Harvey Weinstein Isn’t Unusual: Sexual Abuse and Trafficking in the United States

The latest Harvey Weinstein allegation reminds us that, around the world and here in the United States, sex trafficking is closer than it appears.

The domestic and international problem of sex trafficking has been getting attention more and more in the past few years, but for many Americans, it can still feel like a very distant problem. Many don’t know that the illegal and exploitative practice of sex trafficking has roots in many situations that are legal—in pornography, at strip clubs, and, as one of the latest Weinstein allegations suggests, even in what may first appear as a workplace tryst.

Harvey Weinstein has been under public scrutiny since this past fall, when numerous actresses started raising their voices with accusations of sexual misconduct and of blacklisting those who didn’t acquiesce in his demands. Eighty-two women have made allegations of sexual assault, and thirteen have alleged rape.

According to recent reports, the LA District Attorney is reviewing police investigations against Weinstein this month. On the other side of the nation, British actress Kadian Noble filed a civil suit in New York claiming that Weinstein forced her into sexual acts in Europe in 2014. Noble claims in the suit that the Weinstein Company violated federal sex trafficking law “by benefiting from, and knowingly facilitating” Weinstein’s behavior to “recruit or entice female actors into forced or coerced sexual encounters on the promise of roles in films or entertainment projects.”

While Noble is thus far the only individual making sex trafficking claims against Weinstein, the dangerously similar connection between sexual activity and financial gain is hard to miss in many of the other allegations, as many involved offers of better jobs in exchange for coercive sexual acts. As actress Brit Marling wrote about her personal experience in the Atlantic in October, Weinstein wielded the power to “ensure that these women would never work again if they humiliated him. That’s not just artistic or emotional exile—that’s also economic exile.” In December, Salma Hayek penned a New York Times op-ed explaining how Weinstein pressured her into doing a lesbian sex scene or he’d scrap her 2002 film Frida.

I’ll leave the specific allegations to the judges and juries to determine. Yet, hearing Weinstein’s allegation list grow, I can’t help but be reminded that sex trafficking is more present than many in our society would like to admit.

While researching human trafficking for my 2012 Robert Novak Journalism Fellowship, I learned that sex trafficking—coercive sex acts for commercial gain—is very much entangled in our communities. Sex trafficking occurs when a trafficker, often called a pimp, controls and profits off the sale of another person in sexual services. Its technical definition in the United States is the use of force, fraud, or coercion to cause a commercial sex act, or any commercial sex act performed with a minor.

Sex trafficking takes place all over our country, trapping children as young as twelve in a dark underworld that becomes no less coercive and confining after they turn eighteen. Pimps target vulnerable girls with little support in their lives, such as runaways. They initially use psychological manipulation rather than violence, befriending the girls and gaining their trust. After grooming a victim and starting a relationship with her, the trafficker then invites the girl to run off with him to begin a new life together. Soon after, the trafficker makes it known to her that her job is now to perform sexual acts with multiple men a day, while he keeps the cash and “takes care of her.” At this point, the relationship often becomes controlling and violent. In many cases, the girl feels trapped by threats to her family or shame for her mistakes, and so she stays silent. Meanwhile, a Stockholm Syndrome-type relationship grows between her and her trafficker.

Pornography and Sex Trafficking

Sex traffickers mainly get their profits by selling girls and women in prostitution, which is advertised everywhere from escort ads to websites to street walking. When it comes to ways to make money, though, traffickers don’t discriminate; strip clubs can be a way to expand one’s client base in a local community. Pornography can bring in a buck as well.

For as long as pornography has been mainstream in America, it has been entangled in coercive and abusive sex. The first porn star in America—Linda Marciano, more famously known as Linda Lovelace—was under the control of an abusive pimp named Chuck Traynor, while she remained penniless. Marciano detailed this in her memoir Ordeal, and even Hustler’s Larry Flynt confirmed it five years ago: “She was just being used every step of the way. . . . That type of coercion did exist. I think she was being very much controlled by Chuck [Traynor]. . . . That’s why I refer to him as a pimp.”

Since then, pornography has only continued to blow up, thanks to the internet. Meanwhile, sex-trafficked women who have escaped the industry tell us that they too have been photographed in porn. For the most part, trafficking in porn isn’t detectable until after the women who are filmed in coercive circumstances leave the sex industry and are able to tell us—that is, if they can leave―but I’ve spoken to some of them, and we do know it exists. One woman who made headlines was photographed on a 2007 cover of the pornographic Taboo magazine, before it was discovered three years later that she had been controlled by a man named Ed Bagley throughout that and many other pornographic shoots.

We also know, from documentaries like the 2015 film Hot Girls Wanted and web series Becoming Belle Knox (about the “Duke porn star” whose real name is Miriam Weeks), that even if women choose to partake in adult films, once the cameras are rolling, they can be subjected to forceful sexual advances they didn’t consent to. If a woman is in the middle of a porn set ready for a certain script, and her co-star or director decides it will be more exciting if they go off-script and assault her on camera, it becomes a coercive act for commercial gain—whether or not they report it. Just how frequently this happens is impossible to say, but we know that it does happen. For instance, Miriam Weeks admitted on Becoming Belle Knox that she was unexpectedly beaten and choked in the first pornographic scene she showed up for.

She’s one of the rare voices we actually hear speaking (even if she didn’t report). Research has shown that 90 percent of porn depicts violence against women. Just how much of it the women agreed to is impossible to measure. 

The Psychology of Sex Trafficking

Needless to say, sex trafficking is a hard crime to fight because of the psychological component of the abuse. It’s common for girls who are rescued to return to their traffickers or say that they chose this on their own. But such gestures don’t make their situation any more free or safe. Healing and recovery start when the victim is removed from the dangerous environment for some time. This allows her to snap out of survival mode and all the unhealthy coping mechanisms that come with it. She can then learn that while she may have felt alone in her situation, many other survivors of trafficking can relate to the trauma of being so manipulated and offer support. In this way, she can reconnect with her sense of intuition and self-agency. Sexual crimes, in particular, take time to unravel.

Which brings us back to the Weinstein case. Another intersection between sexual assault and sex trafficking is the length of time it takes to recover from the injury. It’s why many sexual assault accusations come ten years or more after the events took place. The crimes usually take place at a time when the victims are young and impressionable, and research shows it can take them years to process what happened, overcome the sense of shame, and speak to others about it. While in the past some have viewed delayed accusations as evidence of their being false, brain science now offers us a better explanation.

There’s a reason it takes rape victims a while to report or even acknowledge that a crime happened to them. It’s the same reason it takes domestic violence victims a while to leave or even acknowledge they’ve been abused. It’s similar to why it took victims of sexual abuse in the priest scandals years to come forward. In addition to immense shame, these types of abuse bring with them a mental component to the injuries. Often victims can take years to acknowledge the violence that happened to them and open up about it. Researcher Jennifer Freyd, who is editor of Journal of Trauma and Dissociation and co-author of the book Blind to Betrayal, has found that many victims of psychological trauma experience “blindness” to their injury for a time; the brain goes into something of a survival mode to preserve what the person perceives as a necessary relationship or status quo. Child abuse victims often experience this with their predators; battered women often experience this with their abusers; Stockholm syndrome sufferers experience this with their captors; and sex-trafficked people often experience this with their pimps. We’re missing a lot if we miss this.

Prostitution, Coercion, and Consent

This is why it’s shortsighted when publications like Reason Magazine scoff at law enforcement’s attempts to curb child trafficking by implying that runaways are more safe with pimps than with child protective services, basing this conclusion on the fact that that’s what trafficked, manipulated sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds say when asked.

Yes, Reason. I can’t think of another serious publication that would report on the Weinstein trafficking allegation in this way: “In this case, Weinstein is accused of using a fraudulent employment opportunity to lure Noble to his hotel room for what he hoped would be quid-pro-quo sex and what turned into a sexual assault.” It appears we have a national problem these days with hoped-for quid-pro-quo sex turning into sexual assault. All those dashed hopes.

Reason has long defended prostitution and turned a blind eye to the trafficking in the sex industry, preferring to champion rights for “sex workers.” And again this past spring, the magazine’s associate editor Elizabeth Nolan Brown penned a cover story accusing the FBI of policing sex in their attempts to save trafficked victims. “Most of the minors found in these crackdowns are not selling sex because someone is forcing them into it,” Brown urges, “but because they have no other palatable options to get by. They need shelter, cash, better care, legit employment, and better prospects all around.” Seemingly blind to how having limited options is fertile ground for coercion and exploitation, Brown paints an empathetic picture of a man named Irick Oneal who was prosecuted for trafficking a fifteen-year-old runaway who says she didn’t want to go back to CPS. Elsewhere, she describes trafficking prosecutions like this: “U.S. prosecutors announced federal indictments against a Missouri man accused of driving an 18-year-old sex worker across state lines and a pair of cousins whose initially consensual pimping of three adult women (including one of the defendants’ girlfriends) had turned abusive.” I suppose the pimp’s hopes were dashed here too.

Such statements reveal an agenda to portray prostitution as based on consensual relations at all costs—even at the cost of overlooking children being sold into slavery. It’s hard to think of another explanation that would gloss over the value of removing a thirteen-year-old girl from traffickers and instead bemoan the arrest of numerous prostituting adults caught in the same sting. “Authorities are routinely taking money set aside to stop child sexual exploitation and using it to find and punish adults, many just a few years past childhood themselves, for private sexual activities,” Brown decries. Who exactly did she think was exploiting the children, if not adults? 

Somewhere along the way, Brown and Reason lose sight of the value of that thirteen-year-old girl. Somehow it’s more important to protect profits than to stop the rape of a girl. Somehow, that girl’s repeated sexual assault, stolen liberty, and damaged health became a cost of doing business, for which the surrounding adults are not accountable.

According to Reason Magazine, if more adults are arrested than minors rescued, it means the entire effort to stop child trafficking is a failure or a farce. It doesn’t strike them as curious that the so-called “sex workers” aren’t fazed by trafficked minors in their midst. Perhaps Reason doesn’t want to investigate that further, because then they’d see that most people working in the sex industry came from backgrounds of sex abuse under eighteen as well. They’d see that many of them also first stumbled into the industry at thirteen or fourteen too. Perhaps many in the sex industry aren’t appalled by child abuse, not because it’s only happening to a rare few of them, but because it’s what most have experienced themselves.

The research bears this out. In a 2003 comprehensive study of 854 prostituted people across nine countries including the United States, researchers found that “71 percent were physically assaulted in prostitution; 63 percent were raped; [and] 89 percent of these respondents wanted to escape prostitution, but did not have other options for survival.” In their analysis, the researchers also found that, “from 55 to 90 percent of prostitutes report a childhood sexual abuse history.” In one study, “70 percent of their interviewees said that childhood sexual abuse had an influence on their entry into prostitution.” The leaders of the comprehensive study further estimate “the average age of recruitment into prostitution in the U.S. is 13-14 years.”

Despite the misinformation, biased sources, and heavy-handed agenda, what I do appreciate from Brown’s pieces at Reason is a call for more leniency for adult females who are arrested for prostitution. She’s right: it would be hypocritical for law enforcement to treat minors caught in prostitution with leniency but to arrest and treat poorly adults who have likely been in prostitution since they were minors. It would be as if law enforcement were convicting those women of the crime of not being caught sooner.

The right way to understand the connections between sexual assault and sex trafficking is analogous to how we should understand Weinstein’s crimes. Weinstein’s many instances of misconduct were not innocent office trysts that turned into assaults. In the same way, trafficking in prostitution is not a consensual sexual affair turned abusive. Weinstein has been revealed to be a serial assaulter, and the sex industry has been found to be recruiting children and teens. People can remain in denial if they wish, but the facts show that in the sex industry—whether prostitution or pornography—these are inherent harms, not incidental ones.

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