By SÍLE MOLONEY
It was not the high-profile nature of Ghislaine Maxwell’s arrest for various, alleged sex trafficking crimes on July 2 that shocked the world. After all, we’d grown accustomed to seeing various photo evidence, interviews with her accusers, and documentaries purporting to describe her relationship with the late Jeffrey Epstein.
More unsettling to some people was, perhaps, realizing just how ordinary the former girlfriend and alleged co-conspirator was. She is described invariably as funny, intelligent and charming. She may well be all of those things, and of course Maxwell denies all charges against her, but some would say that therein lies the myth of the “house mom,” a euphemism, essentially, for pimp.
Indeed, activists who dedicate their lives to combatting sex trafficking say the manipulation of language is just one of many tools employed by traffickers across the globe, including right here in the Bronx, in attempting to normalize it.
Freedom Youth NYC is a non-profit, based in the Bronx, that has been helping local, at-risk youth since 2013. It seeks to help secure the future of inner-city youth by raising awareness about prostitution and human trafficking prevention.
Human trafficking is defined as modern-day slavery and involves the use of force, fraud, or coercion to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act. According to humantrafficking.org, sex trafficking is considered as any instance in which an individual engages in a commercial sex act (such as prostitution) as a result of force, fraud, or coercion.
It does not require an individual to be transported across state lines to be considered sex trafficking. It can, and does take place with alarming regularity within the confines of homes, and often includes the commercial sexual exploitation of children or minors.
Spurred on by Maxwell’s arrest, and on a mission to topple additional, powerful figures who pull the strings of what is a billion-dollar industry, Freedom Youth NYC recently held a press conference on Fordham Plaza, on Monday, July 20, during which they called on the public to end the silence surrounding the sex trade, and expose those who exploit children and young adults. Monique Riley, a sex trafficking survivor, and fierce public speaker, is the organization’s CEO and Founder.
“I stand here today as a survivor, and I’m unashamed of where I’ve come from, and the journey I took to stand here today because it’s not easy,” Riley said. “Survivors don’t come out because often times, they’re victim-shamed, but I stand here because I want to be here, and because my words, and what my experiences are, is going to help you guys to stay clear of being trafficked,” she told the assembled group of about fifteen to twenty youngsters.
Some held signs displaying the words, “Stop Human Trafficking!” while others took turns to address their peers. Riley said early intervention is vital in preventing peer to peer recruitment among youth. “Entering the sex world, and the transition from being trafficked can be the results of not having skills, or [having] a mental illness, or [other] circumstances,” she wrote in follow-up correspondence with Norwood News.
No elected officials attended the event. When asked who was invited, Riley said she believed the event notice went out to Assemblyman José Rivera, City Councilman Ritchie Torres, State Senator Gustavo Rivera, Assemblywoman Nathalia Fernandez, and State Senator Alessandra Biaggi.
She later said that Fernandez and Biaggi communicated to her that they had meeting conflicts, and in a separate exchange, she said Biaggi, Fernandez, and Ischia Bravo, District Manager of Bronx Community Board 7, had been very good to her organization and supported Riley’s work. Norwood News reached out to the other elected officials for comment. The following email response was received from a representative of the Torres, “I would have gone to the event had I been invited, and had I known about it, but I neither knew about the event nor was I invited”.
Coincidentally, the day after the event took place, on July 21, the START Act officially passed the New York State Assembly, led by efforts from Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, among others. If passed by the senate and signed by the governor, the bill will give human trafficking survivors the opportunity to clear their criminal records of crimes they were compelled to commit due to being exploited while under pimp control. That step denotes progress, following months of advocacy work by activists.
According to Restore NYC, an organization which exists to end sex trafficking in New York, an estimated 403,000 people are being trafficked in the United States, and New York City is a gateway, one of the largest destinations for trafficked women in the country.
The organization wrote that right now, in every borough, people are being forced into prostitution and that this can take many different forms. Illicit massage, health, and beauty businesses may present a facade of legitimacy, concealing that their primary business is the sex and labor trafficking of women trapped in these businesses.
According to Restore NYC, hotels are also common locations for trafficking. Traffickers will deliver victims directly to a buyer’s hotel room, or potential buyers will cycle in and out of a hotel room where the trafficker has confined the victim for extended days.
Personal sexual servitude can occur when a person is permanently sold, often by their family to settle a drug debt, to an individual buyer for the explicit purpose of engaging in periodic sex acts over a long period of time.
Escort services is a broad term used widely in the commercial sex trade, and refers to commercial sex acts that primarily occur at temporary indoor locations. Sex trafficking can also occur within organized residential brothels run by a network of coordinated traffickers, or within private households used more informally for commercial sex.
Meanwhile, bars, strip clubs and cantinas are often used as a front for sex trafficking by selling food and alcohol, while simultaneously exploiting victims for both sex and labor behind the scenes.
Research shows that a substantial number of people who enter the sex trade, enter initially as minors, and know no other life. Speaking at the National Strategy Conference on Combating Child Exploitation in San José, California in 2011, James Cole, former deputy attorney general, said, “Some of our most vulnerable children [also] face the threat of being victimized by commercial sexual exploitation”. He added, “Runaways, sexual assault victims, and neglected children can be recruited into a violent life of forced prostitution”.
Riley said that young, Black and Hispanic girls make up 52 percent of individuals who are trafficked and targeted in New York City. It is because of these statistics, and her own experience, that she seeks to educate vulnerable youth about the harms of sex trafficking at an early age.
Riley was trafficked as a twelve-year-old, because the mother of someone she knew sent her daughter to school to recruit other children into the trafficking world. “Do you think that that has ended today?” she asked the crowd at the July 20 event. “It did not. It did not end today, because my organization has been asked to come to some schools to speak, and every time that we spoke at a different location, somebody’s child, somebody’s mother, would say, ‘That’s my lifestyle. All I got is ten dollars in my pocket. I got to feed my children. My rent is due. My husband is pimping me out’.”
As she recalled her own trauma, tears began to stream down Riley’s face during the event. “It is real. It is happening, and we must stand up and fight it today,” she said. “We have to,” she added, before leading a rousing and defiant chant of, “End Human Trafficking!” and, “You can’t have our babies!” as if addressing the traffickers directly.
In terms of media coverage, other than Norwood News, News 12, The Bronx appeared to be the only other media outlet present, a point noted in the speech by Joseph Riley, who also represents Freedom Youth NYC. Framing a rhetorical question to those present, he said, “We realize that when this particular subject [sex trafficking] comes up, it gets real…..?” to which the crowd responded, “Quiet!” Once again, he said, “It gets real..?” and the crowd shouted back “Quiet!”
“What I want to know is, where are the noise makers right now when there is no more Black Lives Matter, or any of the protests going on?” Joseph Riley continued. “Where are the protests for human traffickers? Where are the protests for the victims and survivors of human trafficking? Where are you? See, this is why I’m calling you out today. Where are the elected officials? Where’s the media? Where’s all the coverage? Where’s all the lawmakers? We are here on the front line of human trafficking every single day!”
According to Freedom Youth NYC, it is estimated that human trafficking generates $150 billion in profit per year, second only to drug trafficking as the most profitable form of transnational crime. Some advocates say the reason it is so lucrative is because, unlike the narcotics trade, “the product” can be sold over and over again.
Meanwhile, the group humantrafficking.org found that runaway youth are often approached by traffickers at transportation hubs, shelters, or other public spaces, and a frequent tactic employed by traffickers is pretending to be a significant other, feigning affection and later eliciting commercial sex or services from the victim.
Okera Ritchie is 17 years old, and also attended the July 20 even. She started working for Freedom Youth NYC just three weeks ago. “I love it,” she said in a telephone interview with Norwood News. “I’m an activist for human rights and anti-human trafficking,” she said. “I just spread the word. I lend my voice to victims. That’s who I’m here for. I’ll help as much as I can ‘cause I know that their voice, their voices are often silenced, so I just lend my voice.”
Ritchie found the position through BronxWorks, a community program that helps students get a job. She said her work involves hitting the streets, asking people to complete surveys, and providing information. She said the work can sometimes be hard. “Some people don’t want to be educated,” she said. “Some people do. Some people just come up to us and want to get our card, and want to know more, and are thankful that we’re on the streets giving them the information that we do, so it’s 50/50.”
In fact, the 2020 Trafficking in Persons Report by the U.S. State Department explains trauma bonding, a scenario in which a trafficker uses rewards and punishments within cycles of abuse to foster a powerful emotional connection with the victim. Traffickers may take on a role of protector to maintain control of the victim, create confusion, and develop a connection or attachment, which may include the victim feeling a sense of loyalty to, or love for the trafficker.
This connection, or traumatic bond, can become especially intense when fear of the trafficker is paired with gratitude for any kindness shown. Trauma bonding can also occur within familial relationships in which the trafficking perpetrator can even be a parent. Building trust between victims and anyone other than the trafficker can be very difficult therefore.
Ritchie said that Freedom Youth NYC also provides outreach via videos and sketches, as a way to engage with youth. “Everyone intakes information differently,” she said, adding that her outreach work is usually carried out during the day, on weekdays. “We move around a lot” she said. “So, we were at Mount Vernon in front of City Hall this week, one [event] was at Fordham, and today we’re doing a giveaway.
Asked what prompted her interest in getting involved in the work, she said, “It’s a very serious issue, and I feel like not enough people understand or are educated about it, and victims need a voice”. She added, “They aren’t able to use theirs, so I’’ll use mine ‘cause it’s a very serious topic”. Ritchie said she was also inspired by Monique Riley’s personal story which she described as very emotional. “I could feel her pain,” she said.
Norwood News asked Ritchie if she believes shows like the Netflix documentary, “Surviving R Kelly” which describes the alleged experiences of numerous young girls allegedly trafficked by Kelly, helps to raise awareness about sex trafficking, and how it can present itself in different guises. “Yes, definitely, it has, ‘cause some communities are just – they’re closed-minded,” she said. “So, when they see certain documentaries, it opens their mind to things that they never believed were happening, so I actually feel like it has.”
We also asked Ritchie about her experience of educating young men about sex trafficking. “I feel like women are more open to the information because, of course, you’re a woman,” she said. “But, you know, anyone could be sex trafficked, but generally women are. Men are not so much open to the information, but you do have a few men who are open-minded about receiving information.” Indeed, Restore NYC writes that 98% of sex trafficking victims worldwide are female.
Monique Riley said that sex traffickers are also major recruiters of LGBTQ+ youth, however. “These individuals are highly targeted for human trafficking,” she said. “Their families don’t accept them. They want to fit in. They are rejected by the community, so the first person that shows love to them, they’re going to go with that,” she added. “They get kicked out of their homes, kicked out of their churches. So, some of them will come right on these grounds [Fordham Plaza], right here, and they participate in survival sex because they don’t have basic needs.
She said it is, sometimes, not by choice that LGBTQ+ youth get involved in human trafficking, but because of their circumstances – the poverty and exclusion. “They don’t have a home to go to,” she said. “They don’t have a person who loves and supports them. They don’t have food and clothing.”
“They’re out here fighting for their life,” she added, her voice growing weak. “New York FBI stats say 76 percent of LGBTQ+ are trafficked, and are participating in survival sex because they aren’t a part of their community. You never know how much a smile will change their life. Be kind.”
Indeed, the economic fall out following the COVID-19 pandemic has only magnified the problem of sex trafficking. “Instability, and lack of access to critical services caused by the pandemic, mean that the number of people vulnerable to exploitation by traffickers is rapidly growing,” the 2020 Trafficking in Persons Report read. In fact, since the beginning of the pandemic alone, Freedom Youth NYC has served more than 60 undocumented families, helped 6 domestic violence victims exit dangerous domestic situations, and served ten human trafficking victims with basic needs, items and services.
Meanwhile, due to their legal status, undocumented individuals are one of the groups that are also most vulnerable to the demands of sex traffickers. There are two types of immigrant visas, the T-visa and U-visa, available to victims of human trafficking and other crimes, including domestic violence, sexual assault and involuntary servitude to help them exit their predicaments.
Both visa programs encourage victims to come forward, and work with law enforcement to help prosecute traffickers and abusers. However, this is done at great risk to their personal safety, involves grueling interviews as well as the requirement to provide both evidence, and what is often traumatic testimony. Simplifying the process, and expanding these visa programs, would surely encourage more victims to come forward, especially those for whom English is not their first language.
Indeed, as seen in the Maxwell case, because of the enormous, economic power the sex industry wields, anyone who speaks out against sex traffickers does so at great personal cost. It is precisely for this reason that advocates require elected officials to provide them with the support they need to continue their work in helping victims, and in bringing those accountable to justice.
In the future, Monique Riley said she intends to contact Councilman Andrew Cohen about outreach efforts in the Kingsbridge Heights area of the Bronx. Though not invited to the July 20 press conference, when contacted for comment about the issue, Cohen said, “I stand with the Bronx Human Trafficking and Domestic Violence Taskforce, and all victims calling for human traffickers and abusers to be held accountable and brought to justice”. He added, “We must redouble our efforts to bringing awareness to the signs of human trafficking; victims can be right in front of our eyes, and recognizing the signs is critical to ensuring they get the help they need”.
Meanwhile, in terms of advice she would offer to people who might not know a lot about human trafficking, Ritchie said, “I just feel like people need to be extra cautious nowadays, especially with social media because it’s very easy, you know, through the social media platforms to get caught up in the wrong things”. She added, “So, just always be careful, and always keep an open mind as everyone does not always have the best interests for you, and stay safe”.
If you are being trafficked or suspect trafficking activity in your area, please call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center Hotline at 1-888-373-7888 or Text “Be Free” to 233733.
Led by U.S. Attorneys’ Offices and the Department of Justice Criminal Division’s Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section, Project Safe Childhood marshals federal, state and local resources to better locate, apprehend and prosecute individuals who exploit children via the Internet. It also identifies and rescues victims. For more information about Project Safe Childhood, visit http://www.justice.gov/psc.