Important Voices: The Issue of Human Trafficking
Illustration by Shelby Hohl
It’s been a few years since we as a paper addressed the issue of human trafficking, although it has never left our minds or office dialog. In the past we’ve written multiple articles questioning entities such as Village Voice Media, Backpage.com, and the Houston Press in what we viewed as their participatory role in perpetuating sex trafficking in our community.
The Polaris Project defines human trafficking as, “…a form of modern slavery — a multi-billion dollar criminal industry that denies freedom to 20.9 million people around the world.” This loss of basic human rights is happening in our community in really horrific ways every single day. We see it throughout the entire service industry, from massage parlors to restaurant kitchens. Think about that — everyday when you wake up, have some breakfast, waste time on Imgur, go to work, waste more time on Imgur, drive home in our horrible traffic, walk your dog, spend just a few more hours on Imgur over a beer at a bar and then finally call it night and head for bed — countless human beings are simultaneously being forced into situations where their labor and bodies are exploited for profits. In Houston, there are women who are raped repeatedly in massage parlors and cantinas. Women who were brought here under false pretenses and forced into slavery once they arrived. The same women who are being advertised online and in the back of newspapers — because capitalism.
Although the ads in the back of these papers and online spaces were technically legal, we posed a moral question to them nearly five years ago and begged them to put in place stricter guidelines when considering which ads they accepted money from. We never received a response to our articles, but we did notice a sharp decline in massage parlor ads in the back of the Houston Press since we started reporting on this issue. In late 2023, when we first began researching the link between sex trafficking and massage parlors in Houston, we counted over 20 ads in the Houston Press. As of October 2023, only one massage parlor ad remained in their back pages. It’s difficult to determine whether this decline was an active decision the HP made to start phasing them out, or if the parlors wised up and figured out it wasn’t smart to take out an advertisement on women you are holding hostage in a city that recently started passing laws directed at cracking down on their activity. Either way, we are happy to see that the ads have mostly disappeared.
We decided to reopen this conversation a few months back and as we were preparing to send this article to print, something unthinkable happened. In early October of this year, Backpage.com Chief Executive Officer, Carl Ferrer, was arrested in a Houston airport as he walked off of a returning flight from Amsterdam. Ferrer, along with Backpage’s founders and controlling shareholders Michael Lacey and James Larkin, were all brought up on felony pimping charges by a California Supreme Court after a three-year joint investigation concluded in Texas and California. That same day the Texas Attorney General Law Enforcement Unit raided the Backpage headquarters in Dallas, Texas. Ferrer may be extradited to California where he will face multiple charges including pimping a minor. As of this report, Lacey and Larkin were not in custody, but their arrest warrants have been issued. This is big fucking deal and although the Tea-Party backed Texas Attorney General, Ken Paxton, was indicted on fraud charges late last year, it was rather enjoyable to see him take down predators that were clearly aware of their role in profiting off the rape and enslavement of people in our communities.
Just two days prior to charges being announced against Backpage, an all too familiar news report came out. On October 5, 2023, a federal indictment charged 17 people with operating an international sex trafficking ring between the U.S. and Thailand. The indicted ringleaders were responsible for trafficking hundreds of women throughout 11 identified states, including through Houston, Dallas, and Austin. As we’ve reported before, most trafficking victims — who in Houston often end up being held captive in massage parlors and cantinas — are brought here under false pretenses and are then forced to spend their days being raped by johns who paid their captors for sex. The money that is made off of these victims is kept by the traffickers until their “debt” is paid off. Their “debt” can include things like $40,000 to $60,000 for providing them “transportation” to the states, to exorbitant fees for necessary items like underwear and tampons, to covering the cost of breast augmentation to ensure their appeal to American clients. Ultimately, this creates an endless cycle of debt meant to keep them enslaved to their captors as long as possible.
News articles from law enforcement reporting the dismantling of trafficking rings have become routine throughout the country, especially here in Houston, as we as a nation and city begin to deal with this prevalent travesty. In Houston, we’ve seen multiple reports of trafficking rings being taken down by law enforcement. These news reports lead most readers to cringe at the thought of what survivors of these organizations must have endured and applaud our city officials and officers for a job well done. While we should credit our city leaders for creating an unprecedented city-specific human trafficking task force, often doing the best they can with the funding they receive, opening an ongoing dialog that questions the way we approach and combat human trafficking is critical and necessary.
Currently we operate using a fragmented response from law enforcement, city officials, non-profits, and religious advocates, all attempting to coordinate a strategic response. With so many entities with different funding sources and ideas on how to combat trafficking, it makes sense that we are struggling to build a cohesive and effective model. This critique is not just Houston-specific; the same, often ineffective response we are facing as a city is present in communities throughout the country, and even the world for that matter. But since Houston has been identified as a hub for trafficking, and as our city leaders attempt to create and implement new approaches, now more than ever is our chance as a community to come together and help with this process.
The bulk of funding and response to human trafficking flows to and from law enforcement, which has always felt strange and left an uneasy, sour feeling in the pit of my stomach. It is rather difficult to comprehend how or why we would expect anything but more trauma for survivors of trafficking if their main source of “support” is born out of a criminal justice system as broken as ours. The funding should find its way to a new system that focuses on a holistic response, not a “tough on crime” one. We need social workers, not cops. We need safe spaces, not jails. We need survivor voices, not press conferences. We will continue to fail at our attempts to respond to this massive problem until we recognize the ways in which our response often perpetuates more trauma.
The most important voices that often seem to be missing from the dialog are those of human trafficking survivors. How can we expect to build a model to defeat trafficking if everyone sitting around creating and implementing policy has predominately read statistics about it but never lived it? This disconnect might explain how we ended up relying on such a law enforcement heavy model. It’s time we begin to look at this issue from a social standpoint and not a criminal one. We need advocacy groups who understand human trafficking and how it relates to intersectionality and trauma. We could go a step further and point out that many human trafficking advocacy groups also do a rather poor job of including survivors in leadership roles as well. We should stop treating survivors as people in need of protecting and start including them in spaces where they can contribute and cultivate a working model to defeat trafficking, thus providing them the opportunity to heal by taking back the power that was stolen from them while in captivity.
There are multiple ways we can come together as a community around this issue. Everyone has something to contribute, even if you think this issue is way outside of your purview. It’s not, we promise. The only way we stand a chance at building an effective model to address human trafficking is if more of us contribute. But before we discuss what role we could collectively fill, we need to take a moment to clarify something. This multifaceted issue is difficult to dissect and often feels impossible to separate from prostitution. This is proven and reinforced every time the media reports on this issue and refers to sex trafficking as “forced prostitution.” This dichotomy that we play into gives the impression that there is such a thing as a “good” prostitute — one who was forced into this world and deserves sympathy — and a “bad” prostitute — one who has chosen this world and should be shamed and treated like a criminal. The rhetoric we use when discussing this issue is important and defines not just how we think about it, but ultimately how we tackle it.
So we want to be crystal clear on the following point: Here at the Free Press Houston, we in no way want to be demonize sex workers. We strongly disagree with any group — law enforcement, religious or otherwise — who uses their fight against sex trafficking as a way to attack or criminalize sex workers. It’s important to understand the difference between human trafficking and consensual sex work. As we continue the conversation and coverage of this issue, we want to be upfront about the fact that we support the decriminalization of prostitution. We agree with human rights organizations such as Amnesty International, the United Nations, Human Rights Watch, and the World Health Organization who advocate for decriminalization to protect the human rights of sex workers. Decriminalization is a necessary and, frankly, logical step we can take in support of women and men having full rights over their bodies, while also providing a safer space to conduct business in an environment free of the fear of being criminalized or assaulted with no real recourse.
This isn’t to say that every sex worker is an empowered being taking a stand for their rights or sexuality. We understand that sex work is also often born out of the need to survive, and people in this situation may or may not think of themselves as activists. But regardless of what Gloria Steinem and White feminists think they know about sex work, the need still exists to stop stigmatizing and shaming sex workers by keeping them underground in potentially dangerous working conditions. To connect these dots, decriminalization would create a safe space for sex workers to report trafficking when they see it. Legalization would also free up funds and energy to focus on fighting trafficking and providing services to survivors, not to mention the potential for what happens when you bring an industry above ground, causing the pipeline of trafficking to lose some of its monetary value. Bottom line, decriminalization is one way we could help members of two of our most marginalized groups.
That said, as we continue this fight and dialog against trafficking we hope that you will consider what role you personally could play in tackling this issue on a local level. Maybe you’re an artist who could help coordinate an art show that brings awareness to this issue. Or you work at a local coffee shop or bar that might be interested in hosting a fundraiser for one of the many advocacy groups focused on this issue. Or possibly consider putting together a community night where you invite a panel of speakers to come educate you and your neighbors, preferably finding groups that offer survivors the chance to come speak about their thoughts and ideas on how to combat this issue instead of always having someone else speak for them. Over the next year we are going to be looking at helping facilitate some of these events and would love to hear from you if you have an idea on how to bring together our community around the issue of human trafficking.
by Amanda Hart