Indeed, at the age of 12, Miss E, who looked much older than her real age, started “Friending” older men on Facebook. These men took advantage of her in exchange for helping her get out of the house for awhile. Mr. M was one of those men. At the time, she was 15, and he was 32. He picked her up from her house, and helped her find a small, run-down trailer to stay in. He visited her often, and introduced her to cocaine and meth. Miss E stated that she quickly became addicted to the drugs and accepted that she was exchanging unpleasant sexual favors for her next “high.” DNA evidence confirmed that other men were also involved in some of these sexual acts.
Miss E had opportunities to leave, and to contact her mother, but she chose not to. Eventually, Miss E became very sick, and called 911 when Mr. M wasn’t around. She spent well over a month in Dell Children’s hospital with life-threatening illnesses, and then went on to live in a series of residential facilities. She did not accuse Mr. M as a trafficker until a year and a half later, after extensive rehabilitation.
The number one thing I concluded while going through this trial is that it isn’t surprising that there are so few arrests and convictions in the field of sex trafficking. Even in this trial, the defendant was found guilty of a lesser charge.* Here are some of the reasons, and what we can do about them:
- It is difficult for the victims to testify. It is the Defense’s job to make them look bad. It’s embarrassing to be on the stand for days, grilled over and over about every sexual act in very graphic terms, questioned about every little thing you might have done wrong yourself, scrutinized for entries caregivers recorded in your medical records about your mental state and thoughts you have written in your personal journals during recovery. It is stressful to have all these items twisted and misstated to try to make you look like a mentally-ill liar. It is challenging to sit and look at your abuser, and struggle with internal questions about any misplaced love that you might have felt for them. It is a strain to sort through your memories, clouded by drugs and self-protecting denial, to remember what really happened. These victims are often now struggling with multiple addictions in their lives, and I’m sure the stress of trials (there will be a separate trial for each perpetrator involved) heightens their fight against the strong desire to self-medicate.
In this trial it seemed more like Miss E was on trial than the actual defendant, since she was on the stand for 2 ½ days, and Mr. M didn’t ever say a single word since since a defendant is not required to testify at their own trial. I can see quite graphically now why, for many victims of sexual exploitation, their recovery is more hampered by the process of trial than it is helped by bringing their abuser to justice. The process cannot be avoided if we are to incarcerate the perpetrators, so these victims need our society’s empathy and support, not our judgement, which requires a cultural shift.
- It is hard for the Prosecution to present evidence on how the trafficker operated over all the objections by the Defense. The victim is not allowed to just tell their story. They can only answer direct questions by the Prosecution and Defense, and there are many laws of testimony that must be followed, particularly when the victim is a minor. Therefore, the typical modus operandi of sex traffickers should be very well publicized so that it is more recognizable. Criminals as young as 16 are now all-too-well-educated in ways to entice potential victims into risky relationships, to carefully and methodically earn their trust, to cultivate an emotional attachment to a false sense of “love” and acceptance through flattery, and to brainwash them into rebellion against their “uncaring” families. To testify about these things involves conjecture, which is not allowed.
Next, the exploiters lure their victims away from their homes, entrap them, sexually abuse them, emotionally bully them, introduce or force them into drug addiction, verbally or physically beat them at the least sign of resistance, and threaten to kill their loved ones if they don’t appear to be completely willing to do all that the pimp commands. Again, these are all hard items to present evidence for, so a jury will probably not learn the exact details of the relationship. They may just see an accuser who appears to be a “bad” person and a “willing” co-conspirator to the crime.
- The strong tie between childhood sexual abuse and later sexual exploitation may not be widely understood by juries. General education of the public about the psychology of child abuse victims will be critical to the fight. You cannot educate yourself after you are seated on a jury. You can only draw on the facts of the case, and your own education and common sense. You cannot legally educate other members of the jury. You can only point to the evidence presented in the trial. It is easy to judge victims for their rebellion against family, their use of drugs and their forming of unhealthy relationships. It is hard to understand the desperation and the lack of self-worth that they feel, and how vulnerable these thoughts make them to extreme manipulation. It is hard to understand why they didn’t just run away from a trafficker if they had the opportunity, and why it takes them a long time to identify their abusers, or how they could possibly think these people were in love with them. But as time goes on, it is becoming more and more clear that these are all “standard” behaviors for the childhood victims of incest and sexual abuse, which are well-hidden crimes in our society.
- The laws against sex trafficking are new, and not well tested. They can be quite confusing to juries, and will be more effective if they can be re-written in clearer language. This is a process that will take trial-and-error and time in each state. Sex trafficking has a growing number of faces, and there need to be more laws to deal with various forms of sexual exploitation, rather than a few very broad laws that end up nearly meaningless. As sex trafficking is becoming more publicized, and the public develops a certain image of what it entails, such as kidnapping, beatings and multiple victims, the use of that term in a charge may no longer seem to fit the crime, particularly when the victim was initially willing to start a sexual relationship with the perpetrator, as is often the case.