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Saturday, May 18, 2024

Part One: We have a sex-trafficking problem. The numbers don’t begin to tell the story

Domestic sex trafficking is disturbingly common and yet exceedingly hard to spot. And that's only part of the problem. (Port City Daily photo / City of Wilmington)
Domestic sex trafficking is disturbingly common and yet exceedingly hard to spot. And that’s only part of the problem. (Port City Daily photo / City of Wilmington)

WILMINGTON — The latest statistics put North Carolina as 8th in the nation for human trafficking cases, which include sex trafficking. But what those numbers don’t show is a crime that is more pervasive, more complex, and much closer to home than many expect.

Related: Part two: Who are the victims of sex trafficking? ‘Look around,’ experts say, they’re everywhere

Human trafficking, broadly speaking, is the use of force, fraud, and/or coercion to get a person to engage in work without proper compensation. It is modern-day slavery.

Often, human trafficking is discussed as an international crime: people forcibly trafficked across borders, brought to the United States where they become the victims of forced labor, domestic servitude, or the commercial sex industry.

But there is also domestic sex trafficking, a crime that victimizes people the same way – through force, fraud, and coercion – but that happens locally. Victims are forced to have sex, in exchange for money, drugs, or services that are usually kept by a pimp. According to local and federal law enforcement agencies, most of the domestic sex trafficking cases in North Carolina involve victims from inside the state or from nearby areas like Myrtle Beach or southeastern Virginia.

This is the first installment in a series on the issue, detailing what the crime and its victims look like, its relationship with the opioid crisis, how it’s being combated, what’s causing it, and what can be done about it. You can also check out this episode of WHQR’s Coastline, dedicated to the issue of human trafficking.

‘Digging a hole in water’ – Domestic sex trafficking

In 2017, the North Carolina Department of Administration reported 221 human trafficking cases. According to North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein, there have been near that many this year.

Those numbers only show a fraction of the domestic sex trafficking that is occurring; the truth is, no one has been able to gauge the full extent of the multi-billion dollar industry because so many crimes go unreported.

Assistant District Attorney Connie Jordan, who has prosecuted sex crimes in New Hanover County for 20 years, said given the resources, law enforcement could make arrests around the clock.

“If they gave me 100 officers, I could investigate all day, we could make arrests all day,” Jordan said. “It’s just ubiquitous – it’s everywhere.”

Detective William Campbell, a New Hanover County Sheriff’s deputy who sits on the FBI sex trafficking task force, said he’d worked between 40 and 50 cases over the last year.

“We have as much [sex trafficking] as Raleigh or Charlotte. It’s rampant, we could work on this every minute of every day,” Campbell said, adding that with limited resources law enforcement can only scratch the surface.

“We’re trying to work on the ones that are right in our face, and for those people who are reaching out for help, those are the case’s we’re working,” Campbell said.

Campbell, Jordan, and others in the criminal justice system frequently come back to the same bitter irony – sex trafficking crimes are as common as they are difficult to spot.

“That’s really hard to say because it’s so hidden. It’s not a part of our society that’s out in the open – you really have to go looking for it,” Jordan said.

Even when a sex trafficking crime is identified, it is difficult to investigate, and just as difficult to prosecute. Many of the victims blame themselves, sometimes even defending those who trafficked them, Jordan said. Victims also frequently suffer from trauma-related disorders, substance abuse issues, and fear of retaliation. Cases can take years to come to trial.

Domestic sex trafficking is everywhere, but unseen

So, if sex trafficking is so common, why is so hard to see?

In part, it’s by design.

Dawn Ferrer, director of A Safe Place, had seen hundreds of victims come through the non-profit, which is dedicated to helping the victims of sex trafficking.

“They’re the most vulnerable, the most vulnerable people in our communities,” Ferrer said.

The factors that make victims vulnerable put them at the edge of community, estranged or closed off from the support networks of family, friends, and neighbors.

“The things that put you at risk — someone who has been in the foster care system, prior sexual abuse, usually as a child, domestic violence victims, developmental disabilities, single parent family, just poverty, people in any kind of domestic situation, having a parent in prison – low self-esteem, substance abuse,” Ferrer.

These risk factors make victims, mostly but not exclusively female, feel alone, which allows traffickers to prey on them; recruiting them into sexual exploitation through relationships that often aren’t violent — at least not initially. Instead, traffickers often serve as the only human connection victims have. (Editor’s note: More on the “trauma bond” between trafficker and victim, sometimes called Stockholm syndrome, in the next installment.)

Another factor is the internet.

The notorious site was shut down by a joint federal agency action in April. It hasn't stopped sex trafficking. (Port City Daily photo / File)
The notorious site was shut down by a joint federal agency action in April. It hasn’t stopped sex trafficking. (Port City Daily photo / File)

Sex trafficking predates the internet – some would say by thousands of years – but the internet has certainly had a profound change on the way traffickers recruit victims, as well as on the way the commercial sex trade works. The notorious was shut down by a federal joint-agency effort in April, but traffickers rapidly moved to new sites, many operating on servers outside of U.S. jurisdiction. (Editor’s note: More on the negative impact of shutting down later this week).

Detective Allison Jahreis, who handles sex trafficking cases for the Wilmington Police Department, said she still runs into the misconception that the victims of sex trafficking are “walking the street.”

“People think it’s market street but it’s everywhere,” Jahreis said. “Anytime there are hotels, there’s that — but it’s arranged online. And it could just as well be somebody’s house. It could be in a suburban home. It can be everywhere.”

This image, from the non-profit Polaris website on sex-trafficking, may not represent how the vast majority of sex trafficking actually takes place. (Port City Daily photo / Polaris)
This image, from the non-profit Polaris website on sex-trafficking, may not represent how the vast majority of sex trafficking actually takes place. (Port City Daily photo / Polaris)

Even Polaris, the nationwide non-profit which runs the National Human Trafficking Hotline, funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, features a photo of stiletto heels casting a shadow across the pavement on its sex-trafficking page, a noir-ish image that implies a “streetwalker.” But while there is still prostitution activity on the streets of Wilmington, it’s nothing compared to the amount of illegal sexual commerce that takes place online.

The internet means Johns and pimps can meet anywhere, anytime, out of sight. It also means the victims of sex trafficking aren’t spending their time walking the street. So where are they, and how can law enforcement agencies, health workers, and ordinary people spot them?

That’s the subject of Part Two, publishing tomorrow, featuring an in-depth look at the victims of sex trafficking.

Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001.

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