Sex trafficking hardly ever looks like 'Taken' — it's a subtle 'mental tether' that's shockingly common

  • Prosecutors in New York recently charged Jeffrey Epstein, the multi-millionaire fund manager with ties to elites across politics, finance, and media, with sex trafficking and conspiracy to commit sex trafficking.
  • Epstein had an elite set of friends across finance, politics, and entertainment, but nobody spoke up about his alleged crimes.
  • Many believe sex trafficking doesn’t occur in the US,but thousands of cases are reported each year.
  • Traffickers are deftly able to keep their activities out of the spotlight by creating shadowy networks to transport victims from country to country.
  • Some minors can be sex trafficked without even missing school or family time.
  • Follow along with Business Insider’s coverage of the case against Epstein.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

The US attorney in the Southern District of New York recently charged Jeffrey Epstein, the multi-millionaire hedge fund manager with ties to elites across politics, finance, and media, with sex trafficking and conspiracy to commit sex trafficking.

The federal indictment alleges that Epstein molested girls as young as 14 in an operation that ran at least from 2002 to 2005, with dozens of girls said to be victimized.

Epstein aligned himself with dozens of high-profile friends, including presidents, top scientists, financiers, and entertainers, all of whom deny any involvement with his alleged trafficking or even witnessing it.

USfederal law refers to sex trafficking as any commercial sex act that is “induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age.”

This means paying for any sex act by a person under 18 counts as sex trafficking.

How the movies get it wrong

Fox screencap

Movies like “Taken” offer a sensational account of sex trafficking, where a young woman is physically dragged and sold into slavery at a high-profile auction for rich elites.

But in reality, sex trafficking often doesn’t look like the sex trafficking we see in movies. It happens at bus stations, at schools, and anywhere vulnerable people are found.

Economically and socially marginalized people who lack representation and access to services are most vulnerable to traffickers.

For minors, like the dozens Epstein allegedly trafficked into sex work, sex trafficking sometimes doesn’t even require them to miss school or family time.Epstein’s home, where many of the alleged sexual encounters occurred, is pictured above in Palm Beach.Emily Michot/Miami Herald/TNS via Getty

“I’ve seen a number of cases where the girl was still going to school everyday, Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco, the US’s leading expert witness on cases of sex trafficking, told Business Insider.

The relationship between the sex trafficker and the exploited minor is often “a mental tether and not a physical chain,” she said.

“Once manipulated” by the sex trafficker, “she can be in any social space and still be exploited but not see herself as a victim,” she continued.

Mehlman-Orozco’s depiction of trafficked minors lines up closely to the pattern of victim blaming often seen in victims of the crime. With victims too young to understand that they’re being manipulated and used, they often tragically blame themselves or cover for their abuser.

A criminal underbelly right below the surface

It’s estimated that there are around4.5 million victims of sex trafficking across the world. And though it’s difficult to know just how many people are involved in sex trafficking in the US, the Polaris Project, a non-profit dedicated to ending human trafficking, received more than 34,000 reports of sex trafficking on its Human Trafficking Hotline between 2007 and 2017.

End Slavery Now, an anti-human trafficking and slavery organization, estimates many of those trafficked into the US come from countries like Mexico, the Philippines, Thailand, Honduras, Guatemala, India and El Salvador. But experts say that plenty of sex trafficking victims are from the US, too.

“Some people always think trafficking involves some kind of movement,” Ronald Weitzer, a professor at Georgetown University and an expert on sex trafficking, told Business Insider.

“All it requires is recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a minor for commercial sex acts irrespective of whether coercion was involved,” he continued.

Even if the minor wants to engage in paid sex acts with an adult, US prosecutors do not need to prove any kind of force or deception to get a conviction.

An open secret about a ‘creepy old guy’

Associated Press

Michelle Licata, who alleges Epstein molested her when she was 16, described a kind of open secret in the town around his Palm Beach home, where students her age would talk about a “creepy old guy” paying for massages that became sexual encounters,the Miami Herald reported.

Licata remarked that she and her friends were particularly vulnerable because they came from poorer families.

From the Herald:

“We were stupid, poor children,” said one woman, who did not want to be named because she never told anyone about Epstein. At the time, she said, she was 14 and a high school freshman.

“We just wanted money for school clothes, for shoes. I remember wearing shoes too tight for three years in a row. We had no family and no guidance, and we were told that we were going to just have to sit in a room topless and he was going to just look at us. It sounded so simple, and was going to be easy money for just sitting there.”

But the millions sex trafficked around the world don’t look like they do in movies. These people, often minors, can lead normal lives and pass through normal places, jobs, and homes.

The sex trafficking that goes on in the US largely takes place in a criminal underbelly ubiquitous in US cities and communities, which millions of Americans, for whatever reason, turn a blind eye to daily.

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