We are excited to share the next installment of our 2020 Student Blog Series! The student blog series highlights original pieces authored by first-year law students at Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law. Read on for Alexandra Santulli’s contribution to the Student Blog Series.
Human trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation is the use of force, fraud, or coercion to lure victims into selling sex. While no one case, story, experience, or circumstance is the same as the next, it is undeniable that survivors of this violent and heinous crime share one thing in common: unparalleled resilience and strength. However, even when an individual is able to escape the direct abuse from her trafficker, the pain, suffering, and trauma from the torture and manipulation typically persists for years afterwards. Furthermore, although it may appear that upon “escape” the victim can simply assimilate back into society, it has become clear that a broken legal system that re-victimizes survivors, and rarely convicts sex buyers makes “civilization” even more harrowing.
The term “escape” used above is presented rather loosely. In these cases, the word “escape” refers to victims’ exit or removal from the express control of their trafficker. However, based on psychological research and interviews with survivors, it is difficult for survivors to fully “escape” the phsycal and psychological suffering caused by the horrors of sexual exploitation. More commonly, the torment of this unfathomable abuse has longstanding consequences even after the victim is removed.
Unfortunately, the American criminal justice system has not always done its part in protecting and advocating for those who have fallen victim to the sex trade. Throughout history, it is evident that prostituted persons were punished and held criminally responsible, while sex buyers were largely ignored despite the fact that the purchase of sex is also a crime. Although this trend is slowly starting to change, it is still widespread. By punishing those who are exploited for sex, the criminal justice system sends a harmful message to society that victims are both criminally culpable for and the sole cause of the existence of the dangerous sex trade. This further marginalizes and oppresses society’s most vulnerable women and children in need of assistance, instead of advocating and protecting them against men in power and providing them with necessary resources to recover. To counter this problem, the criminal justice system should focus its efforts on punishing the sex buyers and traffickers who use their money, power, and force to exploit victims.
For many survivors, there is a sense of dependency on their trafficker for basic necessities, such as housing, food, clothing, as well as drugs and alcohol to satisfy a substance use disorder. (This is a common method traffickers employ to ensure that their victims remain within the sex trade.) When survivors exit the sex trade, they are left without a regular supply of food and other basic necessities. A few find themselves in the care of rehabilitation centers where they are able to receive protection, supplies, and counseling with the aid of professionals. However, not all shelters are equipped with the proper resources to handle the severe trauma often found in sex trafficking cases, leaving many without the essential care required for their recovery. While some shelters are designed specifically to assist survivors of the sex trade, many simply fall through the cracks and find themselves in places of greater social isolation, addiction, and a sense of hopelessness that may force them back under a trafficker’s control.
Survivors of the sex trade are also often re-victimized by the legal system, the media, and society after exiting, as they are treated as less than credible, sought after to tell their “story,” or tokenized. As discussed in previous blog posts, many survivors have a difficult history of prior arrests, homelessness, addiction, and immigration issues that cause many to consider them troubled and unreliable. Because of the frequent perception that survivors cannot be trusted or are not worthy of help, many fall victim to a new type of oppression, one that is controlled by a society that exploits their suffering to sell headline news stories, and the façade that they care for their well-being.
Although each survivor has a different story, in general, the best way to support victims after they exit the world of commercial sexual exploitation is to ensure that they have access to and are receiving the necessary resources and attention that puts their physical, mental, and emotional recovery at the forefront. Although the trauma caused by their time in the sex trade can be severe, it is critical that victims are able to regain control of their own narrative and view themselves as a person deserving of love and respect. Shortly after, survivors should be put in touch with suitable housing, counseling, medical care, security, and access to job training programs and education services that will allow them to move forward. By continuing to advocate, educate, support, donate, and recognize the individual humanity of each survivor, we can all make a difference in creating a safe environment for vulnerable women and children exiting a life of commercial sexual exploitation and fight against the sex trade.
Alexandra Santulli is a first-year student at the Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law. Alexandra is originally from Washington Township, New Jersey, however has spent the last four years at Fairfield University in Connecticut where she earned her Bachelor of Science degree in Accounting and Economics. Upon graduation in 2022, Alexandra hopes to use her legal knowledge to help counter injustices and empower others to find their voice.