Human trafficking is too often an invisible crime, perpetrated by criminal entrepreneurs who both have invested money to ensure police don’t find them and have spent time developing an emotional relationship with victims to make sure they don’t leave or tell. Too often, pimps are prosecuted for side matters — such as money laundering, drug deals or assault — that don’t cut to the heart of solving the real crisis. Maine must improve its response, whether it’s to generate awareness, adopt laws that are more victim focused or grow proactive programs to reach high-risk girls and boys before it’s too late.
The suspicion of sex trafficking has been reported in every county in Maine. While it’s difficult to gather hard data on actual occurrences, support providers believe pimps are more likely to come to Maine now than in the past because there is a comparative lack of knowledge about the issue, and other states are developing tougher prosecution laws. The problem is regional, sweeping across state lines, and Maine must keep up. Trafficking is too often a crime perpetrated against those who have already experienced trauma, and Maine must ensure its legal system better allows law enforcement to work with those engaged in prostitution to target pimps and “johns.”
Maine’s Human Trafficking Task Force has a working group whose aim is to propose statutory changes. So far, the Legislature has approved a new crime called aggravated promotion of prostitution. As a class B felony, punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a $20,000 fine, it expands the definition of how a person is coerced into prostitution to include the use of drugs and other means. But more can be done within the law, and the minds of Mainers, to shift the perception away from people as perpetrators of the crime of prostitution and toward the view of them as victims of trafficking. That means ensuring sex workers aren’t arrested and then turned back onto the street, while their pimps go unpunished or prosecuted for lesser crimes.
Some law enforcement agencies are doing excellent work, making it a priority to go after pimps. But everyone — whether they are police, health care providers or shelter workers — can make sure they know the red flags of sex trafficking and appropriate responses.
Health care providers can look out for patients with rapid repeat pregnancies or abortions, a high number of reported sex partners, signs of malnourishment, general ill health and a high incidence of current or past sexually transmitted infections, according to Destie Hohman Sprague, program coordinator at Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault. They can look for tattooing, scarring or branding — sometimes used by pimps to mark their “product.”
Advocates can look for the emotional signs — trauma-based reactions like fear, anxiety and hyper vigilance. They can watch for controlled conversation, defensiveness about work or private life, evidence of an explicit sexual profile online, as well as listen for evidence of dominating partners. Shelter workers can look out for evidence of people having sex in return for money, food or clothing.
In addition to legal changes and quality training, more can be done to make sure brave victims have a safe place to turn. Homeless shelters are not always fully equipped to manage necessary counseling and rehabilitation programs. But while places like New York City have the demand for emergency shelters with educational and mentoring services, Maine does not. So Maine will most likely have to adapt and improve existing transitional resources.
Tightening Maine’s laws is important to acknowledge the human tragedy of forced sex work, help prevent it and prosecute those responsible. More than legal changes, though, it’s important for a cultural shift to acknowledge the real victims, so they can get the support that will lead them to independence and healing.