In the state I live there are some measures being discussed that are meant to combat human trafficking. A couple of the ones I've heard are:

  1. One is to close down illicit massage parlors

  2. Another is for hotel workers to report suspected victims of human trafficking (who are likely underage)

Now, I've heard that there is some controversy to these suggestions. Some say that 1 will force victims out onto the streets and into more dangerous situations. I don't understand this objection as I had imagined that shutting down the shop would include rescue.

An objection to 2 I heard was that 2 would put victims at higher risk of retribution from traffickers, and that it should only be done with the consent of the victim. This too I do not understand, as I thought there would be discretion on part of the law and that victims might have a hard time speaking up.

Could someone explain the measures and the objections further? Some of these come from advocacy groups and while I value their insight and respect their work I have a hard time fully understanding. I don't know how to ask but I would also appreciate hearing any other aspects of the debate too

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    Looking at your profile, it seems the state you're asking about is Florida. The second proposal you list is most likely SB 540, but it's unclear to me whether the first is the same one or a different one entirely. Adding this here to help potential answerers.
    – user5155
    Commented Feb 28, 2019 at 17:58
  • Comments deleted. Please don't use comments to answer the question or debate the subject matter. For information about what comments should and should not be used for, please read the help article on the commenting privilege.
    – Philipp
    Commented Mar 3, 2019 at 19:02
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    I don't understand this objection as I had imagined that shutting down the shop would include rescue. Remember that it's not just about the current people (who you'd indeed expect to be rescued), but where future people will end up (you can't rescue someone who isn't there to be rescued yet). I did not write this as an answer because it doesn't answer the question; but this does feel like it's relevant to point out about the premise of your rescue assumption.
    – Flater
    Commented Mar 4, 2019 at 8:49

8 Answers 8


For case 1, the unstated assumptions are that prostitution will take place regardless of the government's attempts to stop it, and even if there are illicit massage parlors populated with victims of human trafficking, there are also illicit massage parlors with voluntary prostitutes. The voluntary prostitutes will not be "rescued" because, they don't need "rescuing" and if they keep doing sex work they will do it elsewhere. There are many values of "elsewhere" more dangerous for the prostitute and less desirable for society than an illicit massage parlor, e.g. city streets.

For case 2, most mandatory reporting laws require that the mandatory reporter's personally identifying information be taken and made available. This information may be published to other law enforcement personnel and may appear in court documents depending on how a case proceeds. The reporter therefore can be subject to intimidation. Also, if you know who the reporter is, it is a trivial exercise for a criminal organization to determine when and where that person works and therefore determine who is likely to be the victim that caused the report to be filed.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation about the prevalence of different kinds of human trafficing been moved to chat.
    – Philipp
    Commented Mar 2, 2019 at 11:24

Another is for hotel workers to report suspected victims of human trafficking (who are likely underage)

To add to the other answers, one problem with this is that is causes severe problems for people with uncommon family structures that frequently can resemble human trafficking to well-meaning, but untrained, people. This is particularly a problem for people who have adopted children of a different race or people whose children don't look very much like them.

Young black men tend to fit a stereotype of a human trafficker more than a middle-aged white person would. So a young black man with a daughter who looks white may be reported to police while a middle-aged white man with a daughter who looks white may not be in an otherwise identical situation. These types of situations tend to occur in hotels as parents may be carrying a child who passed out in the car, children may throw temper tantrums, and so on. These kinds of events are often not handled particularly well by police and there are some horror stories involving children separated from their parents and interrogated in ways that severely affected them.

The problem is simply that people whose families just happen to resemble untrained people's stereotypes of human trafficking will wind up having unpleasant encounters with police in situations involving them and their small children. It's like police stopping people who "don't look like they belong in this neighborhood", but worse.

Will specific employees be trained in recognizing actual signs of human trafficking or coerced sex work and accurately relay their suspicions to police? Or will every employee be told to report anything they think as suspicious based on their personal life experiences and biases about what a family looks like in a way that doesn't accurately convey the possibility of innocent explanations? The former might be unobjectionable, but the fear is that we'll actually get the latter.

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    For example, this happened earlier this month: Cindy McCain Thought She Spotted Human Trafficking. But There Was No Crime, Police Say. That article features a United Against Human Trafficking spokeswoman saying "We have been told repeatedly, we would rather people call and report human trafficking incidents and be wrong 100 times on the off chance that they are right one time." If someone is frequently questioned by the police on basis of these judgements, they may well disagree. Commented Mar 1, 2019 at 8:48
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    To add an only slightly related data point from the other side of the Atlantic. Here, people can anonymously report suspected cases of animal abuse/neglect to the authorities. A couple of years back, the local newspaper cited the vet officer saying that ≈ 1/3 of the reports they consider warranted (in the sense that they think it OK that lay people pronounced concerns, not necessarily that something was wrong with how the animals were kept/treated). Another third of the cases, they try and fail to explain to the reporting person that what they are concerned about is natural for the animal in Commented Mar 1, 2019 at 13:58
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    question (things like ducklings are not at a danger of drowning, sheep should not be kept in a heated stable) and ≈ 1/3 of the cases they estimate to be reports out of spite. Even if they know who reported, they can not tell the accused who it was - and they see this creating substantial mistrust in neighbourhoods. Sometimes they say "FYI: the report did not come from this neighbourhood." Two more points to consider about the costs of wrong suspicions: even the wrong suspcions about animal welfare cause a lot of stress for the suspected - and that supicion is totally harmless compared to Commented Mar 1, 2019 at 14:56
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    human trafficking. The 2nd point is hopefully not relevant for human trafficking (though I'm afraid that in practice, situations not adequately covered by law will happen). For the animal welfare there are situations where the intention of the law but not its letters are met. A lot of hassle arises that does not lead to any improvement in the animal's welfare. In conclusion, I do think that the consequences of wrong suspicions need to be considered, +1. Commented Mar 1, 2019 at 15:19
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    @ZachLipton That's a little crazy considering that our founding fathers said "It is better 100 guilty Persons should escape than that one innocent Person should suffer", pretty much the exact opposite of UAHT's statement. So +1 for this being a sound objection to the proposals.
    – Kevin Fee
    Commented Mar 1, 2019 at 22:20

The measures you're describing don't target trafficking, but sex work. They mean that sex workers will move away from high-visibility areas where they're less likely to come to harm but are more likely to be noticed by the authorities, and into more dangerous situations.

For example, if they can't work out of hotels without getting arrested for being a victim of trafficking (and yes, despite being the ostensible victim, they're often arrested), then they'll bring their clients back to their houses instead, with obvious risks if a client feels entitled to more than is being offered.

Sex workers are more likely to turn to any source of protection, which will lead to them being more likely to be trafficked.

All of this is also ignoring the fact that most trafficking victims in the US are not sex workers but domestic staff. It's attacking the wrong problem and then using the worst possible approach to do so.

  • 2
    If you outlaw guns, only outlaws will have guns. - "worst possible approach" +1 but not if their goal is anti-sex work, then it's a great one....
    – Mazura
    Commented Mar 1, 2019 at 4:20
  • @Mazura Your example is not a valid one though because nobody ever wanted to outlaw guns. Registering and controlling guns is another issue though.
    – Sulthan
    Commented Mar 1, 2019 at 15:34
  • You know, they are undeniably voluntarily criminals if they have their own home, have the freedom to relocate to do their own work and all the things you describe, and yet do not find the time to report their status to authorities. Your argument relies upon the idea that ocne somebody is sinned against, anything they do from that point on is because of the 'original sin.' heh.
    – Giu Piete
    Commented Mar 1, 2019 at 17:10
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    @Sulthan Plenty of people want to outlaw guns. Just not a lot of them live in the US. Commented Mar 1, 2019 at 17:17
  • @GiuPiete I'm not sure I understand your point. Yes, sex work is in many cases illegal, and so the people who do it are "voluntarily criminals", but if the point is to target sex workers, why frame the discussion in terms of trafficking? Commented Mar 4, 2019 at 21:25

One issue with the second proposal as you've phrased it is that hotel workers run the gamut from cleaners to managers; is every hotel worker supposed to get training on recognizing human trafficking at a glance? How effective is that training, in reality? One anecdote from the comments:

Anecdotal evidence, but from talking to a police officer, the ability of hotel workers to recognize sex trafficking ranges from "bad joke" to "highly counterproductive". Every single case of "child prostitution" he'd been sent to investigate turned out to be a father traveling with his daughter (most often, black father with light-skinned daughter), while adult prostitution was either father/teenage daughter, or college-age couple (again, with an over-representation of mixed-race pairs).

I imagine many hotels have high turnover rates, so I would expect the industry to object on the cost of training all employees to spot human trafficking.

Third, I would also expect the industry to be reticent to start accusing their patrons of human trafficking - especially those with wealthy clientele - even if they don't state it publicly. Imagine the media storm if a Hilton accused a parent of trafficking based on the skin color and appearance of their adopted child.

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    On top of that, the employees could be illegal immigrants and depending on the location helping stop human trafficking could lead to their own deportation. That would incentivize them to look the other way even if that is not the right thing to do.
    – Reed
    Commented Feb 28, 2019 at 21:21
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    Anecdotal evidence, but from talking to a police officer, the ability of hotel workers to recognize sex trafficking ranges from "bad joke" to "highly counterproductive". Every single case of "child prostitution" he'd been sent to investigate turned out to be a father traveling with his daughter (most often, black father with light-skinned daughter), while adult prostitution was either father/teenage daughter, or college-age couple (again, with an over-representation of mixed-race pairs).
    – Mark
    Commented Feb 28, 2019 at 21:27
  • @Mark Yes, that was my impression from the class I took on human trafficking. Commented Feb 28, 2019 at 21:54

I had imagined that shutting down the shop would include rescue.

A huge point you are missing, is that people who are in such a situation (of actually needing rescue) are inexperienced, isolated, dependent, and terrified of engagement with authorities - often for good reason unfortunately.

  • They have no other contacts.
  • They may be deported.
  • They may have been told terrible things will happen to them.
  • They may be dependent for drugs or other things.
  • They may have children or relatives overseas who will be (or who they have been told will be) at risk, or separated, or suffer.
  • They may have been told they owe money (for "rent", or for their own trafficking) and fear for their safety or feel duty bound to comply as they owe their trafficker.
  • They don't know the country well, are often very linguistically disadvantaged, impoverished, and easily manipulated
  • They may be at risk of arrest - whatever police and authorities should do, the reality is that most of the time the victims will be seen as being in the wrong - arrested, charged with any number of crimes, drug possession, whatever.
  • In a disturbing number of cases where police intrude on sex work, an outcome is that the police officers implicitly act as if they have a right to take possessions they see, demand sex, hint that "if taken care of" they will "go easy" and so on. The justice system majors in victim blaming, and even medical help may be prefunctory or based on prejudice about the victims.

Yes you can rescue people in that situation, and yes they desperately need it, but these issues present a huge barrier, and if you just shut the shops, you will expose people to those risks and realities, snd you will not necessarily be able to avoid that (hard to change police/justice/social care/medical culture and popular perceptions).

Rescue isn't as easy as it sounds, and people with those fears and realities may fear "I'm from the government and I'm here to help", more than almost anything else, because their current reality at least is a "known".

So you need to think hard, how people and traffickers/manipulators in that situation will act/respond, when faced with a public policy of that kind. The answers will probably be disturbing. If your imagination picks ideals then you need to reflect on your privileges and their past realities. Someone with poor English, isolated, manipulated, cut out from their family/"herd", facing a violent and abusive boyfriend/manager/pimp, maybe needing cash now not "some time", maybe dependent on drugs, documents taken "for safekeeping", having seen (and if not seen, certainly heard of) peers who got cut up or beaten up or put in hospital, ... you need to think in their reality not yours, to really help.

If you do, the answers become much less clearcut, because a lot of the answer is about how we (politicians, police, medical, justice, authorities generally, wider society) need to change and accept we're actually doing things wrongly, rather than the usual popular/political way it's presented and understood: which is put crudely, mostly about how we can get a quick dose of feel-goods from an easy "obvious" well-defined rescue, with big readily understood banners, clearly defined good people/bad people, and (for politicians) good TV soundbites. But solving this problem in a real way, often flounders because it isn't simple, and the implementation of any solution is hard as heck, with every step a battle.

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    There's a mindset that says simplistic solutions are enough. They usually aren't, for social ills like this. If it was as simple as "just rescue them", we'd have it solved and done it already. Its a lot, lot more difficult and nuanced than "so they'll be a bit scared but they'll get over it". People spend their lives trying to attack trafficking, and their view is generally 1) its not easy at all, 2) simplistic isn't going to solve much, 3) there are numerous beliefs about how to help, suggesting that even experts can't be sure what to do.
    – Stilez
    Commented Mar 1, 2019 at 19:30
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    But "shut down illegal massage parlours" isn't actually related that much to "rescue victims of trafficking". That's how far out you are - you don't seem to even realise what the problems are in identifying the victims, you're just proposing something that sounds like it ought to be relevant. In 2016 the US produced "Best practices for rescuing traffic victims" after many hearings. Pg1 states there are 14,000 - 17,000 victims estimated every year. At best, a few hundred are rescued. Most are hidden away. Parlours sound like where they should be - but they mostly aren't.
    – Stilez
    Commented Mar 1, 2019 at 19:50
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    @GuiPiete: Not really. A rough analogy: Child abuse is bad, but often hard to spot. But it sometimes happens at sports clubs. So let's close all child sports clubs and rescue the children in them. Meaning,the fact that some illegal parlours contain trafficked women, doesn't equate to 'most women in illegal parlours are trafficking victims'. In fact statistically the substantial majority are not (compare parlour population with 1) estimated traffic population, 2) %age of traffic population in illegal parlours (as opposed to nail bars/other non sex work/sex work but not parlours).
    – Stilez
    Commented Mar 1, 2019 at 20:59
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    So statistically not only you don't help much in the way of traffic victims (quite low density in parlours even so), but the poor targeting takes resources which might have been better used to identify and rescue more victims. The problem is this fixation that parlours in general will contain high levels of traffic victims. The actual level will be low, because the number trafficked total is small compared to the total working in these places. You'll shut down many non trafficked people for each trafficked one you find, displace much of it anyway, and run out of resources fast too.
    – Stilez
    Commented Mar 1, 2019 at 20:59
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    @Giu Piete- you might find this paper fascinating as it's related: "Why do scammers say they are from Nigeria?" (econinfosec.org/archive/weis2012/papers/Herley_WEIS2012.pdf). It discusses the practical impact on tactics for a similar "search efficiency" problem in a different field - scammers need to locate the very few gullible people in a huge population (as we look for traffic victims), but the gullible few aren't necessarily obvious/self-labelled. It shows how efficiency differences in how you filter your population can be critical for success/fail in such a search scenario
    – Stilez
    Commented Mar 2, 2019 at 13:07

Some say that [closing down illicit massage parlors] will force victims out onto the streets and into more dangerous situations. I don't understand this objection as I had imagined that shutting down the shop would include rescue.

The thing to keep in mind is that people respond to incentives. If the government shuts down too many massage parlors, pimps will move their operations before their parlors are shut down. At the very least, new operations will be less likely to use massage parlors.

The magnitude of this effect depends on the cost of moving and the level of enforcement, but at least in theory, the number of prostitutes who move to the street may be much higher than the number who are arrested and/or rescued. (The fact that not all prostitutes are coerced has already been brought up.)

  • The idea that closing down the massage parlors would catch more than a tiny fraction of the prostitutes is ludicrous for this reason. Commented Mar 1, 2019 at 17:20
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    I saw exactly this happen with the local effort to eliminate street prostitution. It was hugely successful at stopping street prostitution -- I don't think anyone's been arrested for picking up a prostitute on a street corner for years -- but the actual activity just moved to meeting online. As a side effect, nobody knows how common prostitution is any more.
    – Mark
    Commented Mar 1, 2019 at 21:53
  • The problem here is the idea that all "massage parlors" are run by pimps, rather than being the result of individual entrepreneurship.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Mar 3, 2019 at 17:35

Point 2 has two major issues

The first is that it places an impossible responsibility on those hotel workers. Without training, without backup, without evidence, and not least without pay, they are effectively being drafted as deputies for your border control force. If they get it wrong and someone is actually trafficked, they can be convicted for not reporting them even if they didn't know. This has actually happened in the UK for a similar law involving illegal immigrants. And if they get it wrong and someone actually is not trafficked, that person could sue them for the resulting trouble and loss of time and reputation.

The other problem though is that all border forces do consider victims of trafficking to be illegal immigrants, basically because they are. There are efforts in various countries to improve the situation, but I'm not aware of any which have really turned the situation around on the ground. Certainly the US and most of Europe take this attitude. Europe has introduced laws on modem slavery which allow the traffickers to be put away, but this doesn't necessarily help their trafficked victims.

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    Not all trafficking victims have crossed the border illegally; so strictly speaking, they wouldn't just be ersatz border control deputies but also domestic police deputies. Commented Mar 1, 2019 at 17:28
  1. If a massage parlor is "illicit" the police are supposed to be shutting them down already. Without describing the specific measure, it begs the question what would change about this. However, I do question the assumption that a sex trafficking victim is somehow "safer" working in a massage parlor. Safer than what? It is difficult for most people to comprehend the degree of suffering these victims must endure.
  2. Mandatory reporting creates multiple issues. While it is true that hotel workers have a financial incentive to turn a blind eye, simply requiring that they report potential victims carries both legal and practical consequences. Are police going to kick down doors now because some 17-year-old thinks something is suspicious? And if that 17-year-old kid decides to grant benefit of the doubt, does he go to prison now? Hotel front desk workers are not first responders, teachers, doctors, therapists, or any of the other classes of trusted professionals normally burdened with this legal obligation; and it is not reasonable to expect this of them, in my opinion. Instead, we should simply be grateful for what vigilance they are capable of.

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