Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots, was charged this week with soliciting prostitution in a case that law enforcement referred to as a human trafficking investigation. The disconnect between a solicitation charge and his patronization of a massage parlor said to be engaging in the trafficking of women seems to have many people confused as to the difference between prostitution and sex trafficking. Did he buy sex from a sex worker? Or did he pay for sex from a sex trafficking victim?
Sadly, there's no way to know if Kraft and the other men charged with solicitation by law enforcement cared enough to ask; news reports indicate that, even if they did, many of the women did not did not speak English. But the distinction between sex work and sex trafficking, and relationship between the two, matters. And failing to appreciate as much often leads to victims being arrested, and the most dangerous traffickers walking free.
The shame associated with buying and selling sex coupled with the clandestine nature of sex trafficking makes questions about who buys sex, who sells it and whether there is (or can be) respect and autonomy in the transaction very hard to answer. But if we want to end sex trafficking, we must tackle them, and we must understand that sex trafficking, as opposed to sex work, is about serial rape for profit.
To legally define an adult as a victim of sex trafficking, two primary elements must exist: First, there must be a trafficker (often referred to as a pimp) profiting off the sale of someone else for commercial sex. Second, there must be elements of force, fraud or coercion between the pimp and the person being sold for sex; these can be threats of beatings, threats against someone the victim loves, threats of deportation or other kinds of emotional manipulation. Traffickers are masters of deception who generally leave their victims too terrified to try to escape, even if someone on the outside might think the victim had a choice.
Child sex trafficking involves a trafficker, a sex buyer and a child under the age of 18; unlike with adult victims, law enforcement does not need to prove force, fraud or coercion because the power dynamic between adults and children is presumed under the law to replace that requirement. Buying sex from a child is always a crime but, in some states such as Maryland, children can still be arrested for prostitution and other commercial sexual activity even if they are simultaneously considered trafficked.
At Karana Rising, the survivor-led nonprofit I co-founded, the average age we see for those victimized by sex trafficking is 14-16 years, though many of those trafficked as minors are exploited until they 18 and beyond. Their underage exploitation often leaves them with no education, few job options and trauma; reaching the age of majority is no shield against being trafficked.
And, due to the criminalization of sex work in most of the United States, many sex workers and sex trafficking victims — such as those to whom Kraft allegedly bought access — are simply arrested, which pushes them even further to the margins of society. The threat of arrest is often held over the heads of sex trafficking victims by their traffickers, and makes them less likely to trust the police. They thus often stay in “the life” for years, going from child victim to adult victim.
Kraft is alleged to have bought sex from illicit massage businesses where adult women from Asian countries were being trafficked. Inside these establishments, police have alleged that the women were often forced to engage in sexual acts with up to 8 to 15 men a day and were frequently moved from establishment to establishment while never being able to leave the premises on their own.
This set-up is common among the few larger trafficking rings, which often hold women captive and even tell them that they must pay back a debt of thousands of dollars before they will be “free.” But their traffickers, who may even charge them even for the lubricants or condoms used during their rapes (if they're allowed to use condoms at all), know that those debts will almost surely never be satisfied.
Most buyers, meanwhile, do not see the full scope of the harm that they (and their demand) causes these victims. Many seek to find — or convince themselves they have found — the “pure” sex worker who has, in the buyer’s mind, simply “chosen” that profession as one of many options available to them.
Maybe they have, but it is likely they have not. For example, consenting adults engaging in commercial sexual activity with no elements of force, fraud or coercion do not exist in locked establishments where the women inside cannot leave of their own free will.
Yet, at the real core of trafficking is poverty, misogyny and racism. At Karana Rising, we know that most sex trafficking survivors first experienced homelessness, domestic violence and sexual abuse prior to being trafficked, or they were fleeing political or economic instability in their home country — often instability driven by massive destitution.
For those sex trafficking survivors who do get out of their situations and find support services, they often struggle to find employment and stable housing because of a lack of family support, unjust arrests and stigma. Their previous trauma, exposure to the sex trade and economic instability lead them back into the world that they know, even if being there is not truly what they want in life, and often back into being trafficked.
Our society also demands a “perfect” victim when it comes to women we recognized as trafficked, even though many victims are not kidnapped or naïve foreign women or girls. Many of the trafficking victims with whom we work are desperately poor and marginalized women who were (and continue to be) boxed out of the opportunities that would enable them to thrive before, during and after they were forced, defrauded or coerced by a trafficker.
This brings us back to Kraft, the NFL and others in a position to effect change. Professional sports leagues, owners and players have the agency to educate their staff and players, adopt no-tolerance policies around sex work and sex trafficking and commit substantial resources to survivor services. Society has afforded them the privilege and power that victims of sex trafficking do not have; men like Robert Kraft have the resources and systemic advantage to make a difference in the lives of women that are too often exploited.
The question now is whether he will.