When Florida law enforcement officials busted a human trafficking ring at several spas late last month, including Orchids of Asia Day Spa, Patriots CEO Robert Kraft was just one of many high-profile business executives accused of soliciting sex.
Kraft has become the butt of jokes across social media; some have even taken selfies outside the parlor to celebrate Kraft’s downfall. But by focusing solely on Kraft’s involvement, we’re completely missing the point.
This is not just another celebrity scandal, and it’s certainly nothing to laugh about. Human trafficking is modern-day slavery, and the women rescued in these busts are real victims, who have difficult recoveries ahead of them. Forced by traffickers to perform sex acts, the women in these spas were prevented from leaving and even slept in the spa, according to Martin County Sheriff William Snyder. Many of them were Chinese immigrants who came to the United States on temporary work visas in hopes they’d get a real job upon arrival.
In short, the wealthiest of the wealthy exploited the weakest of the weak. Kraft and the other buyers – including John Havens, former president and CEO of Citigroup, and John Childs, founder of private equity firm J.W. Childs Associates – may have believed they were committing a victimless crime and hiring willing sex workers to perform voluntary acts. But, as Florida law enforcement officials made clear, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Disgusting as these realities might be, they’re fairly normal in the ugly world of human trafficking. Add that to the fact that getting an accurate estimate of how many victims there are is virtually impossible, and it’s easy for ordinary Americans to overlook the existence of this crime.
But we shouldn’t need numbers to spur us to action. Every day, as the president of the U.S. Institute Against Human Trafficking, I encounter girls and boys, men and women, who have been victims of trafficking. And I can assure you that trafficking can happen anywhere – from the suburban strip mall where Kraft was exposed to rural casinos to your own neighborhood.
The first step in fighting trafficking is making potential buyers aware that they are probably not buying sex from a willing sex worker, but from a slave who is forced to perform these acts.
Buyers can come from all walks of life. Kraft was a respectable public figure, well-known for his philanthropy. But respectability or wealth is no guarantee of innocence. A buyer can be your neighbor, your business partner, your son or daughter’s teacher or P.E. coach. And it’s not just men who participate in trafficking. Women, although less frequently, do as well.
If this news teaches us anything, it’s that anyone can be a buyer in this trade. And that in turn points us to the root of this entire issue: Sex trafficking is a supply answer to a demand problem. As long as there are men and women in this country who are willing to purchase sex, there will be traffickers who are willing to sell – and sell by any means necessary, including threats, intimidation and violence. Ending human trafficking means ending the demand that drives it.
It shouldn’t take the public shaming of the owner of the winning Super Bowl team for this issue to make headlines. What happened in Florida is what happens all across America on a daily basis. As a nation that prides itself on being a land of liberty, our continued avoidance of this issue is deeply hypocritical – and has devastating consequences for the most vulnerable among us.
We must take this moment for what it is: an opportunity to raise public awareness about the crime of trafficking and its confusion with prostitution. The first step in fighting it is making potential buyers aware that they are probably not buying sex from a willing sex worker, but from a slave who is forced to perform these acts.
The sooner everyone recognizes that this isn’t a free market system, but the enslavement and exploitation of other human beings, the more quickly we can identify and hold accountable those who choose to participate in that system.