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The Challenge of Sex Trafficking in the Hospitality Industry

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In a previous article series, I wrote about the potential ethical implications and societal impacts of decriminalizing prostitution between freely consenting adults when no coercion or pressure — physical, psychological, economic, or otherwise — is present. And even then, it’s difficult to say exactly how such a change in our laws would alter the fabric of our communities.

However, one thing is nonetheless unambiguously clear, that sex trafficking is morally repugnant and ethically indefensible in all of its forms. The U.S. Department of Justice defines sex trafficking as a type of human trafficking in which “a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age.”

These practices are obviously heinous and deplorable, and no one should ever confuse an earnest discussion about decriminalizing prostitution between consenting adults with an advocacy or defense for sex trafficking in any way, shape, or form.

Sex Trafficking Is a Difficult Practice for Hotels and Motels to Detect and Thwart

Despite the widespread consensus that sex trafficking should be criminally prohibited and socially repudiated (and it is), it is nonetheless a difficult practice for hotels and motels to detect and thwart. That is due to what is sometimes a lack of clear and unambiguous evidence that would give rise to suspicion.

Try to picture sex traffickers and their victims in your mind. Are you imagining some large, surly men looming over frightened, battered young women? Perhaps the men are threatening them with bodily harm. Perhaps the women are scantily clad and appear desperate to please the men for fear of the consequences if they don’t.

Sex Traffickers and Their Victims Can Behave Indistinguishable from Ordinary Guests

I don’t think there’s any doubt that pictures like this do exist in the real world. But sadly, a fair amount of the time sex trafficking doesn’t bear these hallmark indicators that we are often conditioned to think we ought to look for based on portrayals in TV shows and movies. In fact, a fair amount of the time sex traffickers and their victims can be and do behave virtually indistinguishable from ordinary guests staying in a hotel.

This is not to say that there are no truths about typical criminal behaviors, or ways in which hotel or motel personnel could potentially identify sex trafficking on their properties.

For example, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) publishes a guide for recognizing human trafficking in the hospitality industry, and it includes such potential warning indicators as:

  • Individuals show signs of malnourishment, poor hygiene, fatigue, sleep deprivation, untreated illness, injuries, and/or unusual behavior.
  • Individuals lack freedom of movement or are constantly monitored.
  • Individuals have no control over or possession of money or ID.
  • Individuals dress inappropriately for their age or have lower quality clothing compared to others in their party.
  • Individuals request room or housekeeping services (additional towels, new linens, etc.), but deny hotel/motel staff entry into room.
  • A presence of multiple computers, cell phones, pagers, credit card swipers, or other technology.
  • An extended stay with few or no personal possessions.
  • Excessive amounts of sex paraphernalia in the room (condoms, lubricants, lotions, etc.)
  • The same person reserves multiple rooms.
  • Room is rented hourly, less than a day, or for long-term stays that do not appear normal.
  • Individuals selling items to or begging from patrons or staff.
  • Cars in parking lot regularly parked backward, so the license plate is not visible.
  • Individuals loitering and soliciting male patrons.
  • Individuals waiting at a table or bar and picked up by a male (trafficker or customer).
  • Individuals asking staff or patrons for food or money.
  • Individuals taking cash or receipts left on tables.

These circumstance may indeed be suspicious indicators of potential sex trafficking. But it’s also important to realize that sex traffickers — particularly professionals — are often aware of these indicators, and may take deliberate measures to avoid hotel staff becoming aware of their activities.

Depending on the Design and Staffing, Hotel Staff May Not Keenly Spot the Victims

For example, if sex trafficking victims — usually women — appear fearful, malnourished, unkempt, sleep-deprived, or inappropriately dressed, as suggested by the DHS guide, traffickers may have their victims wait in a vehicle or outside the premises during vital interactions with the hotel, such as at check-in and check-out. Depending on the design and staffing of the property — interior versus exterior corridors, elevators, surveillance equipment, number and location of personnel — hotel staff may not keenly spot the victims as they come in and out of the property.

Even worse, sometimes victims do not exhibit any sign of unusual behavior as traffickers deceive them into believing that the commercial sex activity is a business partnership undertaken with their best interests in mind. This is particularly true — and particularly tragic — with trafficked minors.

Minors often lack the capacity and experience to recognize when they are being tricked or exploited. So sometimes the initial entry into commercial sex work is undertaken “willingly” by a minor, with the fraud-induced belief that her pimp or trafficker is a caring boyfriend or a friend whose aim is to help her achieve a better life.

Psychological Deception and Manipulation Are a Common Tactic for Sex Traffickers

Only after it’s too late do such minors realize that they’re being used. This psychological deception and manipulation has become such a common tactic for sex traffickers that public school districts have begun producing informational videos like this to warn students about these threats.

But for hotels and motels, it can sometimes be difficult to detect sex trafficking when neither the traffickers nor the victim(s) raises any of the flags of suspicious activity commonly associated with these crimes. And mistaken assumptions are not without costs.

For example, I was once consulted on an incident in Florida where a hotel found suspicious a man claiming that the little girl with him was his daughter because the two looked nothing alike. Due to concerns about potential sex trafficking, the hotel called the police only to find that the little girl was the adopted daughter of this loving, though physically dissimilar, father. The hotel obviously had good intentions, but the girl and her father were understandably disturbed by the incident; they filed suit against the hotel for harassment and discrimination.

This is not to say that hotels and motels should stop looking for signs of sex trafficking, or being vigilant about their efforts to detect and thwart these activities. But this is not necessarily a simple or easy task. Fighting these heinous crimes is a battle that absolutely must be fought, but will undoubtedly be an uphill battle for years to come.

For more information, the Hospitality Management program, offered through the American Public University Wallace E. Boston School of Business, includes courses in hotel management issues and challenges, such as HOSP310 Management of Lodging Operations. Additionally, the APU School of Security & Global Studies Criminal Justice programs offer courses at both undergraduate and graduate levels on the subjects discussed in this article, including CMRJ401 Human Trafficking and CMRJ515 Sexual Exploitation/Children.

Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Director with the School of Business at American Military University. He holds a J.D. in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. Gary teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Military University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others.

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