A 12-year-old girl is sitting on her front steps in any city or suburb in America when she is approached by a man who tells her she is pretty. Flattered, she begins to talk to him and agrees to meet him in another location. Days later, that man has become her pimp.
This girl is one of 100,000 in the United States being trafficked in the sex trade, said Lauren Hersh, a leader in the effort to end human trafficking and gender violence and sexual abuse of women. Hersh, a Freehold native now living in Franklin Lakes, was keynote speaker Oct. 30 at the annual Myrtle Wreath Awards Luncheon of Hadassah Southern New Jersey.
She told the 350 women gathered at the Forsgate Country Club in Monroe that human trafficking, the vast majority of which involves the sex trade, is the fastest growing criminal enterprise in the world.
“The profits are high and the risks are low,” she said.
Hersh said her introduction to the seamy world of sex trafficking came in the DA’s office when she was assigned the case of an 18- or 19-year-old woman who had been “pretty beaten up” by her boyfriend. Assuming it was an assault case, she pressed the traumatized woman and was astonished to learn that the boyfriend was also her pimp.
“Until that time I thought all trafficked women were foreign-born,” said Hersh, who later learned that most were average American girls, and not, as many might think, prisoners “locked up or chained in basements.”
The sex trade is estimated to bring in between $110 and $150 billion annually across the world, said Hersh, and UNICEF estimates it exploits two million children, most of them girls. Moreover, she said, the above scenario of a child from anywhere across the United States being lured into human trafficking is being played out every day via social media and chance encounters.
As a former prosecutor in the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office, Hersh launched one of the nation’s first sex trafficking units after encountering girls and young women, beaten and trapped in the sex trade, unable to escape or too frightened to get out. Hersh told harrowing stories, including of a young woman whose pimp showed her the address of her little sister’s aftercare program every time the woman tried to leave. Another trafficker who continued to operate his business from jail told one of his girls to hire a hitman to kill another who had agreed to testify against him.
“I saw 15-year-olds all the time who had been in the business two and three years,” said Hersh. “But all kids have an 18th birthday, and these women will continue to be as trapped and in a horrible position as 22- or 23-year-olds.”
Hersh noted the average human trafficking victims are girls between the ages of 12 and 14, and she took the opportunity to instruct the gathering that they should make sure their young daughters and granddaughters keep their Instagram and Facebook accounts private.
Through her work with young people, Hersh said, she recently came across two related incidents that made her hair “stand on end.” Four girls at a Bergen County school showed her the same message posted on their phones by a sex trafficker offering big money. In another incident, a girl told Hersh she had been approached in town by a man; when Hersh turned over the man’s phone number to the FBI, she learned that the man was a major trafficker.
Region president Michelle Krasner of Marlboro said that Hadassah has a long history of advocating on issues important to women and the American-Jewish community.
“Hadassah is strongly committed to protecting human rights, especially those of women and children,” she said. “It is shocking that one in three women worldwide experiences physical or sexual abuse. Human trafficking is a gross violation of human rights, and Hadassah is committed to combating it in Israel, the United States, and abroad.”
That commitment to spreading awareness about human trafficking, Krasner said, is guided by Jewish values laid out in Leviticus commanding that “you not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.”
Besides being an international consultant on gender violence, Hersh is cochair of the New York State Anti-Trafficking Coalition and director of anti-trafficking policy and advocacy at Sanctuary for Families and also heads its Campus Gender Violence Initiative, representing victims of sexual or intimate partner violence. She created Project Impact, a leadership program for teen survivors of sexual exploitation, and Generation Free, an anti-trafficking activism workshop for New York City teens, and recently cofounded World Without Exploitation, an international organization offering on-line information, stories, and help for victims of human trafficking.
Hersh criticized moves to legalize prostitution — Newark is considering such a measure — because she said increased demand would lead to more victims of trafficking. Rather than prosecute the women for prostitution, authorities should “hit the buyers, known as johns, and traffickers hard,” she said.
“Without buyers, there is no demand,” said Hersh, adding that she is optimistic that message is getting through based on recent actions to combat physical and sexual abuse of women taken by the National Football League and on college campuses.
This message is effective in her own leadership groups, she said, as young boys have begun to realize that, “If I go out and buy sex on my 18th birthday, I’m contributing to this global problem.”