Actor Ashton Kutcher delivered a moving speech before Congress last month on the global problem of human trafficking. Kutcher called on America’s leaders to come together and address the “bipartisan issue” that is, at least for now, universally recognized as a gross injustice.
But what does the average American know about human trafficking? Where is it happening, and who is it affecting? It’s one thing to agree that there is a problem, but how do we even begin to solve an issue that we don’t understand?
Corporal Jon Doherty investigates sex trafficking cases for the Gwinnett County police’s vice unit. He recently spoke with Conservative Review about his efforts to combat sex trafficking in Georgia, and how it’s shaped his views on how communities and individuals can address this epidemic.
Doherty explained that technology has transformed “the game” of sex trafficking in America. Thanks to social media and websites like Craigslist and Backpage, perpetrators have been able to expand their operations to prey on women and seek clients across the country.
“[Predators] can look at girls’ Facebook pages,” Doherty told CR. “They can see what type of bait they need to give these certain girls. They can read the things they post, and know what’s going on maybe in the girl’s life or in her mind, or what she’s thinking about.”
Modern “pimps” aren’t walking around with top hats and canes, either, he warned of the stereotypical image. In many cases, they’re average-looking men (and sometimes women), some as young as college age. They lure and manipulate victims by feigning interest in a romantic relationship, or pretending to have connections in the modeling or acting industry.
And it’s not just the predators who have evolved. Doherty explained that the “type” of women targeted for trafficking today varies dramatically from decades past. There are “the girls you would expect it to happen to” — victims of abuse or poverty, with little or no support system. But in his experience, Cpl. Doherty has found that women from well-to-do families and privileged backgrounds can be just as vulnerable. Trafficking is prevalent in places like Atlanta because the excitement of big-city life is an easy sell for most victims, he said.
“These guys do their homework,” Doherty said. “They know their targets; they know what they’re looking for: the girl with the low self-esteem, the girl who’s got some kind of family issue going on. There’s so many things out there nowadays that it can happen to anybody.”
“We’ve recovered girls before that are police detectives’ — long-time police detectives’ — daughters that have come in from other areas,” he told CR. “It can happen to anybody.”
Doherty and his team view their work as a rescue operation — freeing victims from the abuse and deception of their captors. He remembers the victims he’s saved — as well as those he couldn’t. He recalled the case of a young woman named Crystal, who he and his partner arrested and successfully rescued. Years after they brought Crystal into custody, the two ran into her at a restaurant.
“My partner said, ‘You know who that is?’ He said, ‘That’s Crystal over there.’ I said, ‘Gosh, she doesn’t look the same […] She looks a lot different.’ When our food came, we were sitting there — she was the hostess. She came over to me, and she said, ‘Do you remember me?’ I said, ‘Of course I remember you,’ and I called her by her name. Tears just started running down her face.”
Many individuals forced into the sex industry become addicted to drugs, and therefore grow dependent on pimps, for both work and their next fix. The biggest challenge officers face is convincing these individuals to part with their abusers, Doherty said:
We explain to them that there’s no future in this. The things we can guarantee if you continue in this lifestyle are horrible things. There’s no retirement, and there’s no health insurance. There’s guaranteed beatings, rapes, robberies, just a bad life. But the hardest thing we have to compete with, other than the drugs, is the connections, sometimes of just love, and the pimp telling them, “I love you. We’re a team. It’s you and I against the world.” It’s that. They’re almost brainwashed. That’s one of the hardest things to break, right there.
Doherty explained that often the only way to pry these individuals away from the deceptive vortex of prostitution — the lure of money, the promise of emotional fulfilment, and a sense of belonging — is to detain them. Only then can Doherty and his team offer resources to help get the victims back on their feet.
“I know that one of the big, hot issues is, ‘Why do we arrest these girls? Why do we go after the victims?’” he said, addressing a very common attack on law enforcement. “A lot of times, we just go after them because that’s the only time we can get them, and we can separate them from the lifestyle. We can separate them from the pimp.”
Every year, Doherty and his team from the Gwinnett County force attend anti-sex trafficking conferences, where they’re often greeted with opposition from advocacy groups.
“When we go to these conferences, it’s almost like the police feel like … I mean … they hate us,” he said. “They do not like us. They’ll say, ‘Are you still locking up the victims?’”
According to Doherty, these advocates are simply unaware of how “the game” works: “They think these girls, if you just sat down and talked to them, that you’re going to talk them out of that life.”
“Something needs to be done with the courts and with law enforcement and with the advocate groups,” Doherty continued. “If we don’t get a hook in these girls — even if we just get them into probation or get them into drug treatment, or get them into something — we’ll never get them out of it.”
Doherty stressed that the effort to fight trafficking in America requires that law enforcement, advocacy groups, political leaders, and families work together to address the problem holistically.
“It’s a social issue where the community and the law enforcement have to come together and work for the better of reforming this person, and turning their life around,” he said, adding, “I don’t think we’ll every stop it [completely].”
Cpl. Doherty said that, like drugs, the demand for prostitution and the greed of sex traffickers will always be around. But the more the issue is discussed and understood, the better the chances are of reducing the threat.
Further, he believes “there needs to be a platform for educating young girls on the dangers of social media, besides the guy who wants to send you creepy pictures or ask you for creepy pictures.”
“They need to be educated in what’s out there, these are sharks in the water, and what these guys that are out there, and the lifestyle they can get dragged into. Before they even get a chance to look up, they find themselves in the middle of it.”
As Cpl. Jon Doherty said, we will never completely eradicate human trafficking — or any form of evil, for that matter. But by drawing attention to the breadth and depth of the problem, and by being aware of the modern threats facing young women especially (and their most effective solutions), lives can be saved. (For more from the author of “Vice Cop Talks Facts, Myths of Sex Trafficking in America, and How We Can Fight It” please click HERE)