Human trafficking: Underreported, underground sexual violence

A story Monday by BDN reporter Dawn Gagnon highlighted an issue sexual violence advocates have been working to tackle for years — forced child prostitution, also called human trafficking.

According to the story, three victims in a recent three-day FBI sting that netted 150 arrests were children from Maine. The victims’ names and hometowns are not being identified at the time. The police department that assisted in the sting is also not being named.

Human trafficking is not new to the state. It’s not easy, however, to obtain an estimate of the number of annual victims, Cara Courchesne, communications and outreach coordinator for the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said.

“For as under-reported sexual violence is, sex trafficking is even more underreported,” Courchesne said. “It’s underground sexual violence.”

The statistics available are startling:

* Nationally, between 100,000 and 300,000 U.S. minors are engaged in commercial sexual exploitation.

* Calls to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline coming from Maine have increased by more than 50 percent in recent years, and providers in every corner of Maine report serving victims of sexual exploitation.

* The most frequent age of those entering the commercial sex industry in the U.S. is 13 to 14 years old.

In addition, advocates at Rape Response Services in Bangor estimate a teen homeless on the street has roughly 48 hours until he or she will most likely be approached about trading sex for food, a warm place to stay or even access to a cell phone.

Unfortunately, adults are often arrested and charged with prostitution or drug possession when, in fact, they may be victims of sex trafficking. If they are not prostituting themselves by choice, they are the victims. The state recognizes the issue and is trying to focus more attention on catching the perpetrators.

Gov. Paul LePage signed LD 1159 into law earlier this month, expanding the definition of human trafficking to include crimes involving victimizing someone for profit. The bill, which goes into effect in October, also renames prostitution to “sex trafficking.”

Proponents of the law hope it will begin changing the way communities and police treat victims of sex trafficking. Already, several individuals in Penobscot County including law enforcement officers, advocates, victim-survivors and others have begun meeting on a regular basis to discuss sex trafficking and possible solutions.

It’s an effort that should be supported not only by the Legislature but at the grassroots level in discussions about the issue and how to help those affected the most — the victims.

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