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TRI In The News

Long: Sex Trafficking is Happening in Virginia

By John Long
From The Roanoke Times

The disappearance of Hannah Graham in Charlottesville chills us to the soul. We hope against hope for a happy resolution, but as each day passes we steel ourselves more, expecting the breaking news we don’t want to hear.

Now a suspect is in custody, and an unexpected forensic link has been found to the murder of Morgan Harrington, a Roanoke girl who also disappeared in Charlottesville five years ago. We hope for justice, we hope for peace for the families, we hope, knowing it won’t be, that this is the last time parents will have to endure such unimaginable agony.

Having two daughters roughly the ages of Morgan and Hannah, I can’t bring myself to ignore the threats to young women in our own back yards. Recently, the Rutherford Institute, a Charlottesville civil liberties advocacy group, has taken the opportunity of the Graham case to raise awareness of what it calls “America’s dirty little secret”: sex trafficking of minors.

Not to say that such exploitation is behind Hannah’s disappearance — that doesn’t now appear to be the direction the investigation is leading. But the group wants to remind us that thousands of young people endure this unthinkable ordeal every year. Some are rescued and recover. Many are rescued and don’t. Many are never saved.

The statistics bring you to tears. Sex trafficking may be the fastest-growing crime category on the globe right now. Rutherford estimates that it’s a $9.5 billion industry in the U.S. alone — not counting the flourishing overseas trade in the perverse. In the five or six minutes you’ll take to read this column, three American children will be victimized by sex traffickers.

Shared Hope International, a sex trafficking victim advocacy group, claims that “100,000 American children are exploited through the commercial sex industry each year. The average age a child is first exploited is 13 years old.” It stands to reason that if 13 is an average, much younger children are frequent victims. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children estimates that one out of every seven runaway children becomes a victim of sex trafficking, and that the average lifespan of those who are exploited is seven years beyond their initiation. All this so some sick men can indulge in perverted fantasies.

This is too big a problem to pigeonhole the victims into neat, predictable categories. Sometimes they are immigrant children brought here and exploited; but contrary to common perceptions, most victims in the U.S. are born here. Some are runaways, some are abducted, some are addicts or are made addicts, some are even sold into sexual slavery by relatives. But regardless of the back stories, they need a society pursuing their protection and punishing their exploiters.

Too often, it’s the victim instead who is punished by prosecution, usually on a prostitution or drug arrest. The men (and a few women) responsible are harder to catch. And they may make more than $100,000 a year off of a girl they consider only a marketable commodity.

A related but separate, and even less well-known, issue is that of labor trafficking. Usually men, these are migrant workers hired out for a variety of physical work rather than sex. But whatever the reason for human trafficking, it amounts to modern-day slavery. And it’s right here in Virginia, while we are blissfully unaware that such things could still happen.

What can be done? I won’t pretend to have easy answers or a spray-on solution to this tragedy. Certainly raising awareness is a needed step — the greatest nation on Earth cannot remain in willing denial of this monstrous injustice.

Let’s go on the attack. Make this matter a top priority for law enforcement on all levels. When the exploiters are caught, how about mandatory life sentences, no parole, for anyone involved in sex trafficking on either the supply or demand end? What about the mandatory death sentence for anyone convicted of murder in a case involving a victim of sex trafficking?

The victimization of girls and young women (and often boys) for the sexual enjoyment of adult males will end when men stop paying for sex, or are made to stop paying for sex by draconian punishments.

We can’t turn a blind eye any longer. As I write this, at least two other Virginia teenagers have gone missing already this month: Savannah Parker of Virginia Beach and Bernard Reeves of Henrico, both seventeen. We want them back. And if someone is responsible for their victimization, we want them punished.