In our present-day American society, the term “modern-day slavery” sounds almost like an oxymoron. Slavery, we think, is a dark stamp in a long American history; at worst, it’s something we think is isolated to poorly developed countries.
It’s a $32 billion industry, and, yes, it’s happening in less developed countries, but it’s also happening under Ohio’s good ol’ Midwestern guise.
And, like cancer cells, it holds no bias against race, age, socioeconomic class or political structure.
Human trafficking is the world’s second largest illegal enterprise (next to illegal drug trade), affecting an approximate 21 million victims a year, and it’s still seething through Ohio cities, even Cincinnati.
Fortunately, state and local efforts to suppress a rampant statewide problem are conjoining. Last week, Cincinnati City Council unanimously approved a four-pronged set of initiatives to combat local problems with sex trafficking and prostitution, which, hopefully, will complement House Bill 130, currently resting in the state judiciary committee, that would also amp up anti-trafficking efforts on a state level.
H.B. 130 would increase penalties for sex trafficking and prostitution-related offenses implicating minors and persons with developmental disabilities and establish a spousal notification requirement for offenders convicted of sex trafficking or prostitution-related offenses.
Sex trafficking, a branch of human trafficking, refers to “forced sexual slavery.” Prostitution, while closely related, is only considered trafficking when a pimp uses force or coercion to maintain control. Anyone involved in prostitution under the age of 18 is considered a victim of sex trafficking regardless of circumstance.
Now, Cincinnati’s city administration will begin evaluating local courts’ practices in human trafficking and prostitution cases, including how frequently judges are suspending offenders’ driver’s licenses and mandating HIV and venereal disease testing and treatment upon prostitution convictions.
Making sure those restrictions are enforced should be helpful in driving down demand for “johns,” or prostitution clients, by making soliciting more difficult, according to City Councilwoman Yvette Simpson, who, with significant community support, spearheaded the motion recently approved by council. “We really want to be aggressive here,” Simpson says. “Our jail is overcrowded. We can’t keep johns overnight. So you’ve got to kind of be creative in the way you deal with them.”
Suspending driver’s licenses would make transporting to prostitution hotspots and picking up girls undetected more difficult, she says. The HIV and venereal disease testing is a clear public health issue.
Also included in the motion are lighting studies along West McMicken Avenue — a notorious prostitution hotspot spanning from Vine Street in Over-the-Rhine through lower University Heights — so city administration can evaluate whether there’s a need for surveillance cameras or increased street lighting
It’s been a long journey here for a state that in 2010 was ranked among the country’s worst for human trafficking by the Polaris Project, a national anti-human trafficking organization. A 2010 report titled, “Report on the Prevalence of Human Trafficking in Ohio,” linked the state’s trafficking crisis with weak anti-trafficking laws, combined with a growing demand for cheap labor and proximity to the Canadian border.
In 2012, Ohio passed H.B. 262, the “Safe Harbor Law,” a comprehensive, stand-alone law against human trafficking that included multiple tiers to protect and spot trafficking victims, place harsher penalties on traffickers and to raise public and law enforcement awareness.
In response to the new legislation, Polaris ranked Ohio one of the “Most Improved States of 2012” in its annual state ratings.
The bill marked a massive shift for Ohio, but it still wasn’t a panacea. In August of last year, the Ohio Human Trafficking Commission released “2012 Domestic Sex Trafficking in Ohio,” a report that looked at 328 self-identified human trafficking victims across the state. According to the reports, one-third of Cincinnati trafficking victims were manipulated into trafficking before age 18. The most common buyers of trafficking victims in Cincinnati were drug dealers, factory workers and truckers; buyers of sex were most frequently middle-aged white and African-American men, according to the report.
Lisa Johnson, neighborhood officer for District 5, frequently spends time patrolling around the West McMicken area, and she says she’s pleased City Council has united efforts with local allies, including the police and treatment programs such as the Anna Louise Inn’s Off the Streets, a rehabilitation program to help prostituted women turn their lives around.
“I’ve personally driven women [to Off the Streets]. I feel like everybody deserves a second chance, so I’m hoping when they get driven there … this is giving them that chance, someone does care,” Johnson says. “If everybody’s working together, we can get this accomplished.”
Beyond the victims and perpetrators, it’s an issue with the power to destroy the livelihood of entire communities, what Johnson and West McMicken resident Ed O’Donnell describe as the “broken window theory” — a criminological concept based on the idea that a blighted neighborhood that stays blighted attracts negative criminal behavior.
O’Donnell began journaling every time he noticed prostitution happening around him in September 2012 after he spoke to City Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld about the exploits he’d been noticing since he moved into the neighborhood in 2011.
“Until I started writing it down, I didn’t realize how pervasive it was, but once you start taking notes, it is literally the case that almost every time — morning, noon or night — I walk out of my building, look to the right, look to the left, you see them.”
According to O’Donnell, it’s not unlikely to spot a pregnant prostitute looking for “tricks” in the neighborhood as early as 9 a.m. Excerpts from his journal chronicle tricks occurring at every hour of the day almost daily.
In fact, quality of life in the neighborhood has deteriorated enough to take a serious toll on O’Donnell’s personal life. His daughter forbade his grandchildren from coming over after a few visits to the neighborhood left her skittish.
“I try to be home before the streetlights come on, just like when I was a kid,” he says. “When it’s dark out at night and [prostitutes] come out of an alley, it can be kind of scary.”
That same atmosphere prevented his fiancée from agreeing to move to Cincinnati from Indiana for him after she visited his new home for the first time.
That aura of danger is tied to the inseverable connection between prostitution and drug addiction. Some prostitutes get into the business to feed an already-existing habit; others rely on drugs to numb themselves to continue working or are force-fed drugs by pimps to lower their resistance to odious work.
Simpson notes the city is dealing with a resurfacing heroin epidemic, particularly plaguing the West McMicken corridor, and O’Donnell notes he regularly sees pimps he recognizes coordinating drug deals or prostitutes with conspicuous needle scarring.
O’Donnell’s personal accounts and those from other affected residents are grim, base depictions of a dark side of humanity: used condoms found in front yards, children finding male enhancement pills on the street and prostitutes using backyards as toilets. One woman complained to City Council that she found a pregnant prostitute passed out in her driveway, evidently strung out on drugs.
What remains one of the world’s largest industries, Simpson admits, will probably never fully vanish, but that shouldn’t deter all progress.
“Every prostitute you take off the street and give a better life, that’s one less,” Simpson says. “We refuse to believe there’s nothing we can do. You give it all you’ve got.” ©