There are some 27 million slaves in the world today, more than at any other time in human history. Most are trafficked for commercial sexual exploitation and 80 percent are female. About half of the world’s trafficking victims are under the age of 18.
While New York State’s sex trafficking laws are among the most comprehensive in the nation, promoting prostitution in the first degree, compelling prostitution and sex trafficking are all classified here as non-violent felonies.
“Sex trafficking is one of the most violent humanitarian issues of our day,” says Faith Huckel, executive director and co-founder of Restore NYC, a nonprofit that provides aftercare services to sex-trafficking victims and works with local and federal authorities to facilitate the prosecution of traffickers. “To call it anything less is to disregard the trauma, rape and abuse experienced on the part of the victim. We must reclassify sex trafficking as a violent felony and increase the minimum jail sentence for traffickers.”
That’s just what I’m trying to do. I introduced a bill in the New York State Senate recently to reclassify sex trafficking as a violent felony and increase the minimum jail sentence to five years. The minimum sentence currently is one to three years.
Classifying sex trafficking as a violent felony not only raises the minimum sentence for a first offense, it can put someone who commits multiple violent offenses away for life under the persistent violent offender law.
Assemblyman Francisco Moya has introduced the same bill in the Assembly.
Traffickers prey on the poor and vulnerable. They use promises of a good job or a false marriage proposal to lure victims. Other victims are kidnapped or sold into the sex trade by parents, husbands or boyfriends. But don’t delude yourself into believing that this sort of treachery and brutality occurs only in far-flung corners of the world.
New York is believed to be a major U.S. entry point for human smugglers. Women from around the world and across the country are brought here and enslaved, forced to have sex with strangers for the profit of human traffickers and pimps. And make no mistake: Many of these women are being abused and exploited in public and private locations in our very own communities, including Jackson Heights, Corona and Flushing.
As noted by columnist Nicholas Kristof, who writes frequently in The New York Times about the horrors of sex trafficking, “the business model of pimping is remarkably similar whether in Atlanta or Calcutta: take vulnerable, disposable girls whom nobody cares about, use a mix of ‘friendship,’ humiliation, beatings, narcotics and threats to break the girls and induce 100 percent compliance, and then rent out their body parts.”
About a year ago, I introduced another bill — which has since been signed into law by Gov. Andrew Cuomo — prohibiting the distribution of obscene, business-card-sized ads for prostitutes. These so-called “chica” cards, which have been handed out along Roosevelt Avenue and adjacent streets for many years, feature promises of “free delivery.”
After a press conference at which I unveiled my “chica” cards bill, the problem drew attention. The cards were the subject of some jokes.
And it turned out that one of the cards we enlarged and displayed at the press conference pictured an international supermodel.
Of course, the harsh reality is that there is absolutely nothing funny or glamorous about prostitution. We need to dispel the dangerous notion that it is a victimless crime. And we do that with information and by raising awareness.
Someone aware of the brutal truth is less likely to participate in the continued exploitation of these women. Someone who understands the plight of these women is also more likely to say something if they see something.
In the coming weeks, I’ll be launching a sex trafficking awareness campaign in and around Jackson Heights and Corona, hubs where trafficked women are prostituted.
By raising awareness and imposing penalties commensurate with the brutality inherent in sex trafficking, I hope that we can put at least some traffickers and pimps out of business and keep them from destroying more lives.
Jose Peralta is New York State Senator for the 13th District in western Queens.