Experts Explain Driving Factors Behind Human Trafficking in the U.S.

Published: 10 February 2023

Massage SignMassage parlors are a highly lucrative enterprise in the human trafficking industry, generating approximately $2.5 billion per year in the U.S.. (Photo: City Walkr, Flickr, License)

By Henry Pope

Human traffickers in the United States are making billions in annual profits, but money is not their only motive. Sometimes it’s the urge to sexually control and dominate women in spiritual communities.

One way or the other, sexual assault is ingrained within human trafficking, experts say.

Take illicit massage parlors - perhaps the most prevalent form of abuse, according to Ian Gary, Executive Director of the FACT Coalition, a U.S.-based non-governmental organization dedicated to combating illicit financial activity.

In a 2018 report by FACT member Polaris, Gary pointed out that more than 9,000 of these businesses exist throughout every state in the U.S., with their earnings totaling nearly US$2.5 billion per year.

What makes the industry so dangerous is how it ingrains a deep sense of fear and intimidation into its victims, coercing them into silence and dissuading them from seeking help.

For starters, many of those who become trapped are already under extreme financial pressure; in some cases, their traffickers need only entice them with the prospect of a livable wage to have them offer up their bodies willingly.

Once they begin work, force is rarely needed to keep them from seeking freedom. As almost all of those trafficked into the U.S. for sexual purposes originate from South-East Asia, victims face multiple obstacles including language barriers and a complete dissociation from societal norms.

Add to that how more often it is the victims, rather than the owners, of massage parlors who are arrested in police raids, and it is easy for traffickers to impose a sense of helplessness into their workers and manipulate them into relying on their very captors for safety.

What allows this sect of the human trafficking industry to thrive, Gary said, is the ease in which its perpetrators can launder their billions in ill-gotten gains.

“Too often,” he told OCCRP, “the proceeds of international human trafficking operations end up hidden in the American financial system due to industry-sized gaps in our nation’s anti-money laundering framework.”

In the U.S., money launderers are at a distinct advantage in that there are several industries through which they can make large transactions and transfers without fear of financial authorities flagging them for a suspicious activity report.

“Traffickers and other criminals have many tools,” Gary said, “from the use of anonymous shell entities to hide their true identities, to investments in underregulated sectors of the economy like real estate, private equity, and cryptocurrency markets – with which to hide and wash the proceeds of their crimes.”

In many cases, massage parlor owners also operate other cash businesses such as nail salons and dry cleaners; these profits can be filtered through the massage parlors’ books to give them a false image of legitimacy.

He added that “the ease by which bad actors can insulate themselves from legal and financial harm through secrecy mechanisms like shell companies” is a driving force behind the industry’s viability.

Almost 75% of illicit massage parlors registered in the U.S. do not have a real person listed on their incorporation forms, Gary noted. Combined with the fact that it is notoriously difficult to determine the ownership of international shipping vessels—much like the ones used to traffic victims into the U.S.—and the entire chain appears to be well-insulated from police interference.

But that is not to say that sex trafficking need only be tied to labor; there are other motivators that traffickers can be driven by, claims Carol Merchasin of McAllister Olivarius, an international law firm that specializes in handling cases of discrimination and abuse.

Her work, which pertains to legal cases involving sexual misconduct in religious communities, has brought her into contact with survivors across a number of spiritual movements.

Any instance where a person is “fraudulently offered or coerced into performing a sex act as a condition of their ‘spiritual development’” could lead to a human trafficking claim, she told OCCRP.

She explained that, in her legal work, it is common for a victim to be “coerced into sex because it is disguised as a religious practice” or that “an authoritarian leader will make the fraudulent claim that performing a sex act will lead to ‘spiritual enlightenment.’”

“I would say that authoritarian leaders of cults, religious and spiritual communities can be charged with human trafficking when they use their authority and the promise of spiritual benefit to entice or recruit their members to have sex with them,” Merchasin said.

She added that, in these instances, it is not the threat of force by which victims become entrapped, but rather the will of “an authoritarian leader whose authority cannot be questioned.”

Add that to the isolation such communities are situated in—away from the prying eyes of society and law enforcement—and you suddenly find yourself in an environment where human trafficking and sexual assault can go unreported for decades, Merchasin said.

For those who do manage to escape, their road to recovery is by no means a simple one, regardless of the circumstances that led them to be trafficked in the first place.

“Often survivors do not have any family support network,” said Hilda Fernandez, CEO of Camillus House, a nonprofit in Miami that helps human trafficking survivors re-enter society by helping them manage their PTSD and by emotionally preparing those who might one day confront their former captors in court.

She explained to OCCRP that this lack of support can stem from a variety of factors. But more often than not, it’s because survivors feel there is a stigma that comes from being trafficked; especially in cases where they were sexually exploited.

Multiple behavioral health issues can pursue them for years after they’ve managed to regain their freedom, Fernandez added. Apart from suffering from PTSD, survivors can develop severe substance abuse and depressive disorders.

The U.S. Department of State estimates that human trafficking has claimed over 27 million victims worldwide; meanwhile, the current Biden Administration acknowledged that while victims can hail from a variety of backgrounds, a disproportionate number belong to marginalized communities.

Still, that is not to say that authorities have nothing in mind to combat this illicit industry.

Gary noted that the recently passed Corporate Transparency Act “will begin unmasking anonymous shell companies that have enabled labor exploitation and sex trafficking.”

“Any holistic approach to combating human trafficking and other widespread transnational crimes,” he told OCCRP, “has to tackle head-first the systems of corruption and the illicit financial flows that empower and enrich those crimes’ perpetrators.”

Also on the table is the proposed ENABLERS Act, which, if passed, will give U.S. authorities the power to scrutinize all financial transactions flagged as potentially linked to money laundering activity.

The Biden Administration, meanwhile, released in December 2021 a National Action Plan to Combat Human Trafficking that will aim to prosecute perpetrators and protect survivors.

This will include federal agencies providing survivors with legal representation, affordable housing, and trauma care; things that Merchasin believes are critical to their recovery.

“I have encountered many people whose lives have been destroyed by sexual assaults,” she told OCCRP, “but I have also seen how those people have rediscovered their true identity and voice when they understand that what happened to them was wrong, and that the law stands behind them.”