Sex trafficking is often hidden in plain sight

Getty Images

Legislators and law enforcement in the United States have been actively combating human trafficking for over 25 years. During this time, we have seen increases in anti-trafficking funding, legislation, task forces, and public awareness.

From the media coverage on arrests, it could easily be assumed that the men and women who traffic people, as well as the consumers of their illicit services, are being held accountable for their crimes, but the disheartening reality is that, for the most part, they are not.

{mosads}This past weekend at a strip mall nail salon, I overheard a man at the front desk arguing about his payment. I just assumed he wasn’t pleased with his nail services until the nail technician who was giving my 15-year-old daughter a pedicure leaned over and whispered to me, “he was getting a massage and then asked her to massage down there,” the woman gestured toward her genital area as she was speaking, so she walked out. Now, he doesn’t want to pay for the massage because she refused to touch him there.”

I was incredulous. This man allegedly had attempted to procure sexual services in a nail salon full of women at 2:00pm on a Saturday afternoon. He was then emboldened enough to refuse to pay for the 45 minutes of back massage that he had received before she rebuffed his sexual proposition. With tears in her eyes, the women explained how this happens frequently.

The particular situation was quickly and discretely resolved and many of the other customers were none the wiser.

Although there have been exposés on the sex trafficking industry in nail salons and increased attention from law enforcement, men continue to solicit sexual services at both legitimate and illicit businesses across the country. These nail salons are sometimes listed on erotic review or advertisement sites, like and, which law enforcement agents have increasingly used to initiate investigations. Yet, convictions remain infrequent.

While some women may consent into selling their bodies for money, many of these women are being forced, defrauded, or coerced into sexual exploitation. Others, like my nail technician, are legitimate workers, who are being repeatedly sexually harassed in the workplace.

With all of the increased political attention on anti-trafficking intervention, I do not understand why these men are able to solicit illicit sexual services with impunity from the law and discretion? Why do victims continued to be denied services and erroneously arrested? Why aretraffickers having their cases null prosecuted or sentenced to short lengths of incarceration? And why are politicians touting their anti-trafficking policy, when there is a dearth of evidence on the efficacy?

Human trafficking is described as being “hidden in plain sight.” Experts will explain, “If you don’t see it, you’re not looking.” Although this is as true today as it was 25 years ago, a new problem has emerged. Even when a commercial sex patron or trafficker is correctly identified, they are rarely prosecuted as we would expect, while victims continue to be mistakenly criminalized.

If we truly want to address the human trafficking scourge in the United States, we need to do a better job in preventing victimization and protecting trafficking survivors, as well as prosecuting offenders and patrons of the commercial sex industry. The level of impunity these men receive is unacceptable.

This past weekend, I sat in a massage seat getting a pedicure with my daughter, as a man was emboldened enough to walk into a legitimate nail salon full of women and allegedly solicit sex. Since he experienced no adverse consequence for his inappropriate behavior, there is no discernible deterrent to prohibit him from continuing. American legislators and law enforcement need to acknowledge this reality and take action to hold sex offenders accountable for their crimes and prevent innocent women from future victimization and exploitation.

Mehlman-Orozco holds a Ph.D. in criminology, law and society from George Mason University, with an expertise in human trafficking. She currently serves as a human trafficking expert witness for criminal cases and her book, “Hidden in Plain Sight: America’s Slaves of the New Millennium,” is contracted for publication with Praeger/ABC-Clio. Follow her on Twitter @MehlmanOrozco


The views expressed by Contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.





Tags civil rights Human trafficking Immigration nail salons sex trafficking trafficking

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video