Tony Talbott – Anti human trafficking researcher
I was 23 years old, I was stationed on a ship in Asia. We’d just come back from the Gulf, we pulled into the Philippines. All the young men on the ship were really excited. Because the Philippines was world-famous for prostitution, for bars, for brothels. They actually called it adult Disneyland.
When you walked out the main gates of the Subic Bay Naval Base in the Philippines, you stepped on the Magsaysay Boulevard. And Magsaysay Boulevard was just a strip of clubs and brothels and go-go bars that literally, they lined both sides of the street, for blocks and blocks and blocks. I remember the first time I pulled into the Philippines, everyone was extra excited, because they heard the new club was open. This new club, it was called Sweet Sixteen’s. So, everybody went to check it out and I went along with them.
We walked down the street, we walked past bar after bar, brothel after brothel. We finally got to Sweet Sixteen’s, there’s a guy standing out front, a barker, the guy who lures you into the club. And he smiles at us, and throws open the door, and this wave of like super air-conditioned air and loud pulsing music just washes out into the street. And I stare and then I see a dark place, it’s lit by neon lights, then I see young girls in bikinis on top of the bar, pole dancing.
And for those of us who were hanging back, then he just motions us in more and he says, “Come on in. Here at the Sweet Sixteen’s, the oldest girl working in the bar is sixteen years old.” I knew that was wrong. I mean, that’s pretty clear. But what I didn’t know is, that’s slavery, that’s human trafficking. It took me several more decades to realize that.
When I was there in South-East Asia, I traveled a lot and I saw a lot of human trafficking. I saw forced child labor, I saw pedaling rings, I saw forced in child prostitution. It really changed me. So I’ve finished on my time in the Navy, I went to school, I got out, I went to grad school. I wanted to become an academic. I really wanted to try to understand all the things that I’ve seen while I was in the Navy. I specialized in Southeast Asia. I started teaching, researching and writing about human rights abuses that were happening. I was teaching my students about these terrible crimes occurring in the third world, about, uhm, in India and South Asia, indenture servitude, about child sex rings in Thailand.
And it took me, though I hate to say, until 2009, before I finally realized that these terrible heinous crimes I was teaching about to my students, far overseas, were also happening here. Right here. I don’t mean, only here, in the US, I mean, right here in Ohio, in Dayton, in Cincinnati. Toledo, Ohio is number four in the United States for under-age sex trafficking, according to the FBI. Toledo, Ohio. When we’re looking at child sex trafficking, what we’re basically seeing are repeat runaways, and prior victims of abuse and neglect who are on the streets, they’re finesse-pimped by an older man or an older woman who says a few kind words to them, romances them maybe a little bit and lures them in with some psychological manipulation until they’re trapped in the life. That’s why here, in Ohio, a great highway system comes in to play, because a real critical part of most human trafficking deals with movement.
If there’s a runaway people are looking for here, you have to move them somewhere else where people aren’t looking for. So they do that a lot. Movement comes up in a lot of the cases. You move the children around, so they elude suspicion, so that they never have time to form any bonds or any relationships with anyone, except for the pimp, he becomes the center of their life. You can see this for yourself. Go to a truck stop late at night or a busy truck stop, sit down in a parking lot, stare out and watch the parking lot, after a while a van will pull up. A door will open and some young girls will get out, maybe wearing mini skirts, fishnets, and they’ll go cab to cab to cab down the line of all the trucks parked there. They’ll spend twenty, thirty minutes inside each truck before moving on, servicing the truckers while their pimp sits in the van and watches.
Or go to the nail salon. You sit down across from young man, maybe from Laos, doesn’t speak any English, he’s not saying anything to you, he looks scared, he won’t make eye contact with you. So you look around, you see bars on the windows, you see a really fancy security system, why does a nail salon has a fancy security system? Maybe you smell food cooking? Maybe a door opens in the back and you look in and you see sleeping bags on the floor. And you start putting it all together. Why are these workers living, eating and sleeping here? Why are they scared? Why is all this security? It’s because they’re slaves.
Human trafficking, modern day slavery is the greatest human rights abuse of our time. It’s the second largest crime in the world. It happens everywhere. We’ve documented cases in over 160 countries, all 50 US states, over 60 cases here in Ohio over the past ten years alone. It’s a really terrible thing, I’m sorry, it breaks me up a little bit when I really think about what goes on and what’s happening. And…why is this happening? I mean, at first you think these people are bad, that’s why this is happening. They’re abusing people. Maybe.
But what’s really going on, it’s the money. It’s always all about the money. Human trafficking is insanely profitable. I mean, if you really think about it, you can sell a kilo of heroine once, you can sell a 13-year-old girl 20 times a night, 365 days a year. It’s a lot of money. And you should feel a little outraged about this, should feel upset about this. And that’s great, but that’s not good enough. You’ve got to really go beyond that outrage.
You’ve got to start understanding human trafficking, why a 150 years after the emancipation proclamation is slavery thriving in the United States? It’s a business, driven by supply and demand. Vulnerable people, mostly women and children are forced, tricked or threatened into situations of slavery – that’s the supply. Traffickers, pimps, agents, bosses, recruiters, organized crime syndicates, street gangs, individuals, they’re the traffickers who facilitate this business. They take the supply and they provide it to meet our demand.
And yeah I said ‘our demand’. I wish I had a mirror, I’d hold it up right now, so we could all see what the users of slaves look like. I mean, including myself in this. Because we all drive demand, we all want products that are very very cheap. They can only be produced by slaved labor. We all tolerate sex, everywhere in our society: sexual images, porn, erotic images of children. We use sex to sell things, sex to be popular, sex to just attract others. It’s everywhere. Pimps are glamorized, porn is pervasive, images of young children are considered erotic. We tolerate this, just like they did back at Sweet Sixteen’s when I was in the Navy, when US citizens were buying teens on the street, in the middle of the street, in the middle of the day. It’s the same thing. You saw it, you didn’t like it, you just ignored it or you shook your head and walked on by. I did that for years.
It’s really time to stop walking on by. We have to act. I have three things that we need to do. One, let’s work on education, justice and poverty and reduce the supply of vulnerable people. Two, let’s really crack down with laws on the traffickers, let’s disrupt their business and make it less profitable. And three, and most important, let’s work to reduce demand, let’s start to be smart consumers, let’s stop tolerating the sex trade. If we do this, if we reduce supply, we disrupt the business, we reduce demand, we can finally end slavery. Thanks.