Four panelists at the University of Florida’s Dauer Hall on Wednesday addressed the problem of sex trafficking with a specific emphasis on exploitation in the local Gainesville community.
Florida ranks third in most human trafficking cases, according to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, behind only California and Texas.
Given this statistic, moderator and organizer Jaime Ahlberg said the point of the panel was to engage grand ethical questions with the local community.
“We really want to take these public issues that are ethically important and difficult and connect the intellectual or academic aspect of them to things that are going on in our own community,” Ahlberg said.
Hosted by the Intersections Mellon Group, Ethics in the Public Sphere, the panel featured Maddy Coy, Center for Gender, Sexualities, and Women’s Studies Research; Alexandria Wilson, PhD candidate, Department of Political Science, and Affiliate of the Center for Gender, Sexualities, and Women’s Studies Research; Alison Ungaro, Founder and Executive Director of Created Gainesville; and Sedona Huffty, Development Coordinator for Created Gainesville.
As a former UF student, Ungaro said it is hard to believe these acts are taking place here behind closed doors.
In 2019, a downtown Gainesville massage parlor — Tokyo Massage — was found in an undercover investigation offering unsolicited sexual acts with the purchase of a service, according to The Gainesville Sun.
WUFT reported three students arrested for being a part of a sex trafficking sting in 2017 as well.
“If someone were to do a sting operation and bust them, then what?” Ungaro asked to a room of about 30, only four of whom were male. “Where does this individual [the victim] go?”
Ungaro works with women who have been exploited in the sex industry, offering resources and aid through Created Gainesville, a non-profit organization that claims to have helped over 900 women.
In an interview with WUFT, Ungaro described a time when she met a woman on the street in a black trench coat with nothing but sharp scissors to protect herself. Three years later, that woman walked into a dinner at Created Gainesville, shocked Ungaro never forgot her name.
“I’ll never forget that moment with her,” Ungaro said. “Of seeing the desperation and the fear and the shame, and yet at the same time, this desire and hope that something else could be true for her life.”
Created was first established in Tampa in 2007. Five years later, a branch was founded in Gainesville with intent to serve the community as an outlet for women in the sex industry.
According to Created Gainesville’s website, “We began with outreach, going to the places where women were most vulnerable and learning what they would need to get out.”
In 2015, Created launched their Care program—aimed at helping women 18 and older heal from sex trafficking and exploitation. This program offers long-term support services such as counseling, mentoring, skill development, etc.
The definition of sex trafficking changes depending on who is asked and what is being discussed, Coy said.
However, The National Hotline defines sex trafficking as “a form of modern-day slavery in which individuals perform commercial sex through the use of force, fraud, or coercion.”
Anyone under 18 participating in commercial sex acts is considered a minor and victim of trafficking—even without the presence of “force, fraud, or coercion.”
“(Sex trafficking) is not this kidnapper van who snatches an individual, and off you go,” Ungaro said. “It involves trust and a debt that can never be paid off.”
Both Ungaro and Huffty discouraged the stigma placed around sex trafficking victims who are older than 17.
Ungaro said most individuals begin sex work as a minor, and when they turn 18, society stops victimizing them and starts criminalizing them.
“Maybe by the time we meet her she’s no longer under the control of a trafficker,” Ungaro said. “But the psychological implications are still very much there.”
Huffty also said systematic dynamics such as poverty, family relations, etc. make a young victim more vulnerable.
Increased access to technology allows traffickers a platform to prey on individuals.
“This is great,” Huffty said pointing to her iPhone as she waved it in the air, “but it’s the most dangerous thing ever.”
Ungaro said human trafficking has evolved from what people typically think: A woman on a street corner initiating sexual acts.
“All connections are done with a phone and behind the screen,” Ungaro said.
The panel opened the floor to questions, and they were asked to address how to deter this type of activity.
“I don’t think there’s such a thing as consensual sex work,” Coy said. “It sends a message of whose bodies are for sale, whose are commodified and whose demands are being satisfied.”
The panelists agreed that to decrease dangerous sex work, the demand for paid sexual activities must decrease first.
Huffty said to do this, she believes society must start with diminishing the normalization of pornography. She said pornography is a link to supply and demand of paid sex.
Education and conversations like Wednesday’s panel were also solutions offered by the panelists.
“The way in which we educate the public and the criminalization of paid sex will help lower the demand,” Coy said.
UF student Luis Martinez Barboza, 22, said he attended the panel because sex trafficking is a relevant and interesting topic.
He said he learns about these scenarios in class but hearing about it from experts who have worked with actual victims puts the crisis in a more immediate perspective.
Similarly, attendee Kayla Amburgey said she does not think people realize how local sex trafficking is.
“We have a narrative that it’s a ‘them’ and not an ‘us’ issue,” Amburgey said. “When that is just not the case.”
Ungaro and Huffty hope people walked away from the panel learning something new, as they said awareness and education are key factors to the fight against human trafficking.
“Every time you have the opportunity to cause a ripple effect in allowing people to understand an issue … having that information, and being able to take it back to your own circles is the most impactful thing we can do” Huffty said.