- Janet Jensen is the founder of The Jensen Project, a nonprofit organization focused on strengthening partnerships in the fight against sexual violence.
The rescue by Nashville police of a 15-year-old girl from two alleged sex traffickers was an early holiday gift, since it came just four days before Christmas. But it was also a grim reminder of how widespread and pernicious human trafficking is.
As Jeremy Lofquest, Assistant Special Agent for Human Trafficking for the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, said, “It’s happening to boys and girls, men and women, all the way across the state. It’s not just one isolated incident.”
It is, in fact, a national problem that requires a more sophisticated national response. To make that happen, two federal laws—one on trafficking, one covering technology—urgently need to be updated and reformed.
Many states need to step up their game
Shared Hope International’s Protected Innocence Project issued a national report card in 2019 that gave 15 states As, which is good. But 21 got Bs, 13 were given Cs, two got Ds.
I’m glad to say that Tennessee was among those with an A grade with a score of 98, based on the standards the Protected Innocence Project uses to measure success. That was the highest in the nation, which is especially impressive considering the Volunteer State’s score in 2011 was a miserable 73.
The disappointment, however, is that so many states — including two of the biggest, California and New York — are doing a mediocre job of fighting human trafficking.
In fairness, catching, prosecuting and convicting traffickers is difficult, frustrating work. You almost always need witnesses to testify against them and that can be daunting, not to mention life-threatening for their victims.
And for every trafficker sent to prison, there are plenty of eager replacements, since the rewards can be significant measured against the likelihood of getting caught. According to one estimate, 40 million people are trafficked around the world and the annual profits run to a staggering $150 billion.
We have to evolve our efforts
Human traffickers usually operate in two spheres: commercial sexual exploitation and forced labor. There is considerable overlap between the two. Many women forced into low-wage or no-wage jobs say they are also exploited sexually. And as the Nashville case chillingly illustrates, so are many children.
Paradoxically, even as the crime flourishes, there is no one in the general public or political world who doesn’t want human trafficking stamped out. That was certainly the mood in 2000 when Congress passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act establishing programs to prevent crimes, protect victims and prosecute traffickers.
Now the Trafficking Victims Protection Act has to be updated to keep pace with sweeping changes in technology and communications. The Communications Decency Act also needs to be rewritten to end the immunity currently offered to digital platforms, a situation that encourages Big Tech to look the other way at predatory material on their sites.
We need these changes because technology is the chief weapon traffickers use to rope young people in.
The online exploitation of vulnerable kids has been especially acute this year because pandemic restrictions have left so many isolated, frustrated and confused.
Internet advertising, social media, chat rooms — they are all part of the problem, and Washington must respond.
Many law enforcement officials also argue for access to the encrypted platforms traffickers use. That’s a contentious issue — encryption can also be a legitimate way to ensure privacy — but lawmakers must look into it.
It may seem pointless to expect action from a deeply divided Congress. But cracking down on human trafficking is something virtually everyone across the political spectrum supports. There may be disagreements on the precise steps to take, but there should be enough bipartisan comity to work it out.
It’s encouraging that the Senate leaders of the drive to update and strengthen the Trafficking Victims Protection Act are Ohio’s Rob Portman, a Republican, and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, a Democrat. A respected bipartisan team like that gives me hope for success.
Janet Jensen is the founder of The Jensen Project, a nonprofit organization focused on strengthening partnerships in the fight against sexual violence.