Wealthy Frenchman

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Hidden in Brothels, Slavery by Another Name


The word spread that there was a new girl at the brothel in Queens, and the johns began lining up. ''I was crying all night,'' said Kika Cerpa in an interview last week. ''One by one they came in.''

That first night, she said, ''I had sex with 19 men.''

Afterward, she took a shower, and then the man who had forced her into the sex trade demanded his turn with her. When she refused (saying, ''I can't have sex with nobody -- I feel like I'm dead''), he beat her up.

Ms. Cerpa came to the U.S. from Venezuela in 1992. A man she thought of as a boyfriend convinced her to follow him to New York. Ms. Cerpa reluctantly agreed, believing that she could get work as a nanny.

When she got here, her ''boyfriend'' and another woman took her passport and demanded that Ms. Cerpa become a prostitute to work off debts that they said the boyfriend had incurred. Threatened with bodily harm, and completely intimidated, she complied.

''They took me to a house, and I sat in a room with other girls,'' she said. ''Men would come in, and I kept my head down the entire time.''

There was nothing unusual about the predicament that confronted Ms. Cerpa -- not then, when she was 20, and not now. The demand for prostitutes (here in New York and elsewhere) is much greater than the supply of women who want to be prostitutes. So trafficking, the coercion of women and young girls into the sex trade, is a flourishing industry.

The toll that trafficking takes is often horrific. In addition to the forced prostitution, the women and children who are the victims of trafficking become part of a landscape in which drug addiction, disease, mental health problems, beatings and violent death are commonplace.

The worst moment in Ms. Cerpa's three-year entrapment in the hell of prostitution occurred when a prostitute she had befriended declined to go with a customer. The john became enraged and shot the woman. Ms. Cerpa ran to her friend. ''She was dead, lying there with her eyes open,'' she said.

It may seem peculiar, but there is no law against sex trafficking in the state of New York -- or most other states, for that matter. Many thousands of women and children are coerced into the sex trade each year, and the pimps, madams and other lowlifes who trap them are seldom subject to legal sanctions commensurate with the severity of their crimes.

A bill has been introduced in the State Assembly that would create two new crimes in New York: trafficking a person for sexual servitude and trafficking a person for labor servitude. But that bill, which has overwhelming support in the Assembly (including more than 100 co-sponsors), has been stuck for some time in the Codes Committee.

This seems inexplicable, because you will find very few legislators lining up (publicly, at least) with the soft-on-sex-traffickers crowd. I talked yesterday to the Democratic speaker of the Assembly, Sheldon Silver, and asked what was up.

He said that some of the language in the bill needed to be refined, and that his staffers would be working on it later in the day. He said he thought the Assembly would be able to pass the bill ''within the next two weeks.'' It would then go on to the Senate.

I hope so. The bill is a good one. It emphasizes the coercive aspect of trafficking, which is really about human beings being bought and sold as commodities -- not just in the commercial sex trade, but also in exploitive labor situations on farms and in factories and sweatshops.

Trafficking is much more widespread than most people realize. As the advocacy group Sanctuary for Families has pointed out, ''In our backyards and communities, a slave trade is flourishing that makes a mockery of our belief in civil and human rights.''

The Assembly bill, whose primary sponsor is Jeffrey Dinowitz, a Bronx Democrat, would make trafficking a felony, with penalties ranging from probation for a first-time offender to a maximum of 15 years in prison. It would modestly raise the penalties for patronizing a prostitute, making it easier to jail chronic offenders. And it would provide a defense against arrest for women who were coerced into prostitution.

Jane Manning, an attorney with the international women's rights organization Equality Now, said of the trafficked women, ''More often than not they are the ones who are arrested and end up with criminal convictions that follow them for the rest of their lives.''

After seeing her friend murdered, Kika Cerpa cooperated with the police and helped put the killer behind bars. After a long struggle, and with help from Sanctuary for Families, she has managed to free herself from the pimps and madams who had controlled her life, and still control so many others.


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