More than 1,000 women and girls have been apparent victims of sex trafficking in illicit bars in the US that operate largely beyond the reach of law enforcement, according to the anti-slavery group Polaris.
Half of the trafficking cases in cantinas – a type of bar popular in Mexico and the American south-west – arose in Houston, Texas, a city near the Mexican border with a large Latino population, said Polaris in a study that tracked calls to its trafficking hotlines from over the past decade.
Cantinas, social gathering spots popular in Latino communities, may disguise the cost of commercial sex in very high drink prices. Women are forced to flirt and drink with patrons, the study’s author, Tessa Couture, said.
Cantinas may limit who enters and may not be open to the general public, the report said.
Hotlines run by Polaris received reports of 201 cases of sex and labour trafficking, involving 1,300 potential victims at cantinas and bars in 20 US states, between 2007 and 2016. More than half the victims were underage, said Polaris.
At one illicit cantina in Houston, some women were forced to have sex as often as 50 times a day, according to the study. The cantina owner, convicted of sex trafficking, conspiracy and other charges, was sentenced to life imprisonment earlier this year.
While cases of trafficking in brothels have been the subject of high-profile prosecutions, only a small number of prosecutions have focused on cantinas, mostly in Houston.
Cases can be hard to investigate and prosecute because traffickers and owners may hide their ownership of cantinas or alcohol licenses, and because victims are too scared to testify in court, afraid that traffickers will retaliate by hurting their families.
“Those organised crime networks reaching back into Mexico and Central America are very real. People know that there’s a very real possibility their families will be hurt,” Couture said.
Many traffickers are involved in drug cartels or gangs, and victims were often lured to the US with job offers or other false promises, Polaris said.
Both traffickers and victims in the illicit cantinas tended to be from Mexico or Central America, according to the study.
Typically, the women and girls are intimidated by threats and abuse or forced into deep debt. Most reported being kept isolated, confined and monitored by their traffickers, said Polaris. Of those who escaped, a third were helped by potential buyers of sex who discovered the victim’s circumstances, the report found.
Cantina-style cases were reported in California, Washington, New York and elsewhere. Polaris recommended increased training for law enforcement and service providers such as healthcare workers, better information sharing among law enforcement and government agencies, and more funding for investigations and prosecutions.
Prosecutors from around the world say the fight against sex trafficking is moving online as traffickers use popular websites to advertise sexual services.
They talked Friday about how they can crack down on the problem at an international sex trafficking summit in Waikiki that drew prosecutors from Asia, the US and Canada.
The challenges each nation faces are similar, and victims are often unwilling to cooperate with investigators because they have endured a history of abuse, said Jackie Lacey, Los Angeles County’s district attorney.
“Most of this is underground,” Lacey said. “It’s not like in the 80s and 90s where women were on the street. It’s all done by social media, cellphones, emails, text messages.”
Michael Ramos, president of the National District Attorneys Association, said he plans to push for legislation in the US to make it illegal to use websites to solicit illegal sex and to hold internet companies accountable for sex trafficking on their platforms.
“There should be some place that says you need to do a better job with the content that’s on your promotional site,” Ramos said. “It’s just so easy right now … Instead of having prostitutes out on the corner like they used to in a red light district, now they just go online, they hit a button, and it’s like ordering a pizza.”
Other law enforcement officers, such as Honolulu prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro, said websites that allow sex ads have helped officers catch traffickers by identifying locations where there is a problem.
Sonia Paquet, a Canadian prosecutor, talked about how prostitution is illegal but there is little enforcement. She said online reviews of establishments are out in the open, and she pulled up one on her phone.
“If we go on the internet site, we see the girls naked,” Paquet said. “They are from everywhere around the world.”
Prosecutors from the US, Canada, China, Japan, Palau, the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand attended the summit.
I went to my first sexual consent classes when I started university in 2014. Along with talks on fire safety and how you can’t live solely off crisps were sessions on the complexity of sexual consent. I laughed them off at the time – but now, I’m running them.
The classes didn’t get the warmest reception. One boy mockingly printed off “official sexual consent permission forms”, which he handed round to everyone. When we talked in the sessions about what we’d do if someone tried to stop during sex, responses included “I’d call her a bitch,” and “I physically can’t stop having sex once I’ve started”.
Those classes taught me more than I’d expected. That sex isn’t necessarily the smooth, wordless encounter we are constantly fed in films. That consent is retractable – proving that someone has consented at some point doesn’t prove they weren’t raped. Even discussing what I already knew wasn’t pointless; having an honest conversation about sex the first time I met my university friends made me feel safer and more at ease. Plus it was a pretty cool way to break the ice.
The 45-minute sessions are not patronising “Orwellian” lectures, as Spectator journalist Brendan O’Neill has described them, but informal discussion groups run by student volunteers. Attendees are given a list of scenarios to talk through which describe situations in which consent is a grey area. One might involve a sexual encounter where someone is continually pushing you away; another where someone is extremely drunk. Eventually, the students come to a definition of consent as active and ongoing.
And already, the sessions have left a positive mark on student life. The workshops introduce incoming freshers to people they can go to when they need help or advice.
Some of the culture you’re exposed to at university can be difficult to speak out against – particularly for people who are disempowered due to gender, ethnicity, disability or sexuality. At my institution, there are drinking society events where the girls go round lifting up their tops while the boys cheer louder if they have “nicer tits”. I’m sure they are some people’s idea of a great night out. But in the intimidating climate of the first couple of terms at university, it’s nice to know there’s another option.
The classes also support victims, helping them to recognise what has happened rather than having to deal with the shame, guilt and feelings of emptiness alone. One girl approached me after we ran a session on rape and said that she had had an experience the previous summer which she had blamed herself for. Only now did she identify it as a crime – and she’d resolved to contact the police.
A 2013 survey released by the ONS estimates that one in five women aged 16 to 59 experience sexual violence after the age of 16, with 90% of assailants being someone the victim knows. And yet, only 6% of reported rape cases end in conviction.
Talking about consent as part of the freshers’ induction curriculum allows us to locate the debate in our culture – as a topic we all have the duty and power to tackle – instead of treating every case as a tragic exception.
To an extent, the sceptics are right about the limitations of the initiative. They are right that most people become sexually active before arriving at university – education about sexual consent should begin much earlier.
They are also right that classes alone can’t solve the deeply rooted causes of sexual coercion in our society. But maybe, in talking about it openly, we can help to elevate it to a status which it is still being denied: that of being recognised as a problem.