Why the Jewish Community Needs to Discuss Sex Trafficking

“Sarah” had a pretty average childhood, growing up in an Orthodox Jewish home in New York City with her mother, father and several siblings. She went to a Jewish school in her community and took part in local clubs and activities. All of this changed however, when “Sarah” became a victim of sex trafficking.

Her trafficking story began when she was raped by a man in her community. This man was then able to manipulate and force “Sarah” into a life of prostitution through threats and violence, taking control of her life and choices. Most people think of sex trafficking as a global problem, something that is happening half a world away to an unnamed faceless person. However, the truth is that sex trafficking is all around us; it is in our cities, towns and neighborhoods. The victims of sex trafficking are our daughters, sons, brothers, and sisters. According to the FBI, the average age at which girls first become victims is 12-14; the average age for boys and transgender youth is 11-13. This is why it is so important that as communities we start tackling the truths behind trafficking, and understanding how it is affecting each and every one of us.

Sex trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery. The federal government defines sex trafficking as the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for the purpose of a commercial sex act, where such an act is induced by force, fraud, coercion or in which the person induced to perform such an act has not attained 18 years of age. While it is hard to find accurate statistics about victims of trafficking, it is estimated that there are over 20 million people worldwide who are currently victims of trafficking and about 80 percent of them are trafficked for sex. In the United States thousands of sex trafficking victims are reported each year, with many more going unreported. Up to 300,000 Americans under 18 are lured into the commercial sex trade every year. Trafficking is a $32 billion-a-year industry, and is on the rise in all 50 states. It is estimated that in the United States, the trafficking trade will soon surpass the illegal sale of drugs. Many of those who are trafficked are done so by individuals and not by large trafficking operations, and many are victimized by people they know and with whom they have relationships.

It is irresponsible to think that just because we are not talking about this issue that it is not happening. The truth is, that the silence around trafficking allows these crimes to continue and puts our loved ones at risk. The family, friends, teachers, and doctors of “Sarah” saw that something was wrong, but no one recognized her as a victim of sex trafficking and no one reached out to try and help her. The fear and shame that “Sarah” experienced kept her chained to her abuser, even though she dreamed about getting away from that life. Sex trafficking is happening in cities big and small, and across all racial, religious, and socio-economic lines. All of us, but especially young girls and boys, need to be educated on this subject so that we can better prepare and be aware of the dangers around us. Parents need to be made aware of what we should be looking for and how we can protect our children. Community members need to understand what is happening in our neighborhoods and how we can work to prevent it. It is important to learn the signs of someone who is being trafficked; such as poor health, poor mental health or abnormal behavior and lack of control over one’s decisions. The story of “Sarah” is sadly not an anomaly in our country today, it is becoming more and more common as our ignorance on the topic continues.

As an intern this summer at the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW)- New York I have been working on its coalition We Were Slaves: The Jewish Community Unites Against Sex Trafficking, of which JOFA is a member. The coalition  is trying to start this process of education and raising awareness, through age-appropriate presentations and educational sessions in synagogues and schools, along with community programs. The  educational presentations explore the issues that drive the sex trafficking trade and how we can protect ourselves and our loved ones from becoming victims. We Were Slaves highlights the importance of learning about healthy relationships and control in relationships and how that relates to sex trafficking. It has been difficult to introduce these conversations into some communities where there are community leaders uncomfortable with any discussions involving sex and who are reluctant to acknowledge that members of their communities may be at risk. Is sex trafficking a difficult and sometimes uncomfortable topic to think about and to discuss with young people? Yes, it can be. But as with other things in life, we have to find a way to overcome some discomfort or awkwardness in order to bring awareness to important and relevant issues. We cannot continue to cover our eyes and ears and pretend that this is not an issue in our communities while young people are being hurt and exploited on a daily basis. Education and awareness are just the first steps in beginning to combat sex trafficking, but they are important and necessary in order to know what is happening in the world and in our own backyards.

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