Erbe: Sex trafficking flourishes in the Internet age

Nassau Count District Attorney Kathleen Rice announces the Nassau Count District Attorney Kathleen Rice announces the results of "Operation Flush the Johns" in Mineola. (June 3, 2013) Photo Credit: Howard Schnapp

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Commercial sex will never go away -- let's admit it. But why is it proliferating?

The Internet, unfortunately, provides an almost unfettered platform for commercial sex hookups. It also allows pimps to find, track and enslave girls and women in sex trafficking.

With deploring regularity, prosecutors in medium-size and major cities are announcing stings busting large-scale prostitution rings. In early June, 104 johns were arrested in Operation Flush, a sting operation on Long Island, N.Y. The johns were caught in the act on videotape, and Nassau County prosecutors publicized their photographs, names and occupations.

A month earlier, an FBI sting in Detroit led authorities to a former Eastern Michigan University student. She became addicted to pain-killers, heroin and crack cocaine after losing several fingers. She turned to prostitution because she believed she had "no place to go and no one to turn to for help," according to court records. A pimp enslaved her as a commercial sex worker, she told authorities; on the day of the sting, she had "serviced" 10 johns.

What do these situations have in common? Customers, prostitutes and pimps are finding each other through the Internet. And so far, local and federal authorities seem powerless to ban the sale of commercial sex online. Nor do they seem able to keep up with and control the horrendous amount of trafficking the Internet generates.

Technology is a wondrous thing and it has made life so much sweeter in so many ways. But technology has its pernicious aspects, too. Perhaps most pernicious is its use as a tool to promote prostitution and sex trafficking.

Why do authorities seem powerless to prevent this? There are many reasons. But experts point mainly to laws that predate the Internet and define places where criminal commercial sex acts take places as "houses of prostitution" or "brothels." Today, no such places exist. Pimps -- mainly men -- find customers online and direct them to meet prostitutes, who work out of different motels or apartments or sometimes even their own homes. Technology has circumvented the need for a particular building as a location where the sex takes place.

A HuffingtonPost.com article of last August described a New Mexico case in which two men, a retired professor and former college administrator, were charged with running "an extensive multistate, online prostitution ring." They were cleared after a judge ruled that under state law their website did not constitute a house of prostitution, though it was used to recruit prostitutes and promote prostitution.

"The problem, legal experts say, stemmed from law enforcement officials trying to apply old prostitution laws in a high-tech world," the HuffingtonPost.com reported. "And they say it happens in many states, with authorities struggling to prosecute websites as 'brothels' or pinpoint where free speech ends and the facilitation of a crime begins. Further, the National Conference of State Legislatures says state legislatures aren't actively working to update prostitution laws." Therein lies the problem. It would seem easy to amend anti-prostitution laws to include a ban on websites for procuring commercial sex.

My first thought is that the religious right should be championing this cause. Many anti-abortion rights groups try to portray themselves as players in the fight against sex trafficking.

Yet they spend tens of millions of dollars and thousands of hours lobbying state legislators to pass anti-abortion laws. Why not instead devote their time and attention to updating anti-trafficking laws, so there would be many fewer female victims of sex trafficking?

Bonnie Erbe, the host of PBS' "To the Contrary," writes this column for Scripps Howard News Service.

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