Global Change

Even Now Sex Trafficking Remains Frightening

Awareness of human/sex trafficking is critical. Victims are traumatized for life and sometimes lose their lives while criminal syndicates make big money. Greater awareness could lead to better laws, rigorous implementation and other measures that curb this problem.
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human trafficking stencil print on the grunge white brick wall © Yury Zap / shutterstock.com

April 01, 2023 13:12 EDT
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Human trafficking is a topic that boggles the mind of the average person. The ruthlessness of the criminals involved, paired with the horrific experiences of the victims, causes this crime to make headlines rarely. With his book It’s Not About the Sex, author John DiGirolamo turns the spotlight on sex trafficking to educate and inform the public on a subject that has been a blind spot for most of society for way too long.

First, let’s crunch some numbers. In the United States, 57% of sex trafficking victims are under the age of 18, and approximately 300,000 children are at risk of some sort of sexual exploitation. The average age of entry is 12-14 for girls and 11-13 for boys. And the life expectancy of a human trafficking victim is just seven years. One-third of all minor runaways are lured into sex trafficking within the first 48 hours. According to figures from the Family Youth Services Bureau, 1.5 million US juveniles run away from home yearly. And another little-known fact: trafficking a victim is lucrative, generating approximately $300.000 a year, and less risky than the drug trade. DiGirolamo’s book is based on experiences through the eyes of victims, criminals, clients, social workers, and law enforcement personnel in the Denver, Colorado metro area.

Creating awareness through storytelling

Some sex trafficking victims become survivors. And it’s these stories in the book that will provoke the reader.  DiGirolamo provides some breathtaking and horrific examples of the worst of the worst in human behavior.Readers are introduced to various characters, like Ronald, who works for a  law enforcement task force. Compelling case files are brought to life through an insider’s view into the sex trafficking underworld and how criminals are brought to justice. Or take Angela, a girl that was sex trafficked by her pedophile grandfather from the age of five, who miraculously survived and recovered.  Now at the age of 53, she is devoted to sharing her story to empower others. Some victims rarely leave their homes out of fear of getting lured into  sexual slavery and, often, drug addiction. Such is the case with Tessa, who is from an unstable home and is contacted by a trafficker through the video game Minecraft.

One of DiGirolamo’s goals in writing the book is to educate citizens and professionals on how to keep an eye out for signs of human trafficking in daily life.

Valuable tips to recognize and stop human trafficking are shared at the end of It’s Not About the Sex. The book is a must-read for anybody interested in the subject and should be mandatory literature for professionals.

(We have edited this transcript lightly for clarity.)

Philip Fokker: Your daughter is a police officer, inspired you to write your first book, It’s Not About the Badge, correct?

John DiGirolamo: That’s correct.

Philip Fokker: What made you write your second book?

John DiGirolamo: When I was interviewing police officers for my first book, I asked them to tell me about a day at the job they’ll never forget. Also, to make them feel at ease during the interview, I asked them: ‘What would you do when you win the lottery?’ I will never forget one of the law enforcement officers who replied: ‘I would quit my job and hunt down traffickers.’ I knew then that was the direction I wanted to go with my second book. And soon, I realized I knew very little about sex trafficking and figured others were ill-informed on the subject as well. So, I decided to delve into the topic and tell the real story behind the people involved.

Philip Fokker: You quote from Rico’s and Carlo’s [two traffickers in the book – PhF] conversations. How did you gain this information?

John DiGirolamo: I based this on testimony by the police officer involved in the case and other cases he had worked on. What I did, from the book’s perspective, is to take these criminals and create characters from them. The dialogue is not direct but creates a dramatization based on real case files.

Philip Fokker: Did you have access to other law enforcement materials?

John DiGirolamo: Most of it was verbal. I did some research on my own. I needed to operate carefully because the police officer involved is still active and I didn’t want to blow his cover. I would take various case files and combine them in a plot. Most of them were collected through verbal inquiry and I used publicly available court documents as well. The law enforcement perspective was important, but also the flipside, the stories of the criminals involved. So next to court files, I used psychological files on criminals convicted of trafficking. Lastly, I talked to victims of human trafficking, to validate that this is indeed the way these criminals talk and operate.

Philip Fokker: You write that trafficking can generate up to $300,000 a year for a criminal and that the risks are much lower for them than being involved in the drug trade. In your opinion, should law enforcement switch priorities when it comes to these crimes? 

John DiGirolamo: In a sense I do, because we are talking about people. With drugs, you produce it and sell it and it’s done. With people, you traumatize them over and over. But there is a relationship there, these criminals are most of the time also into gun and drug sales. On many occasions, they get their victims hooked on drugs to control them.

Philip Fokker: I find the way you switch perspectives a powerful tool in your book. The bus ticket saleswoman Bethany and the Greyhound clerk in Kiyra’s [a juvenile runaway – PhF] story, make the reader realize that they should be more vigilant. Was this the goal you had in mind while applying this style? And also: did these two eyewitness accounts come from police files?

John DiGirolamo: Those were specifically in the story, to demonstrate that the average person could see something being off. Many people look over the fact that a situation they come across is suspicious. If people don’t understand these signs, trafficking will remain mostly unnoticed, under the radar in society. I got that information by doing research and talking to some of the advocates. An average person that is aware of the signs involved with sex trafficking, could make that one phone call and save a life. Part of the point of this book was to create awareness. The bullet points at the end of the book are included to raise consciousness about the subject

Philip Fokker: What is needed to prevent certain ‘behavior to fall through the cracks of bureaucracy’, as you put it in your book?

John DiGirolamo: I mean, it starts with education. Hopefully, people become aware and be motivated to solve this problem worldwide. One of the NGOs I spoke to said that a lot of times a victim could see a person during the time the abuse was taking place, without them noticing anything being off. People need to be diligent. Next to that, I believe that the elephant in the room is the current culture. Contemporary cultural influences make it look ok to pay for sex. If there would be no demand for this, there would be no crime.

Philip Fokker: Potential clients should be more aware of the pain and misery they inflict on these trafficked people, do you mean? Or do you think that in the US – where prostitution is mostly illegal – citizens that pay for sex are already morally adrift? What would raise awareness among people that are potentially willing to pay for sex?

John DiGirolamo: In some cases, and some states, people will just be given a ticket when getting caught. But if law enforcement arrests somebody, they are being interviewed and put in the system, making repetition less attractive. One of the things that came out of my research is that some people who ‘buy’ another person for sex, are already dehumanizing themselves and the victim. 

Dehumanization of both the victim and the client plays a large role in the transaction of sex trafficking. Victims tell me that they have to shut off mentally during the abuse. And through researching the psyche of the clients, I found that they dehumanize the victim to deal with possible feelings of guilt. Most of the clients are what we would call ‘normal people’ who, according to law enforcement, are trying to make their crime sound ok, coming up with excuses for themselves such as: “I’m not doing it to my daughter, I’m doing it to a stranger.”

And like I said before, modern culture feeds these trends: the rise of pornography usage for example. The individualization of society makes intimate relations less deep and meaningful and sex, in many cases, pure physical. Our culture worsens trafficking, with people reenacting scenes they have seen online. I mean: It’s a lot harder to be mean to somebody face-to-face than while behind a keyboard. It’s this kind of removal from reality that is also being applied by clients paying for sex.

Philip Fokker: Do you have any idea in how many cases a trafficker gets convicted?

John DiGirolamo: I don’t have an exact number. But people in law enforcement tell me it’s hard to get these criminals prosecuted, because of two reasons: many victims don’t want to come forward and a lot of manpower is needed to successfully close a case. One law enforcement officer from the Denver area told me that they work 100 cases a year, adding that they could be working on 1,000 if they had the manpower. 

In Colorado, they recently made the laws on trafficking much tougher. Because of this, one criminal received a 400-year conviction. But, as I mentioned before, convictions take multiple witnesses and a lot of resources. Sadly, the “defunding the police” trend from the last few years, does not help victims, to say the least. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 658 persons were convicted of a ‘federal human trafficking offense’ in 2020.

Philip Fokker: Erlinda’s case, in which a mother and her daughter fall victim to traffickers, is very well researched and should maybe be mandatory reading for every police officer in training, in my opinion. How did you research this case?

John DiGirolamo: This particular case was brought to my attention by a police officer and especially shows the ruthlessness of these criminals. By murdering in front of the petrified women, they showed them that they were not bluffing when it came to their threats. Sadly, both the mother and daughter were killed violently by the criminals later on. Again, setting an example for other girls that witnessed the murder. 

Philip Fokker: On a more hopeful note: the stories of Angela Rae and Jessica are very empowering. What can you tell us about these stories and why did you choose to include them in the book?

John DiGirolamo: So, I definitely wanted the stories of survivors and not only victims in the book. And I wanted somebody that was not too young, someone who went through a long recovery and healing process. Angela’s story is about persevering in the face of adversity. Her story tells how someone can deal with even the most horrific abuse. When I talked to her, she had just come out with her story. She was 53 and had the perspective and experience I was looking for. With her experience, she could voice the needs of survivors. 

Hopefully, other victims and survivors feel that they as well can overcome the heartache and nightmares. Angela found that in the end, being able to forgive her grandfather, who pimped her out to fellow pedophiles as a child, was for her own good. When I spoke to her, she told me that she had a nightmare about the abuse two days before. And that in the past she would be upset about this for a day, and now only for about ten minutes. Her lesson: it never leaves you, but you can learn to manage the trauma.

Jessica’s story comes from a whole other perspective. What I wanted to show with her story is how certain aspects of our culture promote sexual relations with underaged children. One of the girls in her story is forced to pose in a Hello Kitty outfit, for example. That’s how some pornography is now portrayed. This fuels a certain desire in the people watching it. If you look at studies on pornography, most kids are about ten years old when they first encounter pornography. 

It’s not like finding an old Playboy magazine, like in the pre-internet era. Getting exposed to hardcore porn at a young age rewires the brain. It distorts the view of people that are depicted in porn as if they are just there to please the viewer. So, Jessica’s case is really about culture. Also, I liked her coming back to God. Going down the bottom of the barrel before being able to lift yourself. She is now very open about her time as a porn actress, madam and prostitute, and a spokesperson against pornography and trafficking.

Philip Fokker: What are you currently working on?

John DiGirolamo: I’m working on various stories, with the theme ‘people who fight evil’. I just finished the story of a police officer that poses as a 12-year-old girl online and meets guys that want to hook up with her at a hotel. So, you can imagine this officer has some compelling stories to share.

Philip Fokker: Any last thoughts?

John DiGirolamo: Some more statistics, which I hope help raise awareness: 60% of sex trafficking cases happen through someone within the kids’ social network. Only 5% of the cases involve kidnapping. Predators nowadays are operating mostly online, like the girl in my book that meets a guy playing Minecraft. These kids are obsessed with reaching 1,000 followers or ‘friends’. And society doesn’t see this as a problem. But maybe that’s just because the average parent does not realize that out of these 1,000 “friends,” some are predators. 

[Readers can buy this book on Amazon.]
[Naveed Ahsan edited this interview.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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