Do we have a sex trafficking problem in Galveston? Yeah, probably. Um, wait, do we? That’s like mail-order brides, right?
Ask any Galvestonian that same question and these are the types of answers you’ll get. We think we might have sex trafficking here. We hear about it sometimes in the media. But that’s just a life choice, right? Most people can get out of those situations if they really try. I mean, she has a cell phone, so she can call for help whenever she wants to.
Those are all opinions I have heard over the last several months when talking to people about the sex trafficking landscape in Galveston. Trafficking is one of those things that usually looks like something else: prostitution, dancing, sugar daddies, happy endings.
Sex trafficking is defined as using force, fraud, or coercion to exploit an individual to perform a commercial sex act. Try this. Ask someone whether we have prostitution in Galveston. Different answers, right? The first step in acknowledging the prevalence of trafficking in our area is realizing that most prostitution is, in fact, trafficking.
But here’s where it gets interesting: that means, as a society, we must begin humanizing prostitutes. It means we have to start having conversations that acknowledge that life isn’t as black and white as some of us want to believe—that a prostitute can both choose to stay with a pimp and want to escape “the life” at the same time. We have to open ourselves up to the possibility that a pimp can be a lifeline for a prostitute who doesn’t have any better options, and that leaving isn’t as simple as walking out the door and never coming back. At the same time, we must admit that he is exploiting her, preying on her vulnerabilities, and we must start holding him accountable for the crime he’s committing instead of victim shaming her.
It also means that we have to start naming it instead of avoiding it. As medical providers and law enforcement, for instance, we must be willing to do the extra work it takes to process it and treat it as a trafficking situation instead of something less complicated. It means as educators and service providers we must remember a victim’s face and treat her with compassion every time she finds herself in trouble or in need, so that when she’s ready to ask for help, we can say, “I remember you, and I care about you.”
What fuels sex trafficking? Demand. A prostitute doesn’t pay her pimp. A John does. A buyer does. A person does who thinks that another human being is nothing but a commodity to be purchased for his or her own satisfaction, regardless of the toll it takes on her mind, body, and soul. Your neighbor does who lives in a nice house and drives a luxury car. The good guys can arrest all the bad guys, but if there’s demand for a product, there will always be another bad guy to supply that product. The only real, long-term solution is ending the demand.
I challenge you: ask your circles whether we have sex trafficking in Galveston. Let that question lead to conversations about prostitution, about human dignity, about the need to reduce demand for people, about challenging someone who might think it’s ok to gawk at or purchase another human being. Ask the hard questions. Have the uncomfortable conversations that will ultimately lead to a better community.
Someday, I hope that when I ask whether we have a sex trafficking problem in Galveston, the answer I’ll hear is, “We used to.”