Sex is a reusable commodity, which means perpetrators of human trafficking stand to make lots of money off of victims without a lot of financial reinvestment, according to Missoula Police detective Guy Baker.
That, coupled with a strong demand and not-so-tough penalties, is why human trafficking ranks only behind drug trafficking as the largest criminal enterprise in the world, he said.
Speaking about the issue of human sex trafficking to the City Club Missoula luncheon on Monday at the DoubleTree Hotel, Baker said he’s worked dozens of cases in the Missoula area since 2015.
“I can’t think of another criminal activity that has more misperceptions about it,” he said. The most common myth, he said, is that sex trafficking victims are simply “prostitutes” who have made the choice. Baker said that while some prostitutes benefit financially from that activity and have made the choice to do so, it’s not the case with sex trafficking victims.
“A human trafficking victim is being coerced to engage in commercial sex, and the other person who coerced them is benefiting,” he said.
He said many people have an image in their mind of girls being chained to beds somewhere when they think of human sex trafficking.
“But actually, in reality, the chains are not bound to the wrist,” Baker said. “The chains are on the mind.”
Sex traffickers use a variety of methods to coerce victims into selling their bodies, including physical and emotional intimidation and manipulation. Shame and a lack of family ties keep the victims in the cycle.
“Many are persuaded to engage in commercial sex by false promises,” he said.
He knows of two young girls in Missoula who went online and were persuaded by people outside of Montana to board airplanes because of all the promises they heard.
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Baker said Montana has made a lot of progress in addressing the issue, including the passage of House Bill 89 in 2015 that revised human trafficking laws in the state.
Still, he’d like to see more done. He said he believes buyers of commercial sex should get a felony on their second solicitation, for example.
He believes the average age of sex trafficking victims is about 14, and said a large percentage of prostitutes become victims of sex trafficking when they’re minors.
One thing that could make a big difference, according to Baker, is for cops to talk to teen runaways more instead of just citing them. Kids who run away from home are likely to become victims of human sex trafficking, and speaking with them about the problems they face at home could prevent that.
“We’re really missing the boat when law enforcement doesn’t take the time to show compassion and empathy instead of just citing them,” he said. “We could find more victims of familial sexual assault. And 40 percent of minor victims of sex trafficking have already been in the system.”
Common customers include oil industry workers, military personnel, truck drivers, convention attendees, sporting event fans, migrant laborers and sexual tourists, he noted.
“All it takes is one police officer, one motel clerk, one emergency room nurse or one social worker to spot a problem and get a person out of a terrible situation,” he said.
Kat Werner of the Missoula Human Trafficking Task Force said the state legislature needs to focus on addressing the systemic issues that cause human sex trafficking.
“They need to really think about what’s driving exploitation in the first place,” she said. “So, access to education, access to opportunities. We’ve talked about the child welfare system and how so many of these girls and women have experienced trauma prior to recruitment and exploitation, so really thinking about what we’re doing to try and prevent that in the first place.”