A February 2022 study digs deep into the hospitality industry, uncovering disturbing trends and practices that mark how sex trafficking is happening right under our noses—all in the name of profit.
Discussions about sex trafficking typically conjure images of smarmy criminals running their rackets in seedy surroundings. In reality, modern traffickers count on corporate enablers—sometimes even business allies—to keep their operations running and profitable.
It comes as no surprise that many of these legitimate companies are those that sell ads for sex services. However, many people are woefully unaware of the extent to which hotels and motels also dirty their hands in the sex trafficking trade—and it goes far beyond providing the physical setting for sexual exploitation.
In around 80 percent of sex trafficking cases in 2018 and 2019, hotels and motels served as literal crime scenes, according to a 2022 paper, Combating Sex Trafficking: The Role of the Hotel—Moral and Ethical Questions (Jeng, Chu-Chuan, Edward Huang, Sarah Meo, and Louise Shelley. 2022. "Combating Sex Trafficking: The Role of the Hotel—Moral and Ethical Questions" Religions 13, no. 2: 138. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel13020138).
Here Come the Lawsuits
According to the paper’s authors, the hospitality industry has fallen sadly short of addressing this problem—that is, until the civil suits started coming into play.
In 2008, the Reauthorization of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) introduced provisions for holding entities and individuals liable for civil damages if the person or entity benefitted financially from human trafficking. As indicated in the Jeng study, civil suits filed by trafficking victims identify not only lower-end, budget motels, but also high-end hotel franchises, like Hilton, Marriott, and Wyndham as sites of sexual exploitation. Defendants in these lawsuits include not only the hotels/motels, but also management companies, service companies, and real estate or investment companies, researchers report.
Figure 1SOURCE: Jeng, Chu-Chuan, Edward Huang, Sarah Meo, and Louise Shelley. 2022. "Combating Sex Trafficking: The Role of the Hotel—Moral and Ethical Questions" Religions 13, no. 2: 138. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel13020138
Not Quite the Usual Suspects
The Jeng study explores the hotels along the Eastern Coast of the U.S. that enabled sex trafficking in civil cases filed between 2015 and 2021. A collection of alarmingly familiar names surfaced as critical links in the sex trafficking supply chain.
Figure 2 SOURCE: Jeng, Chu-Chuan, Edward Huang, Sarah Meo, and Louise Shelley. 2022. "Combating Sex Trafficking: The Role of the Hotel—Moral and Ethical Questions" Religions 13, no. 2: 138. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel13020138
Signs of the Times
The study also reveals that from 2007 through 2017, the National Human Trafficking Hotline received reports of 3,596 instances of human trafficking that involved a hotel or motel. A survey of trafficking victims revealed that 79 percent of respondents had contact with the hotel sector. Furthermore, 81.5 percent of commercial sex acts in federal human trafficking cases in 2018 occurred in hotels.
The numbers show a shift brought on by online sex ads, which have taken much of sex trafficking transactions off the streets and into hotel rooms after johns book their appointments online.
When evaluating the geographic locations of identified sex trafficking-facilitator hotels/motels, researchers noted another important trend: the sites typically sit close to highways. This underscores that today’s trafficking victims are mobile, not confined to brothels, enabling them to quickly access the site of their next appointment and helping their traffickers connect with mobile customers.
Sixty-seven percent of hotels/motels identified in the study exist near international airports, enabling swift travel across the country and to other countries. Both location and star ratings of identified hotels/motels (more than 85 percent were 2- and 3-star accommodations) further suggest that both accessibility and affordability are key factors in traffickers’ selection of sites for conducting their sex trafficking business.
A Low Sense of Corporate Social Responsibility
Researchers in the study also explored the role of hotel employees, which ran the gamut from ignoring victims’ “signals for help” to guarding victims so they would not escape, and even acting as traffickers. Hotel staff was sometimes paid to keep quiet and to act as lookouts for police. In some instances, employees visited the victims’ rooms to buy drugs or to purchase sex with the victims from traffickers.
Hotel franchise employees brought their unique insights to this study. From their perspective, franchises keep their eye on the holding company’s bottom line. These companies see anti-human trafficking policies as costly efforts that do not generate revenue, so such efforts rank low on the organizations’ lists of priorities.
As more trafficking victims join the fight against these enablers by filing lawsuits against them, chain companies will gain a greater appreciation for the risk factor presented by human trafficking occurring on franchisees’ premises. This will prompt a more robust establishment of anti-trafficking policies as a function of granting franchise licenses, which marks a definite step in the right direction for curbing and preventing sex trafficking in these locales.
The next step would be to heighten corporate social responsibility throughout the hospitality sector to the point where the industry seeks to identify and act on indicators of human trafficking.