Sex Trafficking, An American Sin


If there’s a prize for America’s Most Dysfunctional TV family, the hands-down winner has to those often twisted, sometimes profound Gallaghers – the fictional Chicago clan at the heart of Showtime’s aptly titled series, Shameless.

For the uninitiated, the Gallaghers’ chronic debauchery covers the sociopathic waterfront, dragging into their wake nearly every character unfortunate enough to make it from script to set. The scenes are cleverly written and the dialogue credible in an over-the-top, I-shouldn’t-be-laughing-at-this kind of way; but there are times when the guilty pleasures are more guilt than pleasure. Take a recent, new-low episode in which two close Gallagher friends turn to hosting a prostitution ring in order to keep their bar. The women – poor, indentured Russians – are treated as disposable commodities, and kept submissive with (as their new pimp, Mickey, puts it), “…mostly guns and beatings.”

Pressed as to why the women would subject themselves to such treatment, Mickey explains, “I mean look, what choice do they have? They got no ID, they don’t speak the language, they’re fresh off the boat...”

We can’t know for sure what the Shameless writers and producer John Wells had in mind when they decided to go with this subplot. (Was it just another platform for envelope-pushing humor or was it intended to a shine a flickering light on the vile underworld of human sex trafficking?)

But either way in this case art imitates life because America is not a TV series for the tens of thousands of women, men and children caught up in sex-based, modern day slavery – 16,000-25,000 of them the enslaved women and girls living in real-life Chicago. (Human Trafficking in Illinois Factsheet, University of Illinois at Chicago, May 2012.)

As defined by the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, sex trafficking is the “…recruitment, harboring, transportation, providing, or obtaining of a person for a commercial sex act...”

The TVPA goes on to define as “severe” any form of sex trafficking involving the use of force, fraud, coercion, or inducement to perform a sexual act, especially when applied to persons under the age of 18. But important as these proscriptive definitions are to our understanding sex slavery, they fail to communicate the visceral side of what it means to live within the nightmare so many victims call life.

In his Feb. 28 article that appeared in Huffington Post, Associated Press reporter Russ Bynum uses the arrest and sentencing of a middle-tier pimp to lift the veil on this shadowy world. Bynum cites the case of Joaquin Mendez-Hernandez, the Mexican national that oversaw an organized sex slave syndicate in which women were intimidated into having sex with 30 johns a day, netting ring operators a daily total of up to $700 per day, per woman.

In her summary remarks, federal prosecutor Tania Groover cited instances in which pimps would use cell phone photos to shop women to the johns. After making their selection Groover added, “ ...Sometimes [the women] were taken to a crop field [where] the men would just line up and wait for their turn, waiting and watching while everything took place.”

And the cruelty did not stop there. When describing the conditions under which the women lived, one victim reported they could not eat or sleep until they reached their daily quota. If as you read this grim account you’re thinking America’s human sex trafficking is an imported sin, you’re wrong. From truck stop encounters to backstreet brothels to sex enslavement arranged by a family member, 70% of victims and approximately 65% of pimps are native-born.

Recognizing that American sex slavery is largely an American problem, the Obama administration in 2011 made sex trafficking a greater priority as it directed increased resources for prosecuting traffickers and protecting victims.

Although seen as tepid by some state and local agencies, this is still good news. The programs have thus far survived the heartless GOP-initiated spending cuts that would only proliferate the crime and suffering. But as with gun control, this issue has a way of fading in and out of our awareness and therefore our elected officials’ agenda. We should not wait until the next seamy instance to get it back on.

Addendum: To get involved, run a search on sex-trafficking in the US, starting with and and consult the studies and hundreds of credible nonprofits.

Don Rollins is a Unitarian Universalist minister in Tarpon Springs, Fla. Email

From The Progressive Populist, April 1, 2014

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