Sex trafficking and prostitution are happening all over Atlanta

Residents and businesses do their best to deter commercial sex work, but police often don’t do much.

Last month, I was scheduled to testify for the defense in a potentially historic civil case in Atlanta in which 11 plaintiffs sued the Red Roof Inn, alleging the hotelier knew or should have known that sex trafficking was occurring at two properties in Smyrna and Buckhead — claims that Red Roof Inn denied. However, the jury was not able to render a verdict because the case concluded in settlement after the first day of defense testimony.

While in Atlanta, I became even more acquainted with the commercial sex activity that has plagued this city but that is still not truly understood by its residents.

Credit: Handout

icon to expand image

Credit: Handout

First, it is important to understand that prostitution and sex trafficking are not synonymous. Sex trafficking refers to slave-like commercial sexual exploitation. This typically occurs when a person is forced, defrauded or threatened into having commercial sex for no money and is prohibited from exiting the commercial sex industry. Prostitution, on the other hand, involves an adult who agrees to exchange a sexual act for something of value — this can be money or anything else of worth (e.g., cars, jewelry, recreational drugs, etc.).

There are also individuals who engage in what is known as “survival sex,” which involves prostitution by a person because of extreme need (e.g., food, housing, or other basic needs, as well as to obtain addictive drugs). According to data from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention and interviews with law enforcement officers in the Fulton Industrial area, until recently, minors who engaged in “survival sex” could be criminalized, because they technically were not victims of trafficking.

Research on commercial sex activity suggests that the overwhelming majority of those involved are not trafficked but rather are consenting adults, and a person engaging in “survival sex” is technically not a victim of trafficking but should be considered for treatment and services as opposed to criminalization.

For example, while in Atlanta, I interviewed a sex worker on Fulton Industrial Boulevard who goes by the pseudonym “Shorty.” She told me that she had been working as a consenting sex worker, without a pimp, for more than 20 years and engaged in the activity to fuel her crack drug habit, but she emphatically contended that she was a consenting participant.

Second, it is important to understand that commercial sex activity does not only occur in the hospitality industry, but also in houses and apartments, in cars and at parks. Even the most well-intentioned residents and businesses struggle to combat commercial sex activity and often fail to identify the clandestine crime of trafficking, especially when law enforcement is unable to identify these crimes and/or take effective action.

For example, four years ago, residents in mid-town Atlanta reportedly called the police more than 800 times in eight years to report the commercial sex activity occurring around the intersection of Fourth and Myrtle. Residents claimed they were finding drug baggies and condoms and seeing suspected sex workers, even while taking their children to school; yet, the police were unable to effectively deter the activity.

Today, although commercial sex activity has appeared to have marginally decreased or been displaced, it has not been eradicated. When I spoke to residents, they told me that they continue to call police, the neighborhood’s homeowners association has hired private security, and residents had installed security cameras and trimmed back bushes to prohibit commercial sex acts from occurring on their properties. Despite their efforts, these crimes still happen.

While exploring the neighborhood I photographed the used condoms that littered the walkways, along with knives, liquor bottles, drug baggies and blunt wrappers — all in a community of houses that are valued between $1 million to $4 million. I also witnessed a woman masturbating on the hood of a car, waving at passersby, and a topless woman asking for water steps away from a home where children had been playing earlier in the day.

This community is clearly not looking the other way or condoning these illicit activities, but what should be expected of private residents and businesses when law enforcement cannot prevent these crimes from occurring? Although the recent lawsuit against the Red Roof Inn concluded with settlement, Atlanta residents should ask themselves whether it is just to place the blame on the locations where commercial sex activity occurs, even when the residents and proprietors demonstrably alert and cooperate with law enforcement? Suing businesses will not prevent or deter the issues of prostitution or sex trafficking; instead, law enforcement must be empowered with the tools needed to effectively respond to calls for service and social service providers need to address and prevent catalysts, such as drug use and childhood sexual abuse.

If it is the responsibility of police to enforce the laws, why are residents and businesses left holding the bag?

Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco is a renowned human trafficking expert and author of “Hidden in Plain Sight: America’s Slaves of the New Millennium.”