There is much written lately about sex trafficking. For those of you who are not familiar, it is in essence human trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation.

Perpetrators of the crime are called sex traffickers or pimps—people who manipulate victims to engage in various forms of commercial sex with paying customers.

They use force, fraud and coercion to recruit, transport and provide their victims as prostitutes, creating situations of financial or emotional dependency on their traffickers. Not surprisingly, the traffickers prey on those with a history of mental, physical and sexual abuse.

Sex trafficking occurs everywhere: in hotels, truck stops, through online escort services, massage businesses, strip clubs, and the streets. The internet has been found to be the major strategic tool used to recruit sex trafficking victims.

Personal ads, chat rooms, pornography sites and massage business websites are used to post advertisements for sex-related work, and predators find vulnerable girls and boys to lure them into the sex industry. It's also no surprise that minors are the most vulnerable population to become sex slaves.

It's also extremely lucrative. In 2014, the Urban Institute stated the underground sex slave economy is up to $40 million annually in Denver, and $290 million in Atlanta. These are old figures but they illustrate the point.

There are numerous statutes that criminalize the behavior. There's the Trafficking Victims Protection Act and the U.S. Senate and House bills known as the FOSTA-SESTA package, which amended the Communications Decency Act to exclude enforcement of federal and state sex trafficking laws from the safe harbors of the Communications Decency Act, to name a few.

I had the honor and privilege of testifying before Congress in 2015 in support of the legislation. I am also very proud of the work we did at the Department of Children and Families during my tenure as commissioner to shine a light on this scourge.

We worked with the legislature to enact Connecticut's Trafficking of Minor Children's Law (CGS sec 17a-06f), which allowed the department to deploy staff, expend resources, provide services, and treat victims; the department sponsored training and put on seminars; and I personally met with police departments and prosecutors (state and federal) to identify and prosecute perpetrators who preyed on the youth we identified and rescued.

Nevertheless, and despite efforts by many over several years, human nature being what it is, sex trafficking still thrives.

Currently in Manhattan federal court the jury is deliberating the fate of Ghislaine Maxwell, who has been charged with six counts relating to accusations that she facilitated the sexual exploitation of girls for her longtime companion, Jeffrey Epstein.

The six counts center on the accounts of four accusers: one count of enticement of a minor to travel to engage in illegal sex acts, in which Maxwell allegedly coerced one minor to travel from Florida to New York, between 1994 and 1997, to engage in sex acts with Epstein; one count of transportation of a minor with intent to engage in illegal sex acts, which accuses Maxwell of bringing a second girl from Florida to New York on numerous occasions; one count of sex trafficking of a minor, which charges that between 2001 and 2004, Maxwell recruited, enticed and transported a third girl to engage in at least one commercial sex act with Epstein; and three counts of conspiracy, which are related to the other counts and involve accusations that Maxwell worked with Epstein to secure underage girls for sex acts. When she was arrested in July 2020, Maxwell was also charged with two counts of perjury, accusing her of lying under oath in 2016 during depositions for a lawsuit related to Epstein, the court granted the defense's request to sever the perjury counts, which will be tried separately. Maxwell could face a very lengthy prison term if convicted.

What is different about this case from most others that have gotten press coverage is that this case involves someone in the trade called "a bottom girl, bottom woman, or bottom bitch," which is a term for a prostitute who sits atop the hierarchy of prostitutes working for a particular pimp. A bottom girl is usually the prostitute who has been with the pimp the longest and consistently makes the most money.

Traditionally, being the bottom girl gives the prostitute status and power over the other women working for her pimp. The bottom girl may also bear many responsibilities, as we've read about in this case, and she may indeed have started out herself as a prostitute. In fact, in several federal cases, "bottom bitch" has been defined by government experts as the pimp's most trusted prostitute, responsible for recruiting, collecting money, and possibly disciplining other prostitutes.

The idea of victim turned perpetrator finds support in the prevalence of women as sex traffickers as suggested by a  study by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, which revealed that women make up the largest proportion of such criminals; in 30% of the countries that provided information on the gender of traffickers, women make up the largest proportion of traffickers. In some parts of the world, women trafficking women is the norm.

There is also anecdotal evidence that increasing numbers of female traffickers are involved in the trafficking of the most vulnerable victims, those under 18, as well as low-ranking activities that have a higher risk of detection by police.

Furthermore, according to the report, the most common form of human trafficking (79%) is sexual exploitation, and the victims of sexual exploitation are predominantly women and girls. The control mechanisms used by female traffickers are particularly psychologically brutal as the victims often describe how much they trusted the women and how shocked and betrayed they felt when they were subsequently deceived and exploited. As we heard in the Maxwell trial, even when the main trafficker is male, the victims were often lured into a sense of security. Women then, in essence may be more dangerous than their male counterparts.

Maxwell's defense was that she became a government scapegoat following Epstein's suicide in a Manhattan federal jail cell while awaiting a sex trafficking trial. She also argued that the memories of her accusers had been corrupted by the passage of time and the influence of lawyers steering them toward multimillion-dollar payouts from a fund set up to compensate Epstein victims.

But to me, the importance of this trial transcends the specifics. It is not just whether the jury believes the four women who gave their personal stories of Maxwell's role in facilitating Epstein's abuse that began when they were under 18. I am loath to simply highlight stories about cases that involve rich white privileged people when many more trafficking cases involve women of color. Rather what matters most is the light that has been placed on women, who themselves have likely been severely abused becoming part of the problem.

The legislature acknowledged this when it amended C.G.S. Sec. 54-95c, allowing judges in their discretion to vacate misdemeanor and class C, D, and E felony convictions as well as unclassified felony convictions carrying a term of imprisonment of not more than 10 years if the defendant proves she was a victim herself of trafficking in persons pursuant to Sec. 53a-192a.

But at the end of the day, I admit that I want women to be better. So as part of my wishes for 2022, along with ending climate change and world poverty, I will wish for a time when sex trafficking ceases to exist and I get to lose sleep over how many angels  can  dance on the head of a pin.

Originally published by the Connecticut Law Tribune

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