The emerging scandal of wealthy financier Jeffrey Epstein’s arrest over sex trafficking claims is not an isolated case, rather it is symptomatic of broader patterns abroad. Epstein was charged this week with sex trafficking and sex trafficking conspiracy by federal prosecutors, abuses which were largely perpetrated in his New York home and Palm Beach mansion. Although news coverage has focused on the 2008 plea deal orchestrated by now-US Secretary of Labour Alexander Acosta, the underlying systems of trafficking are worthy of exploration.
As a form of modern slavery, “sex trafficking occurs when someone uses force, fraud or coercion to cause a commercial sex act” in an unequal perpetrator-victim dynamic. An estimated 4.8 million people globally are currently trapped in sex trafficking rings. However, the accuracy of such statistics, even when produced by international organisations such as the International Labour Organisation (ILO), is dubious due to the inherent secrecy of the system.
Although not a factor in the Epstein case, the intersection of sex trafficking with the drug trade is well-established in the United States. The trafficking of minors has flourished alongside the opioid epidemic, as victims create “invisible trauma bonds with their exploiter” as their drug supplier. Exploiting the vulnerability of minors is integral to the business of sex rings, with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reporting that 88 per cent of sex trafficking victims were in foster care at the time of recruitment.
All forms of human trafficking are based in exploitative relationships and behaviours, but what makes sex trafficking more sinister is the intimate nature of abuse. Particularly in the Epstein case, the majority of his victims were underage, with the youngest recorded just 13 years of age.
Epstein exclusively preyed on the vulnerability of minors, “the more vulnerable, the better” according to a private investigator working on behalf of Epstein’s victims. Financial leverage propelled Epstein’s operation, as he paid his victims hundreds of dollars for their services. Moreover, they were integral in the recruitment strategy of the operation, as girls were paid more when they enlisted friends, thus enabling an “ever-expanding web of new victims.” Promises to advance careers were also characteristic of Epstein’s deceitful repertoire, as his secretary recruited girls from the nearby high school in New York.
These insidious rings of sexual exploitation aren’t limited to national borders or stereotypical gender roles in abuse. The operational nature of sex trafficking in Australia is often misunderstood, with the majority of ring-leaders being women who share experiences of being trafficked sex workers. However, in Australia information on sex trafficking is minimal and absent on the political radar, an issue that Alexandra Baxter seeks to amend through research.
Migration discourse often discounts the reality of internal and external trafficking flows, especially of forced sexual labour, partly because trafficking is so difficult to measure. As the Australian Government acknowledges, under-reporting and minimal detection of offenders are two key factors that continue to stifle a cohesive legal response.
As with all black market trades, the invisibility of crime is part of the game, thus uncovering cases of abuse is a practice prone to significant delays. Although the exposure of sexual exploitation, heralded by the #MeToo movement, has increased, the trauma inflicted on victims is too fragile to be treated decades on.
Sex trafficking operations in Australia illustrate that the inaccessibility of justice has facilitated the former victims’ transition into violent perpetrators, a dangerous cycle that must be corrected. Perhaps the Epstein case will provide the necessary momentum for authorities to delve into sex trafficking networks, and for offenders to be held accountable.
Charlotte Owens is the Administrative Officer and Executive Assistant at the Sydney Environment Institute. She is currently completing her Master of International Security at the University of Sydney. She is also a Commissioning Editor for Young Australians in International Affairs.