Sex Trafficking in the Fox Cities

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Steve Elliot

Lt. Steve Elliot educates the community about sex trafficking in the Fox Cities.

Contributor: Lieutenant Steve Elliot, Appleton Police Department

The issue we are going to delve into today is disturbing and may come as a shock to you, but, as with all issues, increasing awareness is one of the first steps in being able to implement meaningful solutions.

In Wisconsin, human trafficking exists in both rural and urban communities and that includes the Fox Cities. Over eighty percent of all human trafficking in the United States is sex trafficking or entering into prostitution through force, coercion, manipulation or fraud. In fact, according to Steve Elliot, a Lieutenant at the Appleton Police Department, it is nearly impossible to find any community free of sex trafficking, "All you need is hotels, highways and men."

Although Hollywood may glamorize sex workers' lives, the truth is not glamorous at all. Children as young as 12 years old are vulnerable to sex trafficking. Running away from home, experiencing domestic violence and living in poverty are the top three identified risk factors that can make people more susceptible to the promises of pimps or madams targeting new victims. Lieutenant Elliot shared the story of a local high school girl who ran away from home after a fight with her dad, was taken-in and cared for by a man she met at the transit station, was coerced to stay and, eventually, sold for sex. Another local woman's two-year-old was held hostage unless she agreed to enter into prostitution.

Lieutenant Elliot explained that prostitution is not a chosen lifestyle between two consenting adults, "This is about coercion and manipulation of vulnerable women." What was historically considered prostitution is now being redefined within our local police department as sex trafficking because of coercion. In the past, standard practice was for police to ticket both the prostitute and the john (the man paying money for sex). There was no focus on prosecuting the traffickers or pimps and prostitution was viewed as a "victimless" crime. Today, police are working on new ways to handle sex trafficking cases. Convicted prostitutes receive counseling, job training, safe housing and mentoring and, under Wisconsin law, can have their prostitution arrest removed from their record, which can help them to obtain other employment.

Johns are also treated differently. Despite the stereotypes, johns often have wives and children, and can be pillars of the community in all sectors including business and government. Many johns point to the drug-like addiction of pornography as a leading factor for their decision to ultimately purchase a prostitute. After their arrest, johns are prosecuted and required to participate in educational programs and, in some cases, counseling to help with recovery from sex addiction. In these educational sessions, it is not uncommon for johns to come to tears when they realize how their actions contribute to the abuse of women. In addition, pimps are aggressively pursued and prosecuted.

Although these changes are important, our community leaders recognize that more needs to be done. Lieutenant Elliot explained that his unit, which includes six police officers, could spend all of their time investigating sex trafficking cases, but also needs to focus on drug- and gang-related cases. Currently, the Appleton Police Department is working with a nationally recognized consultant, Jonathan Cloud, and a local taskforce to better understand the issue of sex trafficking in the Fox Cities and identify strategies for prevention, particularly among youth. United Way Fox Cities helps to fund organizations taking the lead to address sex trafficking and serve victims, including the Sexual Assault Crisis Center, Reach Counseling, Harbor House Domestic Abuse Programs, Christine Ann Domestic Abuse Services and the Boys and Girls Club of the Fox Valley (runaway program).

Despite all of the community efforts, you may still be asking yourself, "What can I do?" According to Lieutenant Elliot, prevention is key; success rates rehabilitating prostitutes are discouragingly low. Supporting young people at high-risk of being coerced into sex trafficking is crucial. If you are interested in mentoring youth, numerous opportunities can be found through the Volunteer Center of East Central Wisconsin's website.

If you know someone who is a victim of sex trafficking, dial 2-1-1 for referrals to the Sex Trafficking Hotline and health & human services.