By L.A. Williams, Correspondent
Christian Action League
March 7, 2013
RALEIGH — Some describe prostitution as the “world’s oldest profession,” but Lindsey Robertson with the New Hanover County District Attorney’s Office told a Joint Legislative Meeting on Sex Trafficking this week that it’s truly the world’s “oldest oppression.”
Addressing the group at the request of Sen. Thom Goolsby (R-New Hanover) on Wednesday, Robertson is among a growing group of advocates, including the Christian Action League, who are working together to battle human trafficking in North Carolina with tighter legislation and what she called a shift toward demand-side economics.
Robertson explained North Carolina’s need for a Safe Harbor law, which simply means girls under age 18 would not be charged with prostitution, but would instead be treated as victims. She said New York was a frontrunner in such legislation, realizing that young teens used for sex shouldn’t be “thrown back into volatile and vulnerable situations,” but that they should be given resources and helped to escape. She said that although trafficking laws consider anyone under 18 a de facto victim, North Carolina’s prostitution laws are age neutral, so girls as young as 16 can be charged.
“There is confusion for law enforcement, confusion for prosecutors,” she explained. “Do we treat them as criminals, or victims?”
She said the average age of entry into prostitution is 13 in the United States meaning some 16-, 17-, and 18-year-olds have already been in the life for several years and may not even consider themselves victims, although they are.
“You encounter them and there’s this idea that they are going to run into the arms of law enforcement and scream, ‘Save me! Help me!’ They are not,” Robertson said. “They believe they are loved; they believe they are part of a family; and they believe this person who is selling their body for money is their lover, is their boyfriend, is their father, is their provider. And so that’s a really hard thing to wrap your brain around, but that’s a reality.”
She said working with trafficking victims had made her realize that the “invisible prison of the mind” was just as forceful as any locked doors or chains. She also said that a Safe Harbor law would bring North Carolina’s prostitution statutes in line with human trafficking laws.
Secondly, Robertson said pimping must be made a felony to help reduce the appeal of the trafficking business and to encourage law enforcement to take the crimes seriously and district attorneys to fully prosecute them.
“Who we’re really talking about, day in and day out, who are being trafficked in this state is 17, 18 and 19 year old girls. … So we want to change the pimping statute, so that men who are pimping these girls out or pandering these girls out or selling these girls for money, most of the time on the Internet, are charged with a felony,” she said.
“If you are not all familiar with Backpage.com you should become familiar with backpage.com. It makes $22 million a year for its owners by selling girls online.” Robertson said, describing the sex trade as the second most lucrative criminal enterprise in the world, sandwiched between drugs and gun trafficking.
“Why is that?” she prodded. “How many times can I sell a drug? Once. How many times can I sell a gun? A few times, three or four times? How many times can I sell a human being for sex? Thirty, 40, 50 times a day. … It’s possible. It happens, 15 minutes a pop, $180 dollars and it goes straight into the trafficker’s pocket.”
She said tightening the laws against men who buy sex and stiffening penalties for pimping would lessen the demand side and send traffickers looking elsewhere for a commodity in which to trade.
“Now, a lot of drug runners turn to trafficking in humans, because they realize if they sell drugs they are in ‘federal prosecution land’ and ‘I’m going to jail like all my buddies,’” Robertson explained. She said they think that if they sell a girl who is 18 and has a drug problem, “nobody cares.”
“They think, ‘If anybody is getting prosecuted, it’s her and I tell her that every single day in case she forgets,” she said.
Robertson concluded by challenging perceptions about human trafficking and asking lawmakers and others concerned about the issue to rid their minds of images of “some girl chained up in a basement in Thailand.“
The reality, she said, is that 80 to 90 percent of the women who end up in the life were sexually abused as children. Seventy percent were in the foster care system. And within 48 hours of running away from an abusive family situation or foster care situation, one in three girls will be sexually exploited or trafficked.
“Once it happens once, they are marked and it’s so easy to be exploited again. It becomes a way of life,” she added.
Sen. Goolsby wrapped up the meeting with a list of potential ideas for other laws that could help address human trafficking, including everything from impounding vehicles of those involved in pimping to cracking down on hotels that may be aiding and abetting the crime by providing a place for it to happen.
Although he warned that lawmakers and victims’ advocates shouldn’t “bite off too much” at once, he said each aspect of the crime should be considered.
“We need to go after everybody who is involved in making money in this process,” he added.
The Christian Action League’s Sarah Bowman supplied those at the meeting with a handout echoing Robertson’s main points.
“We came to the issue really strongly in the beginning of 2012 and I had conversations with many of the folks in the room today,” Bowman said. “We fully support the things Lindsey has spoken about.”
Rev. Mark Creech, the League’s executive director, said Bowman and the CAL would continue to work with PATH (Partners Against Trafficking Humans) as well as other advocacy groups and lawmakers to help get North Carolina off the top 10 list for states with human trafficking.
Other organizations represented at the Joint Meeting included Innocence at Risk, the N.C. Department of Public Safety, Justice Matters NC, the N.C. Family Policy Council, the N.C. Values Coalition, the N.C. Justice Center, the Salvation Army, and Woman’s Club of Raleigh.