© 2024 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

While a global problem, human trafficking also happens here, says researcher

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 11, 2013 - Drug trafficking is the No. 1 illegal trade in the world, and trafficking in human beings is No. 2. President Barack Obama, among others, calls human trafficking — for labor or for sex — "modern slavery."

When Barbara Eagleton was searching for a speaker on the topic of human trafficking for the Women’s Democratic Forum, she was thinking in terms of "people brought into the United States illegally. They think they’re getting great jobs," but they end up being forced into unpaid or low-paid domestic or agricultural jobs, or they’re exploited for sex.

She found Linda Cottler, a respected, prolific researcher on human trafficking and related problems here in St. Louis. And that researcher told the forum that sex trafficking isn’t just a problem in Southeast Asia or New York City. It’s also a problem in St. Louis.

Cottler, formerly of Washington University and now head of the department of epidemiology at the University of Florida, spoke recently to a forum luncheon crowd of nearly 100 women and three men in the ballroom of the Sheraton Hotel in the Plaza in Clayton.

She defined human trafficking as "the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision or obtaining of a person for the purpose of a commercial sex act, which is induced by force, fraud or coercion." If the victim is a child, no force, fraud or coercion is necessary to call it illegal trafficking.

An estimated 2.5 million people, mostly girls and women, are trafficked in the United States -— that is, coerced, forced, or enslaved for the benefit of someone else — and eight of every 10 of them are exploited sexually.  Missouri, a transportation crossroads via highways and airlines, has more than its share of victims.

"Human trafficking is an epidemic," Cottler said.

Research and resources

Cottler and her research partners studied 350 women convicted of drug offenses in St. Louis who were part of a special program to reduce drug crimes. The study focused on HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, and on other sexually transmitted diseases.

In focus groups before crafting the survey questions and in the survey itself, the researchers heard some stunning revelations, including that one in four of the women had been coerced to have sex with authority figures, including police officers. 

Full details of the study’s findings will be published soon in the American Journal of Public Health. Cottler said she would be freer to discuss those findings after publication.

Cottler pointed to organizations that are working on solutions. The Polaris Project, for instance, pushes for stronger state and federal laws to combat trafficking and operates a national resource hotline to collect tips on illegal activities and to refer victims for services. Last year, the Polaris Project took 255 calls from Missouri, including 60 “high risk” calls involving trafficking incidents or trafficking victims.

Cottler also called attention to Slavery Footprint, an interactive website that calculates how much slave labor was probably involved in the creation and distribution of foods and products in a person’s home. The typical American woman, Cottler said, has about 49 slaves "working for" her, making clothing, cosmetics, electronics and jewelry or harvesting food.

'Be observant'

In St. Louis, Cottler said, the International Institute has a program for immigrants who might be trapped and exploited in the workplace or home.

Cottler suggested being on the alert for common characteristics of an enslaved or trafficked person. He or she:

  • Is not free to come and go as he/she wishes.
  • Is in the commercial sex industry with a pimp or manager or "boyfriend."
  • Is unpaid, paid very little, or paid only with tips.
  • Works excessively long and/or unusual hours.
  • Is not allowed breaks or has unusual restrictions at work.
  • Owes a large debt and is unable to pay it off.
  • Was recruited through false promises about the nature and conditions of his/her work.
  • Has odd security measures at work or living locations (e.g. opaque or boarded up windows, bars on windows).
  • Has few or no personal possessions.
  • Is not in control of his/her own money, has no financial records or bank account.
  • Is not in control of her/his identification documents (such as a passport or other ID).
  • Lacks knowledge of what city or neighborhood she/he is in.
  • Has numerous inconsistencies in his/her story.
  • Lacks health care
  • Appears malnourished.
  • Is fearful, anxious, depressed, submissive, tense or nervous/paranoid.

Several women in the audience praised Cottler for her presentation and praised Forum founder Eagleton for choosing the issue and the speaker.
"I’ve been working on this subject for a long time," said Laura Rand Orthwein, who cited another online organization working on the problem, Not For Sale Campaign.

Mary O’Reilly, a forum member and frequent volunteer, said the topic was not unfamiliar to her. "It’s an incredibly important topic — today and in St. Louis."

New approach to epidemiology

Cottler grew up in south St. Louis, near Carondelet Park (answer to the St. Louis question: Notre Dame High School). She studied nursing at Jewish Hospital School of Nursing (now part of BJC hospitals) and says, "Everything I learned started in nursing school." It was there she became interested in epidemiology, the study of epidemics.

"People don’t think of epidemiology in terms of chronic diseases," Cottler said in an interview after her speech, "or social epidemics or psychiatric epidemics." The field is growing "as we learn more of the importance of all things that are nonbiological, such as where you live and who you associate with."

She sees her work as "giving under-represented people a voice. I look for opportunities to find under-represented people who need somebody to look out for them." Epidemiologists have to be observant, she said, and look for causes of health problems.

Her research took her to drug addiction and HIV/AIDs. She was one of the researchers on a study that revealed that retired NFL players had a higher-than-average incidence of abusing pain-relieving drugs. She has also published studies on teen pregnancy, violence among adolescent boys and men, and substance abuse among doctors.

Cottler focuses on uncovering and describing problems, but she had some advice for her audience about how to address human trafficking:

"Be observant. If you see something, say something. And [in the case of slave labor to produce products] be aware of how you might be contributing to the problem by what you buy."

Virginia Gilbert is a freelance writer.