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Following prostitution solicitation charges filed last week against New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft at a day spa in Jupiter, Florida, national attention has been drawn to the state of sex trafficking in the U.S.
Meredith Dank, an expert on human trafficking and a research professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, says when she first heard the news about Kraft, her thoughts immediately went to the women involved in the spa.
"Were they arrested?" Dank says. "My understanding was they weren't. But in that case, were they receiving any kind of services or immigration relief?"
Kraft is among many charged in a sweeping investigation of prostitution and trafficking at several massage parlors, according to police. The 77-year-old billionaire has denied the allegations.
Dank's research, she tells Here & Now's Eric Westervelt, has shown a proliferation in the types of parlors Kraft was allegedly involved in, particularly in the Midwest and the South. However, research is still missing on how these parlors are run.
"Who is operating them? Is there a larger organization behind it?" she says. "Or [does] it tend to be just mom-and-pop type of massage parlors, where ... they might have networks with other massage parlors across the country, but there isn't one single person behind it?"
Along with understanding parlors' operations, it is also important to be able to talk to the people working in them to determine whether sex trafficking is actually happening — something authorities continue to struggle to find evidence for, according to Dank.
"In the case of the Robert Kraft situation, [from] some of the details I saw, it kind of was more labor trafficking," she says. "The fact that they were living in the place that they were working, that the living conditions were pretty subpar — these are all signs of actual labor trafficking, not necessarily sex trafficking."
"These women are coming in here and looking for ways in order to pay that debt back, and there are very few options available to them."Meredith Dank
Sex trafficking is a wide-ranging issue: There are brothels, escort services and other forms of street-level and internet-based prostitution. Oftentimes, recruitment happens in a person's home country, Dank explains, frequently in China, Korea or Thailand.
"They might be approached about a work opportunity, and in some cases, people are very open about the fact that they might be working in a massage parlor and they can make the choice as to whether or not they want to do that," she says. "In other cases, they're told they would work in a restaurant or a nail salon, and then they come here and … are then forced or coerced into working at a massage parlor."
Dank says she often hears stories of people paying a "snakehead" — a human smuggler — tens of thousands of dollars to get them into the U.S. They may initially work at a restaurant or nail salon, but will later turn to sex work after not making enough money to pay back their snakehead.
"These women are coming in here and looking for ways in order to pay that debt back, and there are very few options available to them," Dank says.
For this reason, she says, authorities need to get creative in the way they tackle sex trafficking. Instead of solely targeting prostitutes' clients, the so-called "johns" — as investigators did in the Jupiter, Florida, case — law enforcement should help provide opportunities to the women being trafficked, according to Dank.
"[It's] really I think the angle we should be taking," she says.
The National Human Trafficking Hotline can be reached at 1 (888) 373-7888.
This segment aired on March 1, 2019.
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