Pittsburgh prostitution sting raises concerns among anti-trafficking advocates

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When nine women were arrested over a week ago at the Downtown Sheraton on prostitution charges, it was a small part of a nationwide federal crackdown known as Operation Cross Country, targeting child sex trafficking.

The operation, carried out over a few days, led to the recovery of 168 juveniles across the country, and the arrest of 281 pimps. Just hours away from Pittsburgh, the Cleveland division of the FBI recovered 16 juveniles and arrested 12 pimps. The Pittsburgh division of the FBI arrested three pimps, but did not recover any juveniles.

Law enforcement officials hope the arrests of the nine women Downtown will allow the FBI and other agencies to obtain intelligence that leads to the arrest of pimps and the recovery of juveniles.

But anti-human-trafficking advocates raised concern about the arrests of adult females. Many anti-trafficking advocates said that even adult women in the sex trade likely began as trafficked children.

“The vast majority of those people who are in prostitution are not criminals. They are currently victims, or they have been victims,” said Lauren Hersh, a former Brooklyn prosecutor and current director of anti-trafficking policy and advocacy at Sanctuary for Families, a New York-based nonprofit.

“When you have these raids and you focus on the women, it perpetuates an imbalance in the analysis that they’‍re in it  by themselves,” said Taina Bien-Aime, executive director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW) a New York-based nonprofit. The percentage of women in the sex trade who decide on their own to sell themselves is minuscule, she said.

Police and the FBI have limited latitude, however, since prostitution is a criminal offense. 

“A big portion of this whole operation, Bureau-wise, is support for the victims,” said Gregory Heeb, supervisory special agent of the Pittsburgh FBI division. But, he added, “they are still criminal charges, so [the women] still have to go through the normal process.”

“There is only so much we can do in that regard,” he said.

While charging the women with prostitution, officials also rely on them to give information regarding pimps and, in some cases, to testify against them.

Beginning the process with handcuffs, however, can be counter-productive.

“When you‘‍re arrested, it doesn’‍t make you want to trust the police officer,” said Andrea Powell, founder and executive director of FAIR Girls, a Washington, D.C.-based anti-trafficking organization. She said such arrests have a “long-term and very damaging impact” on the women, who have already suffered severe trauma.

Treating the women like criminals, she said, further hinders law enforcement efforts to obtain intelligence to apprehend traffickers. It is critical to make victims feel safe and comfortable before they will share information about their pimps or other women being trafficked, she said.

“The important element to remember is under federal law, a prosecutor has to find force, fraud or coercion to prosecute a trafficker,” Ms. Bien-Aime said. But proving any one of these elements can be very difficult, she said, particularly after a woman has spent years in an “industry of misery.”

Traffickers and pimps subject their victims to a process called “seasoning,” involving rape and forced drug use to break down the woman who is to be sold, she explained.

Threats are also used to keep the victims in bondage.

“At that point, the trauma, the psychological damage is so profound,” she said, “it will prevent you from going to the police or leaving. You don‘‍t need a gun to your head to remain in that state of trafficking.”

“Most of the chains that bind the victims are psychological, not physical,” said Ms. Powell, adding that many of the victims are initially lured by false promises of love and family.

Despite the concerns raised about some arrests, advocates generally gave favorable reviews to the FBI’‍s anti-trafficking work in recent years. This year‘‍s operation was the eighth iteration of the nationwide sweep. Public awareness has also been increased, they said, and police and prosecutors have become more adept at addressing the issue.

Matt Nussbaum: mnussbaum@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1504.

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