Demand for commercaial sex ‘Close to home and in your community’
“Many of you know that sex trafficking occurs in India, in Russia, in Thailand, in China, but it happens right here in Pennsylvania, right here in your community in Bethlehem,” said Dee Dee Foran, a Bethlehem Rotary Club member and Accredited Pension Representative at GF Pension Corp. “Raising awareness is crucial and it often leads to action.”
Raising awareness is exactly what the Bethlehem Rotary Club’s Rotarian Action Group Against Slavery aimed to accomplish the evening of June 26. Those interested in learning more about this issue’s presence in the Lehigh Valley gathered in Moravian College’s Priscilla Payne Complex to attend the talk, titled “Harm of Demand for Commercial Sex,” which featured five speakers addressing different sides of the issue.
In her introduction to the event and its speakers, Foran gave the audience a few key facts to understanding what sex trafficking is: Human trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery and is the second to top ranking industry in the world following drugs, coming in at $150 billion a year.
“One of the things that’s become apparent to me in the several years that I’ve been involved with Rotary is while we address humanitarian efforts across the world, so many of them are actually really close to home and in our community,” said Tyler Papaz, Bethlehem Rotary Club member and Senior Consultant for Cornerstone Companies.
Papaz went further into depth into the synonymous nature of the terms “trafficking” and “slavery,” informing the audience that, according to research, victims coerced into sex trafficking are typically vulnerable women coming from difficult situations. According to Papaz’s research, one of three runaway youth are lured into trafficking within only 48 hours of leaving home.
“It’s not something that they necessarily stepped out of their house one day and said, ‘This is a life I want to pursue,’” said Papaz. “This isn’t a life that anyone chooses.”
When addressing why this problem exists, Papaz explained that there are two steps: identifying a demand for it and recognizing it as an opportunity to make money. Although there will not always be a trafficker, the demand exists in nearly every community. He shared that in Bethlehem alone, there have been five massage parlors identified as participating in illegal behavior, some of which were located right on Stefko Boulevard.
Richard Blake, former Bethlehem Township police sergeant and current police captain at Moravian College, approached the issue of human trafficking from another angle. During the last five years of his 26 years spent with the Township police, he worked in narcotics and vice, which included running various operations targeting sex trafficking, some of which involved police pretending to be female prostitutes in order to catch the buyers and traffickers in order to lead to more arrests.
Although the statistic Papaz shared stated that 78 percent of prostitution arrests are of the prostitute while only 22 percent are of the John or person purchasing sex, the Bethlehem Township Police aimed to turn that statistic around, targeting Johns and traffickers rather than victims.
“If you had asked me about prostitution back then, I would have said Bethlehem Township does not have prostitution, we’re an upper-middle class township, we don’t have that,” Blake said. “People have to know what’s going on in order for them to even know a problem exists, and it does exist.”
Senator Stewart Greenleaf spoke about legislation aiming to help victims of these situations, previously including Megan’s law and an extension of the Statute of Limitations, and the most recent of which being Safe Harbor Bill 554. The goal of Bill 554 is to protect the victims of human trafficking, acknowledging that they were coerced into committing these crimes.
“Every day, every week, every month, every year that goes by, there’s more and more children, hundreds of thousands of children, who are being abused. This will give them a way out. This will give them the path out,” Greenleaf said. “That child is still a child. They don’t have legal ability, they can’t drink, they can’t drive a car, but they can be pimped. That’s what our society was saying.”
Christi Domingues, executive director of the Valley Against Sex Trafficking (VAST), called for a change about the way society thinks and talks about sex trafficking. Citing cultural examples, Domingues noticed that there is a prominent glamorization of the industry in society that encourages people to think of sex as commercial and transactional and women’s and children’s bodies as commodities.
“Studies have found that there are 1,820 customers that an individual victim is seeing a year. [Papaz] broke that down, that’s 35 customers, that’s 35 buyers, in this business a week,” Domingues said. “We need to start putting the media down and we need to start shutting out movies like Taken and Pretty Woman and all of the rap songs that glamorize pimping … We need to start changing our language.”
In her speech concluding the evening, Regional Outreach Specialist with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Patricia Donner spoke about the intertwined nature of the opioid epidemic with human trafficking, a topic many of the preceding speakers touched upon. She told the audience that these issues are being addressed by the Interagency Human Trafficking Task Force, which includes the Department of Justice, FBI, Office of Homeland Security, Administration for Children and Families and the Office of the Assistant Secretary.
Donner left the audience by giving them information on how to help victims, including opening conversations, starting donations and, most importantly, encouraging people to speak up if they see something suspicious by calling The National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888.
For more information on sex trafficking in the Lehigh Valley and the U.S. as well as additional resources, visit thevast.ngo.