Texas, already the home to the second highest number of sex trafficking cases, is seeing a steep increase in crisis calls related to the illegal activity because of the coronavirus pandemic. What’s more, trafficking activities are exploding online, as criminals adapt to the changing environment, experts said.
The Lone Star State is only second to California with 2,455 victims and survivors identified in Texas from over 2,000 calls to the hotline, which now includes texts and other means for victims to communicate, according to a report released last week by the Polaris Project. The calls led to the identification of 515 traffickers and 240 businesses involved in this illegal trade.
An analysis by Polaris comparing the hotline activity in three periods this year to 2019 indicates that crisis has worsened by about 40 percent, and that the pandemic has impacted the victims’ vulnerabilities, as well as the manner of sex trafficking operations nationwide.
The number of cases identified through the hotline is only a fraction of the prevalence of human trafficking, which is defined as an individual being deceived or coerced into prostitution, forced labor, or domestic servitude.
“Calls have more to do with people on the ground knowing about the hotline as a resource,” said Ayan Ahmed, a Polaris spokesperson. “It’s more about awareness.”
Because Houston is considered a hub for human trafficking, the issue has gained significant awareness in the city, said Ann Johnson, former human trafficking prosecutor in Harris County. She said hotlines might get more calls here “because our general population is more on alert.”
Elaine Andino, a director with the nonprofit United Against Human Trafficking in Houston, said the prevalence of human trafficking is hard to gauge because it’s mostly a hidden crime that flourishes in businesses posing as legal enterprises or exploits victims who are too vulnerable to report them.
Andino said the most reliable study available in Texas about this illegal trade was published by the University of Texas at Austin in 2016, which estimated that there are 310,000 victims of human trafficking at any given moment in the state. Most are victims of labor trafficking, 234,500, while 79,000 are minors and youth in sex trafficking.
Victims have been driven further underground and have become more vulnerable as the pandemic forced the closure of businesses, saw many employees let go, and prompted an economic crisis, Andino said.
Many agencies providing services to victims were also impacted and unable to receive new clients, according to the Polaris report, titled “Crisis in Human Trafficking During the Pandemic.”
“There are roughly about 500 beds in the entire country for trafficking victims,” Andino said. “A lot of these shelters are restricting how many people come into the shelters to prevent COVID from spreading.”
While the pandemic closed businesses in industries where human trafficking thrives, such as hospitality, restaurants and bars, the criminal enterprise adapted by moving heavily online.
“A lot of victimization has just moved online,” said Andino. “There are lots and lots of trafficking victims who are forced to have sex on camera now; we saw a lot of that really, really spike during COVID.” Several reports point to a significant increase in porn consumption during the pandemic, with modalities such as cam sex and 3D services gaining traction.
With social distancing, many men have avoided paying for in person sex, but those who continue tend to be the most reckless and violent, “so it became even more of a scary situation for trafficking victims” vulnerability to abuse, Andino added.
The pandemic’s effect has increased the very vulnerabilities that put victims in the hands of traffickers in the first place, said prosecutor Johnson. For example, some minors who are trying to escape abusive parenting get sucked into trafficking. Also, immigrants are more likely to get coerced by employers to work in dire conditions for little or no pay.
“Every victim I’ve seen, whether it’s age, race, background, the common theme, is vulnerability,” said Johnson.
Johnson insists that tackling human trafficking will require increasing services to victims and prosecuting exploiters, including sellers who profit from the business and the consumer who pay for the abuse.
“You need to continue the awareness constantly,” said Johnson. “This is not like turning off the water faucet at once.”