By Mary Rose Somarriba
Courtesy of The Public Discourse

The latest Harvey Weinstein allegation reminds us that, around the world and here in the United States, sex trafficking is closer than it appears.

The domestic and international problem of sex trafficking has been getting attention more and more in the past few years, but for many Americans, it can still feel like a very distant problem. Many don’t know that the illegal and exploitative practice of sex trafficking has roots in many situations that are legal—in pornography, at strip clubs, and, as one of the latest Weinstein allegations suggests, even in what may first appear as a workplace tryst.

Harvey Weinstein has been under public scrutiny since this past fall, when numerous actresses started raising their voices with accusations of sexual misconduct and of blacklisting those who didn’t acquiesce in his demands. Eighty-two women have made allegations of sexual assault, and thirteen have alleged rape.

According to recent reports, the LA District Attorney is reviewing police investigations against Weinstein this month. On the other side of the nation, British actress Kadian Noble filed a civil suit in New York claiming that Weinstein forced her into sexual acts in Europe in 2014. Noble claims in the suit that the Weinstein Company violated federal sex trafficking law “by benefiting from, and knowingly facilitating” Weinstein’s behavior to “recruit or entice female actors into forced or coerced sexual encounters on the promise of roles in films or entertainment projects.”

While Noble is thus far the only individual making sex trafficking claims against Weinstein, the dangerously similar connection between sexual activity and financial gain is hard to miss in many of the other allegations, as many involved offers of better jobs in exchange for coercive sexual acts. As actress Brit Marling wrote about her personal experience in the Atlantic in October, Weinstein wielded the power to “ensure that these women would never work again if they humiliated him. That’s not just artistic or emotional exile—that’s also economic exile.” In December, Salma Hayek penned a New York Times op-ed explaining how Weinstein pressured her into doing a lesbian sex scene or he’d scrap her 2002 film Frida.

I’ll leave the specific allegations to the judges and juries to determine. Yet, hearing Weinstein’s allegation list grow, I can’t help but be reminded that sex trafficking is more present than many in our society would like to admit.

While researching human trafficking for my 2012 Robert Novak Journalism Fellowship, I learned that sex trafficking—coercive sex acts for commercial gain—is very much entangled in our communities. Sex trafficking occurs when a trafficker, often called a pimp, controls and profits off the sale of another person in sexual services. Its technical definition in the United States is the use of force, fraud, or coercion to cause a commercial sex act, or any commercial sex act performed with a minor.

Sex trafficking takes place all over our country, trapping children as young as twelve in a dark underworld that becomes no less coercive and confining after they turn eighteen. Pimps target vulnerable girls with little support in their lives, such as runaways. They initially use psychological manipulation rather than violence, befriending the girls and gaining their trust. After grooming a victim and starting a relationship with her, the trafficker then invites the girl to run off with him to begin a new life together. Soon after, the trafficker makes it known to her that her job is now to perform sexual acts with multiple men a day, while he keeps the cash and “takes care of her.” At this point, the relationship often becomes controlling and violent. In many cases, the girl feels trapped by threats to her family or shame for her mistakes, and so she stays silent. Meanwhile, a Stockholm Syndrome-type relationship grows between her and her trafficker.

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