When she was a domestic violence prosecutor in Brooklyn, there was one victim Lauren Hersh just couldn’t reach.
“I spent hours with this woman. Eventually she would always shut down. One day I had a long meeting with her and got nowhere,” Hersh told a group of about 90 women gathered at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills.
But Hersh said she couldn’t shake the woman — until she had an epiphany. “The reason I was making no headway is that I wasn’t framing the relationship properly. My instinct started screaming that this guy was not just her boyfriend.” It turned out he was also her pimp. And the woman had been a victim of sex trafficking, a form of human trafficking.
Hersh is now director of anti-trafficking and advocacy at Sanctuary for Families in New York City, and her instinct that day has led her to become one of the country’s most prominent abolitionists. She spoke on April 30 on behalf of Exodus, the Anti-Sex Trafficking initiative of the National Council of Jewish Women.
Exodus advocates for laws that prevent sex trafficking, protect its victims and survivors, and punish its perpetrators.
The program was cosponsored by the NJ Coalition Against Human Trafficking; two of its members, the Community Relations Committee of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ and the Rachel Coalition; and the Sisterhood of Temple Emanu-El of West Essex in Livingston.
According to Hersh, human trafficking is the fastest-growing criminal enterprise in the world. The International Labor Organization calls it a $150 billion industry. “It’s a mistake to talk about it any other way than as a business,” she said. And it’s a business in which the perpetrators are insulated. “The risks to traffickers are extremely low,” said Hersh. “The traffickers and exploiters make sure those they victimize are too terrorized and traumatized to tell anyone.”
At the organized crime division, she led a task force and ultimately led the creation of the trafficking division in 2010.
“I spent a year talking to anyone who would talk to me just to get the lay of the land,” she said. It didn’t take long for that one case to turn into hundreds. And the one piece of advice she had received — that the victims would be foreign born — turned out to be wrong. Hersh said she worked with many girls in Brooklyn who were born there. “They never left the borough,” she said.
Trafficking, she said, happens “everywhere,” adding, “There’s a big problem right here in New Jersey.”
Nor is every victim kept chained in the basement or otherwise confined. “That makes it difficult to prosecute. People ask, ‘Why didn’t she leave?’” However, she noted of one victim, “every time [the victim] would pack her little bag and head for the door, her trafficker would recite the address of where her little sister went to aftercare.”
The particularly vulnerable include the poverty-stricken, the homeless, and those who come from abusive families or who have already suffered sexual abuse. Runaways are particularly vulnerable — within 24-48 hours after leaving home, one in three teens will have already been lured in by a trafficker, who can make between $150,000 and $200,000 per youngster, said Hersh. One trafficker told the detective who arrested him that he finds victims in shopping malls.
“Traffickers are masters of the art of seduction,” she said. “They are able to identify the vulnerabilities of a person and prey on them. Once a victim is seduced, they use torture tactics, including psychological torture.”
Awareness is rising, she said, in part because “survivors are getting loud.” From 2007, when the National Trafficking Resource Center Hotline starting keeping statistics, until 2012, the number of calls received has gone up 259 percent, with a five-year total of more than 9,000 cases reported. Of these, about 85 percent are estimated to have involved sex trafficking.
To end trafficking, Hersh sees only one option: ending the demand. “You are talking about a business where demand drives supply,” she said.
She rejects the idea that legalizing prostitution will benefit victims. In Amsterdam, which has implemented legalization, women are still trafficked to satisfy the demand.
By contrast, Sweden has adopted the “Nordic Model,” which criminalizes the john. “The vast majority are middle-class men with a lot to lose,” she said. “They are usually married with good jobs. If we arrest sex buyers, there will be a massive chilling effect. I believe if we throw sex buyers in jail for 15 hours, we’ll change the issue.”
Reducing demand is also a far better use of resources than providing services to traumatized girls and women after the fact, she said. No matter how many services are provided, Hersh said, “we can never make a person completely whole.”