–that the women chose to enter this lifestyle; the film also gives the impression that the johns actually believe that.

What makes this movie stand out is the fact that it shows the directconnection between prostitution and trafficking. Nothing is sugar-coated or glossed over; hustling and pimping are not seen as the ideal for men. Now, if only the media did this more often, maybe there could be some progress made in terms of eliminating slavery and trafficking.

What are your thoughts on how the media portrays prostitution and trafficking?

The journey across the US-Mexico is perilous.  Unforgiving terrain, dangerous rivers, unscrupulous human smugglers/traffickers or coyotes, border bandits known as bajadores—all take their toll.  Yet, each year millions make the attempt, hoping for a better life.  We don’t know how many fail in the attempt.  The lucky ones live to try again, yet many are not that lucky—they simply vanish.

For those few who make it across, often they find themselves part of an economic underclass—nameless and unseen; they pick our produce, scrub our toilets, build our houses and serve as our sex objects.  Few find pathways to documented permanent residence and even citizenship, however, most do not.

Hemmed in one side by the constant threat of deportation and the economic need for cheap expendable labor, they are locked into a quiet compartmentalized existence.  Current immigration policy and border militarization has failed to deter illegal border crossing, instead it has only made border crossing more dangerous and serves to enable the criminal enterprise of human trafficking and modern slavery.


Border enforcement has escalated exponentially.  “From1986 to 2006, the U.S. Border Patrol grew from 2,000 agents to about 12,000 agents and its budget expanded from $200 million to $1.213 billion.” (Payan 2006)  On an average day, according to the CBP, agents apprehend 2,139 would be border -crossers, more than 780,000 annually.  The combined number of apprehensions and the number of estimated successful border crossings adds up to 1,280,000 known attempts per year.  Clearly ever-increasing and more robust enforcement has failed to slow let alone stop illegal immigration.

Tough immigration and border control policy has failed because it does nothing to alleviate the underlying economic causes of migration.  Undocumented  immigrants from Mexico not only experience a push towards migration by domestic economic forces, such a rapid urbanization and decline of the rural economy as a result of NAFTA, they are pulled by US economics as well.  Each year many “unskilled” and light industrial jobs go unfilled in the US.  By filling this US economic need, migrants stand to make exponentially more money than what they ever could in their home country. (Weintraub, 2010)

The other root cause of migration is human security.  Arguably US drug policy, namely its emphasis on supply rather than demand has only served to accelerate the drug trade.  The result of this alarming acceleration in the illicit drug trade has turned much of Mexico into combat zones.  As a result, many migrants enter the US to escape the violence of associated with the drug trade.

The numbers paint a sobering picture, last year, according to the CBP, 499 people died on the US side of the border.  Most perished as a result of exposure—dehydration, heat stroke, or hypothermia.  However, no numbers are available for the toll on the Mexican side of the border, but it is assumed to be much higher.  Amnesty International claims that as many as 10,000 migrants are kidnapped on their way through Mexico by the cartels like los Zetas.  In August of 2010 a mass grave containing 72 bodies, believed to be mostly Brazilians, was unearthed near Ciudad Juarez.  This is indicative of a general atmosphere of danger for the migrant, an atmosphere resultant from US policy.

By making human migration illicit, US policy has created an enormous dark space.  In this space, women and children are particularly insecure.  Sexual assault is commonly reported by female immigrants.  Once inside the United States, the risk of exploitation does not decrease, and many undocumented migrant women find themselves locked into the illicit sex industry. From within this dark space, criminal gangs such as MS-13 and others take advantage of the vulnerable who are reluctant to go to the police for fear of deportation.

So what is the way forward?

In her 130 page decision Ontario Superior Court Justice Susan Himel “concluded that the provisions prohibiting operating or working in a brothel, communicating for the purpose of prostitution and living off the avails of prostitution contravene a person’s right to safety and liberty, and endanger sex workers by forcing them to ply their trade underground.”  On Monday lawyers from Ontario and Ottawa began opening arguments before the Ontario Court Appeals challenging this decision.   This case, according to the Montreal Gazette, will most likely find its way before the Canadian Supreme Court.  It is far too early to tell what the outcome might be but it certainly seems as though Canada might be moving towards legalizing prostitution, or at least decriminalizing it.

Likewise in the US, albeit much more muted, we hear calls from social libertarians that prostitution is a victimless crime and continued criminalization represents a prudish and futile attempt to regulate sexual morality.  Moreover, social libertarians might argue, that prohibition creates an underground culture of criminality which poses a danger to “prostitutes” and “clients” alike.  We at the CHTP disagree.

To start, prostitution is not victimless as social libertarians might argue; in fact when properly understood, prostitution is a form of human rights abuse.  Prostitution is wholly predicated on bodily exploitation—primarily of women and girls.  The relationship between john and “prostitute” is not one based upon equity.  Even if commercial sex is viewed exclusively in economic terms, we quickly see that it is not an “exchange” between equals.  It is an exchange based upon gendered social structures which objectify women and girls and places all the power at the feet of the johns and pimps. In Britain it was discovered that 75% of all women involved in prostitution started as children and that nearly 68% percent suffer from symptoms consistent with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  This hardly seems victimless.

While we do agree that current legal frameworks which criminalize commercial sex focus more on supply (that is prostituted people and traffickers) rather than demand (purchasers of commercial sex), thereby, placing the criminal burden on those who we argue are the victims.  We do not argue that legalization and/or decriminalization is the solution. In Germany, the Netherlands and Italy, for example, where prostitution is legal, and in theory regulated, we see a marked increase in demand for commercial sex.  Heightened demand fuels sex trafficking, as criminal syndicates rush in, using legal prostitution as a cover, to make enormous profits.

Rather than legalizing commercial sex we advocate the implementation of the so called Nordic Model.  In this legal scheme the selling of sex is decriminalized and the purchase of sex is highly criminalized.  In Sweden, Denmark and South Korea, where this model is enforce, prostituted persons receive social protections and treatment while johns and pimps go to jail and pay fines.  By driving up the cost of buying sex authorities have been able to significantly reduce demand.  Demand reduction is the key.  Without viable market, criminal syndicates, simply go elsewhere.