Emotional Health

Sex Trafficking is in Your Town

Last year, we reported on the sex trafficking industry, and its world-wide reach. In the time  that has passed since, it has remained in the news and is being portrayed often in popular culture.

Kate Atkinson, a talented and well-respected author, has just published her latest Jackson Brodie mystery novel, for example, and it deals directly with this subject. In Big Sky, she tells the story of a group of middle-aged British men, golfing buddies, who share a secret: they operate a business that lures foreign girls to Britain with the promise of good jobs and then forces them into prostitution. Masquerading as an employment agency, the venture illustrates how the Internet has made predators’ jobs easier than ever. Some of the girls are young and naive, others more savvy and wary, but the sophistication of the operation serves to reassure them and the process seems, well, like child’s play.

We cannot afford to assume this is just the stuff of fiction. The recently revived case accusing billionaire Jeffrey Epstein of luring, abusing, and trafficking underage girls for sex underscores the urgency of the problem. Not only was he operating in plain sight for years, his crimes were witnessed and abetted by many others. Even when prosecuted and convicted in Florida a decade ago he found cover from a harsh sentence from cabinet member Alexander Acosta, who was forced to resign in the wake of the controversy.

Recently, I have met two girls who were victims of sex trafficking. Both were lured by the promise of modeling careers, one from Europe, and the other from the midwestern part of the United States. The modeling jobs, of course, did not exist. The first girl, lured to Asia, became addicted to cocaine, amphetamines and heroin, and was ultimately “rescued” by a client. A middle-aged married man, he set her up in an apartment in NYC, and sent her to rehab. But alone and without other support, she has no goals except to remain in his good graces, hoping he will fulfill his promise to marry her someday.

The American girl had a similar situation. Eventually installed as the mistress of a married man, she sees herself as free now, but her experience of being lured into a sex trafficking ring by a “modeling agency” was traumatizing. Anorexic and addicted to opioids, she is attempting to get off drugs, but she remains depressed and anxious. Both girls have an almost shadow-like demeanor. They seem more like ghosts, empty of spirit, vitality, aspirations, or identity, as if they have been erased. Their addictions and other symptoms are just the most obvious signs of the legacy of the abuse. Underneath one senses a broken human being.

While pedophilia—a sexual attraction to sexually immature children—is a well-known term, it is often used to denote any attraction to minor age individuals. But the attraction to teenage girls has a name too: ephebophilia. This term refers to a specific preference for teens in the mid-to-late age range, 14-18; they are sexually developed but not adults. Another term, hebephilia, is used to refer to a specific attraction to pre-pubescent teens. These are kids who are not quite finished with sexual development, but who are beyond early childhood proper. Think of tweens; think of Lolita.

All of these preferences are thought of under the rubric of chronophilias. The root word “chrono,” meaning time, denotes that these are disorders out of the natural sequence of age, disorders of those who are attracted to people of inappropriate age. More generally, they are classified as “paraphilias,” which is the term for what was formerly called a perversion by clinicians. This refers to behaviors of those whose object of sexual attraction is unusual, who are routinely or exclusively aroused by an atypical object or person.

Our sexual “maps,” or what we find erotic and exciting, are created very early in life, experts believe, and are sometimes quite mysterious. At times, however, there is a very clear connection to childhood events. For example, children who have been sexually abused sometimes become abusers themselves. This is an attempt to overcome trauma by turning passive events into active ones: we try to master the feeling of being a victim by turning the tables and victimizing others in turn.

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