STOCKHOLM / ROME, July 22, 2019 (IPS) – If they pay for it, men tend to believe they have the right to do anything to a woman’s body. You pay for your own entertainment without a thought about who you are paying and what cause you are supporting. Money is used as an excuse for and a means to oil a machinery that generates lots of profit while keeping pimps and other perpetrators out of the reach of the law.
Jeffrey Epstein is a generous benefactor of world-renowned scientists and has intimate ties with powerful men like Donald Trump and Bill Clinton, as well as star lawyers like Alan Derschowitz. This multi-millionaire has recently been charged with sex trafficking, prompted by investigative reporting by Julie Brown. In November last year, she published in Miami Herald a three-part series exposing a vast sex trafficking operation – 80 victims were identified, some as young as 13 at the time of the alleged abuse. Furthermore, Brown revealed a government cover-up that in 2008 made it possible for Epstein to get away with an exceptionally light sentence. A “non-prosecution agreement” was secretly negotiated by prosecutor Alexander Acosta, who provided Epstein immunity from federal prosecution. After that Epstein apparently continued his sexual misconduct. Ironically, Acosta was by President Trump appointed as United States Secretary of Labor, among other tasks responsible for combatting sex-trafficking.1
How could a sexual predator of children year after year avoid being convicted for his crimes? Can wealth and influence be an answer? Soon the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit will hopefully release 2,000 pages of documents connected with the Epstein case, revealing sexual abuse by “numerous prominent American politicians, powerful business executives, foreign presidents, a well-known prime minister, and other world leaders.”2 The current President, Donald Trump, now declares:
I wasn’t a big fan of Jeffrey Epstein. That I can tell you. I didn’t want anything to do with him. That was many, many years ago. It shows you one thing — that I have good taste.3
However, in 2002 Trump stated, in a rather revealing manner, that Epstein was a terrific guy, a lot of fun to be with. It is even said that he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side.4
The case of Jeffery Epstein, as well as that of another child abuser, George Aref Nader, reveal an outrageously low bar when it comes to sexual child abuse by wealthy and well-connected offenders. Nader, a businessman, and liaison between U.S. politicians and the Arab States of the Persian Gulf has over the years repeatedly been charged with sexual exploitation of minors. During Trumps presidential campaign Nader did at various occasions meet with the future presidents closest associates, allegedly siphoning financial support from the Middle East. On June 3, Nader was arrested by federal agents for ”bestiality and possession of child pornography.”
Such wealthy child abusers are just the tip of an iceberg. In most European cities you may find ”provocatively dressed” women lining the thoroughfares. Most of them have, after being lured from their homes in Eastern Europe or Nigeria, been forced into prostitution by pimps who lurk in the shadows, or over smartphones control their sex slaves. Even if there are many lucciole (“fireflies”, Italian slang for street prostitutes), their numbers cannot be so overwhelming that they might explain why police and authorities are so utterly incapable of saving these victims of organized crime.
One reason for the inertia may be that human trafficking is a lucrative business. In 2017, the International Labour Organization (ILO) estimated that 3.8 million persons were globally trapped in forced sexual exploitation, 21 percent of them being children under the age of eighteen.5 Annnual profits from this sex trade were in 2015 approximately USD 100 billion.6
Profits per victim are highest in forced sexual exploitation, which can be explained by the demand for such services and the prices that clients are willing to pay, and by the low capital investments and low operating costs associated with this activity. With a global average profit of US$ 21,800 per year per victim, this sector is six times more profitable than all other forms of forced labour.7
Most migrant prostitutes live in a world of misery and violence unknown to most of us. One of countless examples is the fate of Maria, a Romanian girl who was working as a prostitute in Spain. After her “rescue” she told a journalist that you’re alive but you’re not really existing. Not one of the men who paid to sleep with me asked me if I was there out of choice, or whether I wanted to be doing this. They didn’t care either way. People always ask: “Why didn’t you just run away or go to the police?” but they don’t know what they’re talking about. You can’t just stop a random person on the street and ask for help, because someone you love could get killed. The police in Romania are often corrupt. You think, why should it be different here?”8
Maria had been brought from Romania to Spain by a boyfriend she thought was bringing her there on a holiday trip. He drove her over the border using their EU residency cards and within 24 hours she was on the streets. Maria was told she had to pay off a debt of €20,000 before she could go back home. The traffickers threatened to kill her mother or sister if she did not pay off her debt and while she was under their control they hit her with hundreds of tiny charges; payment for clothes, rent for the corner where she worked, for condoms and sanitary towels. If she did not bring back enough money, she was beaten. This is the sordid reality for hundreds of thousands ”sex workers” around the world and you might imagine the suffering of minors forced into a world like this.
Jeffery Epstein is by New York prosecutors indicted on old and new sex trafficking charges, Acosta was forced to resign as labor secretary, while George Aref Nader is in a Virginian jail awaiting his trial. Are these signs that something is about to change? Hopefully, though it remains doubtful if there is any real commitment to end prostitution and sexual abuse of minors. For example, Italian law states that anyone who practices prostitution or invites to it, within a public place is punishable with imprisonment and a fine from 200 to 3,000 euros,9 though in a town like Rome the scantily dressed young women waiting for customers have not disappeared from the streets, on the contrary — their presence seems to have increased during the last years. In Spain, prostitution was decriminalized in 1995 and its domestic sex trade is currently valued at USD 26.5 billion a year, with hundreds of licensed brothels and an estimated workforce of 300,000.10
The inhibited exploitation of children and young women must be condemned and banned from society. There is no valid excuse for early marriages and sexual exploitation of minors. Wealthy and influential decision-makers covering up and even partaking in such abominable crimes against humanity must be exposed and shamed. But how?
As in all transactions, trafficking and sexual exploitation of children depend on demand and supply. When Sweden in 1999 introduced a ban of the purchase of sexual services, punishing offenders with fines, or imprisonment. The idea was that if there is no demand, there is no prostitution. Furthermore, a gender equality perspective was emphasized: buying access to another person’s body is about power, usually men’s power over women. A truism reflected by organized crime, where women and children end up as commodities to be bought and exploited. Defenders of prostitution may assert that it should be up to you if you want to prostitute yourself. However, such an argument evades the repugnant, sexual exploitation of defenseless children and ignore the glaring fact that prostitution and human trafficking are inevitably linked. Of people currently in prostitution in Sweden, three out of four are women and girls coming from poor countries.11 Prostitution cannot be reconciled with a demand for human rights. A government believing in the equal value of all people cannot accept prostitution and even less so sexual exploitation of minors. For the vast majority, prostitution is a consequence of either poverty or violence.
It has been widely debated whether the Swedish Sex Purchase Act has been efficient. Many claim that it, together with the internet and harsh immigration laws, has made prostitution invisible by bringing it indoors and hidden within a criminal underworld, making life even worse for trafficked women and children. Nevertheless, it is a fact that Swedish attitudes towards prostitution have changed after 1999. When the Sex Purchase Act was introduced 32 percent of Swedes supported a ban against sex purchase, while in 2017 almost 80 percent supported it.12 This might be a result not only of the law but also due to an increased realization that gender equality and education may counteract prostitution and abuse of minors. However, the most effective remedy for sexual exploitation is probably general wellbeing, as well as equal and strictly applied rights for all.
1 Pilkington, Ed (2019) “Jeffery Epstein: how US media – with one exception – whitewashed the story.” The Guardian, 13 July.
2 Sherman, Gabriel (2019) “Its going to be staggering, the amount of names; as Jeffrey Epsteing case grows more grotesque, Manhattan and DC brace for impact,” Vanity Fair, July17.
3 Nashrulla, Tasneem (2019) “A video shows Trump and Jeffrey Epstein laughing and discussing womens looks at at a Mar-a-Lago partry,” BuzzFeed, July 17.
5 ILO (2017) Global Estimates of Modern Slavery. Geneva: ILO, p. 11.
6 USD 26.2 billion in “developed economies and EU”, 14.3 in Central/South-Eastern Europe and The Commonwealth of Independent States, 31.7 in Asia-Pacific, 10.4 in Latin America and the Caribbean, 8.9 in Africa, and 7.5 in Middle East . ILO (2015) Profits and Poverty: The Economics of Forced Labour. Geneva: ILO, p.13.
7 Ibid. p. 15
8 Kelly, Annie and Ofelia de Pablo (2019) “Prostitution is seen as a leisure activity here”: tackling Spains sex traffickers”, The Guardian, 11 May.
10 Kelley (2019).
11 Italy and Spain have Europes highest percent of migrant prostitutes – more then 90 percent of their sex workers are migrants.
12 Holmström, Charlotta and May-Len Skilbrei (2017) ”The Swedish Sex Purchase Act: Where Does it Stand?” Oslo Law Review, No. 2, Vol. 4.
Jan Lundius holds a PhD. on History of Religion from Lund University and has served as a development expert, researcher and advisor at SIDA, UNESCO, FAO and other international organisations.