The Missouri House of Representatives has approved legislation which would criminalize the marketing of women and children for sexual trafficking purposes. The proposal, House Bill 1562, was endorsed by the House without dissent by a vote of 153-0. The bill is sponsored by Representative Elijah Haahr of Springfield.
“Human trafficking is a billion-dollar business in the United States and around the world,” Representative Haahr says. “It’s hard to believe that this form of slavery exists here in our nation and our state in these modern times. In this technological era, human traffickers can set up shop anywhere.”
Under current Missouri law, human trafficking occurs when any person “knowingly recruits, entices, harbors, transports, provides, or obtains” a child, or an adult without their consent, for use in a commercial sex act, sexual conduct, a sexual performance, or the production of explicit sexual material.
The law prohibits compelling a child or an unwilling adult to engage in such conduct through “force, abduction, coercion, fraud, deception, blackmail, or causing or threatening to cause financial harm.” County and city prosecuting attorneys use these provisions to file charges against those who are agents of human trafficking, and those who benefit financially from the sex trade.
Representative Haahr’s bill would add the crime of “advertising the availability” of a person for sexual trafficking to the state’s human trafficking statutes. The bill is intended to target online web sites that market the willingness of individuals to engage in sexual encounters.Human trafficking enterprises use this websites to advertise the “sexual services” of women and children whom they have enslaved in the sex trade.
Most state and federal laws dealing with human trafficking were designed to combat human trafficking for the purposes of prostitution. Sexual traffickers would enslave women and children who would then walk the streets soliciting customers willing to pay for various forms of sexual activity.
In recent years, sexual trafficking has migrated almost exclusively to an online marketplace. Men willing to purchase “sexual services” can surf “classified ads” on sleazy websites to order the type of woman they want for the type of activity they desire at a location of their choosing.
The involuntary sexual servitude of many women and girls is no longer limited to prostitution. Many women are forced to participate in sexual performances at strip clubs, or to participate in the production of pornographic videos, or to perform in online sexually explicit webcasts.
In prior years, law enforcement could monitor prostitutes walking the streets and the sex customers who patronized them. Nowadays, online sex customers operate out of the physical sight of law enforcement aided by the anonymity made possible by internet-based solicitation. The child sex trade thrives in this salacious surreptitious environment despite the best efforts of cybercrime units in county sheriff’s departments and municipal police departments.
Like Representative Haahr, Missouri Congresswoman Ann Wagner has been a leader in the legislative battle against human trafficking. Last spring the U.S. Congress gave final passage to a bill to strengthen federal laws dealing with sex trafficking. Included in the final bill was a proposal sponsored by Representative Wagner known as the SAVE Act (for Stop Advertising Victims of Sexual Exploitation).
Congresswoman Wagner’s measure amended the federal criminal code to prohibit the online advertising of minors for purposes of commercial sexual activity. Representative Wagner commented at the time that “online customers can order a young girl into their hotel room as easily as if they were ordering a pepperoni pizza.”
Representative Wagner extolled the educational elements of the new law intended to curtail the underage sex trade. Many young girls are lured into the clutches of human traffickers by the prospect of a modeling career. The teenage girls are then made dependent on their traffickers through drug addiction or physical and emotional abuse. Many of the young girls are snared through social media websites or contacts.
The focus of much of the anti-trafficking community’s ire is the notorious website Backpage.com. This despicable company is the leading online purveyor of “sex for hire.” It is widely believed that sex with children is being marketed through the website’s so-called “escort services.” It is estimated that Backpage makes more than $10 million per month from online prostitution advertising.
The U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Investigations is conducting a probe into the conduct of Backpage.com. The company has refused to furnish documents subpoenaed by the committee, and the CEO of Backpage, Carl Ferrer, has refused to testify before the committee. Members of the committee have now voted to initiate contempt proceedings against the company and Ferrer.
Backpage filed suit in December against the U.S. Attorney General and against the new federal law banning online advertising of illegal sexual conduct. Congresswoman Wagner is confident that the law will stand up to judicial review.
“For years, Backpage.com and other websites like it have profited off the sexual exploitation of women and children while using legal loopholes to hide their morally repugnant model,” Wagner charged. “No longer will Backpage.com be able to serve as a platform for sex trafficking and exploitation.”
Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill, a member of the Senate subcommittee, shared the story of a 15 year-old girl who sought refuge at Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital. The young girl stated that she and four other teenage girls had been sold for prostitution at truck stops in Missouri, Florida, Texas, and New Mexico for almost two months. She said their “services” were being advertised through Backpage.com.
Representative’s Haahr’s bill was approved by both the House and Senate last year, but died before the session ended because the report of a conference committee was never taken up by the Senate. Senator Bob Onder of Lake St. Louis has filed similar legislation this year in the Senate.