New study provides insight to circumstances behind Hawai’i sex trafficking victimization

By

Paul Atkinson

Eighty-two percent of sex trafficking victims interviewed were first trafficked as children, according to a new study which paints a disturbing and heartbreaking picture of sex trafficking victims in Hawai’i. Most were sexually molested as children, witnessed drug use in their home and have a close family member in prison. Fifty percent were diagnosed with PTSD. The majority of sex trafficking victims were U.S. citizens, not foreign-born women.

It is the second part of a study conducted by the Hawaiʻi State Commission on the Status of Women and Arizona State University School of Social Work. The first part examined men who purchased sex online in Hawaiʻi and found the market to be robust, with far more buyers than advertisements.

In this study, researchers interviewed twenty-two sex trafficking victims in June 2018 on the Oʻahu and Hawaiʻi Islands. Victims spent an average of thirteen years in the sex trade. Seventy-two percent witnessed drug use in their homes as children. Seventy-three percent were molested as kids. Eighty-two-percent reported a close family member in jail or prison and, eighty-two percent were children when they were first sex trafficked.

Eighty percent of those forcibly initiated into prostitution via sex trafficking also prostituted without a trafficker at a later point—complicating the victim-criminal binary embedded into Hawaiʻi’s criminal justice system. It took an average of 5.8 attempts for women to exit the prostitution or sex trafficking situations, which contradicts the idea that if someone wanted to exit the sex trade, she has the easy ability.

“We found sex traffickers targeted girls as young as 11-years-old. They are targeted because of their vulnerability” said Dominique Roe-Sepowitz, director of the Office of Sex Trafficking Intervention Research in the Arizona State University School of Social Work. “Contrary to popular mythology, the majority of traffickers were ‘boyfriends’ who groomed their victims with affection and sold them. Then, they used physical violence and drugs to prevent them from leaving.”

Victims identified sex buyers in Hawai’i as tourists, military and local residents, including those in the law enforcement, medicine and government. Four of the victims said they were minors when they were taken to the continent for the purpose of prostitution.

“One of the surprising things that sets this study apart from others is the degree to which victims said the people who should be helping them, particularly members of the criminal justice system were buying sex, which is illegal. This was not one or two bad apples,” said Khara Jabola-Carolus, executive director of the Hawai`i State Commission on the Status of Women. “These are the very people who are supposed to enforce the law, protect victims, and serve justice.”

“The stories made clear that many of the assumptions underlying our current response are incorrect. Expecting sex trafficking victims to prove victimhood is unrealistic. We need a variety of resources that serve all people in the sex trade, including adults, regardless of victim status,” Jabola-Carolus added.

The report includes suggestions from interviewed victims about ways Hawaiʻi can reduce sex trafficking and help those who are victimized.

 

The study, titled “The Stories of Survivors,” is the second in a landmark series of reports comprising the first examination of sex trafficking in the state of Hawai’i. Funding was provided by the Kaimas Foundation.